Several shortcomings in the education system have worsened – Janaka Perera

Sri Lanka has been forced to take a fresh look at its education system, which has faced many problems over the past several decades. What’s more, the pandemic has complicated the situation.

Is the system geared to meet society’s needs? And is it a wholesome education system or merely an exam centred process?

Many experiences over the past five decades are cause for concern. The question now is whether the education authorities have their priorities mixed up – and lost their bearings to boot. This has become more evident with the confusion that online learning has caused.

Education was the subject of a TV discussion a few months ago. Participants included the former Dean of the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce at the Sri Jayewardenepura University Prof. Anura Kumara Uthumange, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Policy in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Colombo Dhamma Dissanayake and a teacher at the Aeriyawa Junior School (Ehetuwewa, in the North Central Province) Amila Prasad Jayasekara.

Uthumange pointed out that education includes education for living, education for life, and the inculcation of ethics and moral values. The objective is to become good citizens, and ensure the wellbeing of society and the economy.

This had been the concept of education in the pre-Christian era in ancient seats of higher learning such as the Taxila and Nalanda universities, and even at similar institutes in Europe in the Middle Ages. But since the Industrial Revolution, education has become a market oriented process where both parents and students focus on competition and certificates.

Quoting a Harvard University professor, Uthumange noted that “education is focussed on gaining excellence without a soul.” That educator had called the current system a ‘cafeteria model’ where subjects can be selected without paying much attention to developing a well-rounded personality.

Despite the glib talk of politicians, Uthumange stressed that there is inequality in state run schools and that’s why parents try to admit their children to the best of these either within the system or outside it.

Equal rights and fair opportunities in education are badly lacking.

He asked a very pertinent question: if state banks throughout the country can have the same facilities, why can’t all government schools be provided with the same?

Uthumange revealed that some of his students had asked him whether he had any used laptops, which they could use for their studies since they couldn’t afford to buy new ones.

Dissanayake noted that only 26 percent of students have broadband connections. That means only a little over 60 percent can afford a laptop or desktop computer. The media reported how a teenage student had committed suicide because his parents couldn’t afford to buy him even a smartphone so he could study online.

Unlike laptops or desktops however, smartphones are not suitable for online learning. Many students have complained of eye trouble and headaches as a result of focussing for long hours on the small screens of their smartphones.

The lack of signal towers in many areas is forcing students to climb trees and hill tops to receive signals.

Dissanayake cited an example of a university student finding it impossible to study online during the rainy season because he had to climb a hill about 200 metres away from his home to catch a signal.

He emphasised the need to provide free internet facilities to students since it is a basic need in this era, pandemic or otherwise. And he asked why if education is free, students have to rely so much on tuition after school hours.

In addition to the cost, tuition has affected the health of many children who have to attend classes most of the day and evening. Parents accompanying them are also caught up in this process.

Jayasekara has served in 13 rural schools with very little facilities. The school he is currently teaching in had only one toilet for 28 students and their teachers when he first joined the staff. Since the school is located in a jungle zone that’s infested with wild elephants, it doesn’t receive a signal for online teaching. Even to take a phone call, one has to climb a nearby rock…

This discussion also highlighted the fact that the atmosphere in the homes of some low income families wasn’t at all conducive to online learning since there was a lot of disturbance.

Jayasekara also drew attention to the impossibility of online teaching for primary classes where children had to be taught handwriting and practical nature studies, which can only be done by stepping out of the classroom.

The first step towards educational progress is to provide the best quality primary, secondary and tertiary education, which can help bring out the latent talent and creativity in our schoolchildren.