BY Priyan Rajapaksa

A recent news item about revamping Sri Lanka’s education system appeared in a Sunday newspaper. Apparently, NIE Director General Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawarathna had said that suggestions will be gathered by a committee, which will be appointed at Divisional Secretariat level. And those suggestions will then be forwarded to the district education offices.

Instead of bureaucrats spouting hot air, why not ask the students who are the main stakeholders?

Because they will have far more relevant contributions. The better narratives of concentration camps come from the inmates who survived. This is my experience as a victim and survivor of ‘Education Auschwitz.’

To let you into a secret, I failed my O-Levels the first time with credits in Sinhala and English, and passes in chemistry, biology and physics. But I failed Buddhism, maths and Latin.

There was pandemonium at home since I was the first in the family to fail the O-Levels. My mother issued an ultimatum: one more attempt – and if I failed, I was to be sent off to work.

The burning issue was that school was incredibly boring. My interest was to play rugby for school and try planting. A distant objective of accountancy lingered in the background. But how was I to achieve all of this?

It took teenage ingenuity to find a solution. After realising that if there are rules, there were ways to circumvent them, I scrutinised the rules of the examinations and formulated a borderline legal strategy.

The plan was to abandon university as the acceptance rate was 10 percent and I wasn’t going to make it. Sit the O-Levels again, drop Buddhism and Latin, and take English Literature instead. Continue in school for sports and camaraderie, and switch to the arts stream for my A-Levels.

As the reference books were in English, I would have to sit the exam in English as a private student since the Education Department didn’t check the official language requirement for private students.

Having recognised that her son was not suitable for university, my mother bought into the plan and agreed to fund the project. Fortunately it worked, and I was able to play rugby and become an accountant.

Forty years on, statistics show that of the 800,000 or so students who sat the exam, 68,299 applied for admission to university but only 40 percent were accepted. That means 60 percent of students had wasted two years chasing nonexistent university slots.

Parents are to blame too: those who don’t accept reality and guide their children to pursue vocations. The failures, dropouts and those who graduate with dumb degrees are the future unemployed revolutionaries.

I heard of Doris Lessing many years later. She was born in Persia (Iran) in 1919 to British parents. Her family then moved to South Africa and thereafter, to England. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

In her book titled The Golden Notebook, she says: “Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life, is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry but it is the best we can do’.”

“What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system,” she adds.

And there’s more: “Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave, and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

The most relevant to me is this section: “Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements’.”

I did not see myself as being robust but confused by the system that required us to be in school without options for students who couldn’t or wouldn’t enter university. How can older policy makers headed by a geriatric with a PhD staffed by theoretical educationists know what’s needed?

To find out why the systems sucks, they need to ask those who failed. Invite students who had the worst results in each district and ask them what happened…

Educate up to A-Level only those who can realistically enter university. Provide a life skills stream after the O-Level exam for others students (like me). Teach them self-confidence, sports, driving and repairing a car, riding a motorcycle, debating, music, assembling computers, answering the telephone and current computer software.

We can’t all be doctors, engineers and lawyers – some of us have to do the real work.