By Sujata Gamage –
A document outlining New Education Policies and Proposals (NEPP) was presented recently to the speaker and the members of the parliament by the Ministry for Education. This document is a result of deliberations on a new education act that began with a public notice published in November 2007 by the Committee to Draft a New education Act seeking input, and culminated with a series of sittings by a Select Committee of Parliament held during 2012.
The NEPP document would not have seen the light of day if not for the efforts by a group of volunteers who worked with Dr. Dr. G.B. Gunawardena, the Chairman of the Committee to Draft a New Act, to complete the document. The Gunawardena committee ran out of money midway and the work of the committee ground to a halt. Volunteers led by Upali Chandrasiri, a civil society activist, worked day and night with Dr. Gunawardena, even spending money out of pocket, to complete the document.
The first and last comprehensive piece of legislation on education in Sri Lanka was enacted as far back as 1939. Since then several acts were passed for specific purposes such the take-over of schools (1960 and 61), Public Examinations (1968), Pirivena Education (1979), National Institute of Education (1981), Colleges of Education (1986), National Education Commission (1991) and School Development Boards (1993). To date, the education system has essentially been governed by these Acts and a system of circulars. It is opportune that the government has taken the initiative to update provisions of those acts and consolidate miscellaneous circulars.
The lack of a systematic investigation in its formulation is evident in the final form of the NEPP. True, the final document has been through the hands of many experts as well as members of parliament, but, the lack of background information and evidence supporting the proposals is glaring. The present document reads like a wish-list put together by multiple committees. In contrast, the 1943 Report of the Special Committee on Education, with Mr. C.W.W. Kannagara as the principal author, is a dense document with context, data, references and footnotes leading to a tight set of recommendations. In spite of its weaknesses the present proposals represent a milestone in education reform. We should be thankful to those who took the effort.
The NEPP lists a large number of stipulations under the themes Goals & Guiding Principles, Structure, Content & Delivery, Administration & Leadership, Education Service Personnel, Standards & Quality Assurance, Resource Allocation, Vocational Education and Pirivena Education.
I have tried here to ease out the more salient features concerning Standards, Divisions of Responsibility and Accountability Measures as evident in the report.
The NEPP proposes a comprehensive set of standards and many stipulations. Some of the more significant standards proposed are as follow;
- RIGHTS: Education is compulsory for all children between the ages 5 and 16. Career guidance, psychological counseling and education provision under emergency conditions should be provided to all children.
- RELIGION: No major change from current practice. Every child has the right to observe and study his/her religion in school
- MEDIUM: Mother tongue will continue to be the medium of instruction in primary schools. However, English is defined in the NEPP as the second language for learning and teaching. (Currently for those whom the mother tongue is Sinhala, the second language is their second national Language or Tamil, and vice versa for those whom the mother tongue is Tamil). According to the new proposals, the second national language may be taught from Grade 3 onwards. Those who claim their mother tongue to be English have to study one of two national languages from Grade 3 onwards. Additionally, secondary school teaching and learning has to be bilingual with courses being in the chosen national language and the other courses being in English. Overall. NEPP seem to present a significant change in the language policy.
- Codes of conduct: There should be a National Code of Conduct for Students as well as and a Charter for parents
- STRUCTURE: School zones should overlap districts, and divisions should overlap current Divisional Secretariat Divisions (DSDs) leading to fewer zones but essentially the same number of divisions and better coordination with other central government services; There should be at least 3 secondary schools per DDS that offer all courses of study including the study of science; There shall be only two types of schools- primary and secondary; Class size is limited 35 in primary and 40 in secondary. Class mixture should be random, whether by ability or is not clear; There should be a minimum of 210 school days per year with 5 hour daily minimum for primary schools and 6 hour daily minimum for secondary schools
- TEACHERS: Teacher deployments should be per specialization per school. There should be a National Code of Conduct for teachers. By 2025 all teachers will be required to have degrees acquired through teacher training colleges; university graduates are required to receive a minimum of 3 month full time training in a teacher training college..
