The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of life, but perhaps the biggest impact was felt in the sphere of education. Classes for all grades were not held for nearly two years, with all schools and universities told to conduct online classes. But only a certain segment of the four-million student population benefited from this switch as many students had no access to the devices and 4G signals.
When physical classes resumed, the process was undertaken in fits and starts. Even though the pandemic is mostly behind us, the school system is yet to resume its normal routine of terms and holidays. This is indeed why the new school term is starting next month, instead of in January.
But the pandemic threw school term tests and national examinations, a vital aspect of education, into a tailspin from which it has still not been able to fully recover. For decades, students, parents and teachers were used to the regular examination schedule – the GCE Advanced Level (A/L) examination and the Year 5 Scholarship examination are held in August while the GCE Ordinary Level (O/L) examination is held in December. This schedule coincides with school vacations, since schools are used as examination centres.
However, with Covid turning the examination schedule virtually upside down, the GCE A/Ls were only held this month and the GCE O/L examination is likely to be held in May. With the paper marking process taking some time, the delay in holding the A/Ls also affects the university admissions process and the university calendar.
It appears that we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Education Minister Dr. Susil Premajayantha last week said that the Education Department and the Examinations Department are expected to streamline the examinations calendar from next year. They aim to hold all national examinations according to the scheduled timeframes, as carried out prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Measures are thus already under way to ensure that all national exams are held as per their usual schedules from 2025.
This is good news for all students, parents and teachers preparing for the upcoming exams. The postponement of the examinations resulted in many parents and students opting for foreign alternatives such as the UK GCSEs, lest their higher studies are affected. This also resulted in a vast drain of foreign exchange for examination fees.
Now, with the examinations back on track and the O/Ls due to be held at the end of Grade 10 (as done earlier), most parents, even the affluent ones, are likely to choose the local option since Sri Lanka’s exams are also universally recognised for foreign university admissions. The planned termination of school years at Grade 12, instead of 13, also ensures a faster gateway to both local and foreign university admission. If this goes as planned, a student will be able to finish a basic undergraduate degree by age 21 and a special degree by 22, though this may vary for medical students who have to complete an internship as well.
But the time has also come to rethink the whole rote-based examination process. Many education experts have said that the Year 5 Scholarship Examination is highly stressful for the developing mind of a Grade 5 student, quite apart from the intense pressure applied by teachers and parents. The premise behind the Scholarship examination is that the high fliers can get admitted to the prestigious schools in Colombo, Kandy and Galle if they score beyond 170 marks.
Incidentally, this highlights the stark gap between city and rural schools, which should not be the case at all. If all schools were equal, in terms of faculty and facilities, there would be no need to enroll children in the so-called “good” schools in the major cities. We hope that the Year 5 Scholarship Examination would be abolished in due course as this gap is eventually bridged. The previous Government’s “nearest school is the best school” program should be revived or a similar program should be adopted for this purpose.
GCE O/L and A/L examinations should also be reformatted to assess the real-world skills of students, rather than just textbook knowledge. There should also be a bigger focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at both levels.
More job-oriented STEM subjects should be introduced to the school curricula. This is even more important for the A/Ls, as only around 30,000 students qualify for the State universities and the other 200,000 students have to look for alternative avenues.
For those seeking a job straight after the A/Ls, it helps to have a good grade in a STEM subject as they are more aligned with modern job market requirements, as opposed to arts subjects. Moreover, more females should be encouraged to follow these subjects and courses, as job opportunities for women are expanding in this sector.
Our educationists should take a leaf from other countries in our region and elsewhere that have changed their examination structures in line with the needs of a changing world, which is being shaped by trends such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). We risk falling behind if we do not adapt to the new realities.