Resolving the crisis in education | Sunday Observer

Resolving the crisis in education

26 June, 2022

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the developing world that provides free education from Year One to University level. This is complemented by the provision of free textbooks and uniform materials. The Government spends billions of rupees on education every year, along with the heavy expenditure on healthcare, also provided free to every citizen.

Sri Lanka thus has very impressive indices in terms of literacy, education and human development. Unlike many other countries in South Asia, Sri Lanka also has gender parity in education. It also is well on the way to achieving many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promulgated by the United Nations, even amidst the present multiple crises and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But right now, education at all levels in Sri Lanka is in the doldrums, mainly as a result of the economic crisis. The 4.3 million schoolchildren as well as the thousands of university students lost in-person learning for nearly two years owing to the global Covid-19 pandemic which engulfed Sri Lanka from March 2020.

Having just recovered from that scourge, schools returned to a semblance of normality for around six months and even the much-postponed GCE Ordinary Level examination was finally held last month.

However, the current economic crisis has put a spoke in the wheels of education again. The acute shortage of fuel has hit the school and university system in several ways. School van operators, hard hit by the massive surge in fuel prices, plus the need to pay their leasing installments on time have drastically hiked the monthly fees, up to around Rs.12,000 on average. Not many parents can afford this sum, given the increased cost of living.

Those who took their children to school by private vehicle are also in a quandary, as fuel is hard to come by even at higher prices. The teachers also face much the same predicament. Hence the Government’s decision to close schools in the main cities for a couple of weeks (with classes conducted online if possible) and let the education directors and/or principals decide on keeping provincial and rural schools open. Students of many small rural schools live within a few kilometers of the school and some reside even within walking distance, posing no major problem in terms of attendance.

In fact, all schools in the country are supposed to give priority to students living within a radius of five kilometers at the time of admission for Grade One. Instead, there are school buses to Kalutara, Negombo et al from all popular Government schools in Colombo, which really cannot happen if the above rule is strictly applied.

As everyone knows, the admissions process to so-called popular schools in the main cities is deeply flawed and rife with fraud and corruption.

There is no doubt that this system should be cleaned, but in the meantime, the Government should focus on bringing all schools in the country to the same level. This will hopefully prevent the mad scramble by parents for the “best” schools in the cities for their children, never mind the commuting distance. Now that Ranil Wickremesinghe is back in the saddle as Prime Minister, he should resurrect the “Nearest School is the Best School” project initiated by the previous Yahapalanaya Government.

Given that it will take a decade or more for this project to bear fruit, the Sisu Seriya school bus system should be developed further. There is a tendency among parents in the city to drop and pick up their children at school by private car. If a particular school in Colombo has 5,000 students, around 3,000 cars converge near the school during morning and afternoon. One can imagine the huge quantity of fuel wasted in this manner.

In many developed countries, most, if not all, students come to school using the yellow school buses. This minimises traffic congestion around schools and also saves fuel. It is thus essential to expand the school bus service and make it more comfortable and punctual to encourage more parents to send their children to school using this method. In this context, the Government should consider importing electric buses for the Sisu Seriya. The schools can also identify students who live near each other and suggest carpooling, another concept popular in the developed world.

Sri Lanka experimented with online teaching at both schools and universities during the pandemic with varying degrees of success. However, there were several major impediments to popularising online teaching. Not all students (and teachers) had laptops, smart phones and other devices that facilitated online lessons. Moreover, many areas especially in the rural hinterland do not receive 4G signals yet and the coverage is still patchy in many other areas. While university students do get a loan to purchase a laptop computer, no such arrangement can practically be made for school students due to financial constraints. In this context, we recall that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was derided in political circles, mainstream media and social media during the Yahapalanaya period for suggesting that tablet computers should be given to school students, at least from Grade 9.

The project had to be shelved at that time amid such opposition. But if the Education Ministry had the courage and the finances to go ahead with that project when it was proposed, we would not be in this mess today vis-à-vis education. The Government should indeed pursue this worthy project once its financial affairs are in order. Donor funds could also be sought for this purpose. Innovative approaches and solutions are indeed needed to resolve the crisis facing the education sector.