- SYLLABI AND CURRICULA: Should be reviewed every five years. It is also recommended that 20-40& of the questions in national assessments should consist of questions that test practical knowledge.
Of the proposed standards, the elevation of English as the second language is a significant change which reflects an effort to recognize the role of English as a global language as well as a bridge between the two national languages. Does that make the studying of the second National language optional? It is not clear from the proposals. This is a matter that needs further consideration.
The restructuring of schools will inevitably face opposition from elite schools and religion-based schools wanting to maintain their current Grade 1-13 structure, but, this should be a proposal that should receive bipartisan support.
As for the degree requirement for teachers, it can backfire if all teachers take the easy way out with a Bachelor of Education degree without adequate subject knowledge. A preferred route would be to hire teachers on the basis of the competency in a subject followed by training as a teacher.
The responsibilities of each level of government are clearly stipulated in the 13th amendment to the constitution. The amendment delineates all educational functions such as provision of facilities, supervision of all educational personnel except the appointment of principals to Category I Schools or schools with Grades up to 13 to the provincial authorities.
National policy making, syllabi and curricula, examinations, the training of teachers and the administration of national schools and other specialized schools come under the purview of the national government. The central government has also taken upon itself the responsibility of producing and distributing text books although the 13th amendment gives the power to the provinces. The Central government also centrally handles distribution of materials for school uniforms.
It would be useful to restate the responsibilities of each level of government because the NEPP leaves room for ambiguity and in some cases even wrongly assign the responsibility. For example, the guiding principles state that early childhood education should be regulated by a central authority when the constitution specifically gives the power to the provincial councils. The central government can set the standards and monitor the standards, but, the administration and regulation is strictly the responsibility of the provinces.
Additionally, in Section 4, the planning of education is said to be a responsibility of the central government. These references should be removed from the NEPP. According to the Appendix III in the 13th amendment the provincial authorities are responsible for developing and implementing education plans. The Central government may develop plans for the system of national schools under its jurisdiction.
While administration of education is devolved to provinces, the central government retains the right to inspect and supervise the management of schools in order to ensure standards. In that regard, the Section on Education Standards and Quality Assurance should have received a lot more attention. As is, the report recommends the renaming of the quality assurance unit of the ministry as the Regulation and Inspection Unit and the appointment of a commissioner general to head the unit. In our opinion, the role of this proposed unit should be articulated further and its criticality underlined.
For example, the report recommends that an annual report on accounts and performance should be required by the inspection unit from each provincial authority. This is a requirement that needs to be expanded and strengthened. For example, the Quality Assurance and Inspections Unit should also identify Key performance indicators for education in Sri Lanka. The desired attributes in regard to school education that are listed in the NEPP should be further evaluated and listed in the anticipated Act as a guide to these data collection efforts by the Inspectorate. This type data collection and reporting will go a long way in assuring that provinces strive to maintain national standards in education.
In order ensure that submissions are made each year and the data are made public, it should be legislatively mandated that the national minister for education annually reports to parliament at a regular time the state of education in each province and publish the information online. This would give the Quality Assurance and Inspections Unit at the line ministry additional clout to demand the required data from the provinces. Such a legislative requirement should also allow the public to compare and contrast the performance of each province and even districts.
An interesting recommendation under the Section 6 on Quality Assurance is to incorporate the in-service advisors (ISAs) into the same Quality Assurance and Inspections Unit at the ministry and deploy them province-wide. Currently the ISAs operate under the director of each education division in each province and typically monitor 10-15 schools in each division in regard to one or more subjects. Their incorporation into the line ministry should be done after careful study. The Central Environment Authority similarly deploys environmental officers across the local government and DSD units. The efficacy of that process needs to be studied. In any event, it would be prudent to centrally develop guidelines for ISAs rather than bringing them to the fold of the line ministry.
*Sujata Gamage, PhD MPA; Team Leader, Human Capital Research Program; LIRNEasia; firstname.lastname@example.org