Janaka Perera calls for changes to streamline the national education system

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of implementing Sri Lanka’s free education policy, which was approved after much debate and even formidable opposition by vested interests. The question is whether we have progressed – and if so, how far? Or have we deviated from its original objectives since 1945?

Is free education really ‘free’ today?

The tuition mania has almost made a mockery of it because many parents are compelled to send their children for tuition classes regularly as they feel that what’s taught in schools is inadequate. Five decades ago, parents would only occasionally hire a tutor to teach children subjects at which they were weak. Today, tuition is a thriving business across the land.

In poor rural areas however, some parents do not have money to even buy slippers for their children (some of whom are malnourished) let alone pay for tuition.

The government recently introduced the concept of ‘the nearest school is the best school.’ This can never be a reality until all state schools have the same basic facilities. There’s no point discussing the distribution of laptops when many rural school buildings are dilapidated, and lack proper toilet facilities and water supply, as well as decent access roads among other lacunae.

Addressing a discussion to commemorate Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara – known as ‘the father of free education’ – on his 50th death anniversary in September, Prof. Rohana Piyadasa expressed regret that successive governments have failed miserably in the realisation of Kannangara’s aim to build a national education system for the whole country.

In the colonial era, Sri Lanka had two main categories of schools: fee levying English missionary schools and government assisted swabasha or vernacular schools. Instead of this, Kannangara envisioned one type of school for all students.

Today, the country has unfortunately moved in the opposite direction. Instead of one or two, Sri Lanka has four types of schools – in addition to government and local private schools, there are British and American international schools – and lately, there have been moves to establish more madrasas or Muslim schools. This means that the country has five or six syllabuses.

It is inconceivable how a truly ‘Sri Lankan nation’ can be built under these conditions. Can we produce citizens with a true national consciousness, and a sense of unity and patriotism, with this type of education?

The trend is set to create social divisions as in the pre and immediate post-independence years, provoking superiority and inferiority complexes among students. It is a cancer that has spread to the university level.

Students attending some international schools have difficulty reading and writing in the vernacular. This reflects the colonial era when teachers in some missionary schools fined students for conversing in Sinhala or Tamil.

Among Kannangara’s recommendations was that the medium of instruction be the mother tongue from primary school while English was to be taught as a compulsory subject from secondary grades.

Currently, preschool education has been almost completely neglected, according to Piyadasa. In developed countries, children from kindergarten to Grade 2 are taught not merely to read and write, but also teamwork, sports, working with clay and sand, understanding colours, good manners, and appreciating and enjoying nature.

Years ago, Kannangara had seen this in a rural Sri Lankan school where only two of five hours were allocated to teaching subjects. Children were taught dance, sports, clay work, carpentry and agriculture in the remaining hours.

In Sri Lanka today, there are international preschools and elocution classes from the kindergarten stage.

UNESCO’s definition of education is building a citizen with a healthy body and mind, who can think independently, creatively and appreciate the right values – a person who can face challenges in life.

The proof that our priorities are muddled can be found in any children’s hospital before and after the Grade 5 scholarship examination – also referred to as the ‘mothers’ exam.’ Children under 10 being pressured by their parents to pass exams, have been hospitalised with depression, physical and mental illnesses. Some have even committed suicide.

The carefree life that children enjoyed after school over 50 years ago is no longer a reality; they were not bred like race horses despite shortcomings in the system.

Another problem is the major health hazards that children experience when carrying heavy bags full of heavy books, forcing them to stoop like labourers carrying heavy loads. In developed countries, the books are light.

Today, Piyadasa says that educated parents do not compel their children to sit the Grade 5 exam because they place more value on their mental health.

Concerned educationists have called for urgent and radical reforms, to address and remedy the situation, but this has fallen on deaf ears so far.