By Gotabaya Rajapaksa –
It gives me great pleasure to address you this evening at the Inaugural International Conference of the Heads of Schools, organised by The International Schools in Sri Lanka. I understand that this is the first international conference for Heads of Schools being organised in Sri Lanka, and that representatives from Government schools as well as private schools are attending this event, which is organised under the theme “Leadership to Inspire Learning”. This theme is an especially appropriate one, considering the country’s present development drive, which envisages that Sri Lanka will become an education hub in the region by 2020. It is important that the Heads of Sri Lanka’s schools discuss ways and means of improving the country’s education system to achieve this bold vision. I trust that this conference will contribute a great deal to the current national discourse in this regard.
Formal education in Sri Lanka has a history of more than 2,000 years. Early inscriptions record the existence of specialised knowledge and professions that were sustained, disseminated and developed through individual teaching and educational institutions. Early in our history, education was centred on large monasteries and specialised academies. Some of these were reputed throughout the region, and even attracted foreign students from distant nations. Like the ancient universities of Taxila and Nalanda in India, these ancient Sri Lankan academies flourished in the early pre-Christian era and during the first millennium. As Sri Lanka’s demography shifted away from the large ancient cities and to smaller and more dispersed settlements, education came to be centred on village temples and pirivenas, which imparted knowledge to both novice monks and lay youth. Many pirivenas continued their work throughout Colonial times but came under increasing pressure from succeeding colonial administrations, which sought to suppress Buddhist oriented education and instead encouraged the establishment of missionary schools.
During the 19th Century, the British administration set up a handful of elite state schools and provided grants-in-aid to a much larger number of private Christian schools that operated throughout Sri Lanka. Modern higher education was established in the country during the latter part of the 19th Century, with the instituting of the Ceylon Medical College in 1870 and the Ceylon Law College in 1874. Starting with the Buddhist English School in 1886, which later came to be known as Ananda College, the Buddhist Theosophical Society established a number of non-monastic schools throughout the island to cater to the growing demand for English education ingrained with Buddhist values. After universal franchise was granted in 1931, steps were taken under the leadership of Hon. C. W. W. Kannangara to establish free education in Sri Lanka. The Government set up Madya-Maha Vidyala around the country to give children in all parts of the island access to free education. Many large private schools were nationalised as the education system was expanded. In the decades after independence, the number of children attending schools and the number of schools overall increased at a very rapid pace.
Today, the education system in Sri Lanka comprises nearly ten thousand Government schools, a few dozen Assisted and Autonomous private schools, and a growing number of international schools. At the tertiary education level, there are 15 state Universities, a number of non-university degree awarding institutions, a handful of technical colleges and private institutions that train students for obtaining professional qualifications. Competition for entry to state universities is extremely high. As a result, in addition to the formal educational institutions at the secondary level, an enormous number of private tuition classes have sprung up all over the country in response to increasing demand from parents and students for exam preparation. Obtaining a quality education for their children remains one of the predominant concerns of parents in every part of the country. Great attention is therefore paid to education in the country at large, and uplifting its standards remains one of the key priorities of the Government. During the course of my speech this evening, I would like to touch on the some of the issues that I perceive to be associated with secondary education in Sri Lanka in the present context.
The foremost requirement of education is accessibility. As a result of the long-established system of free education and the importance placed on education by parents, children in Sri Lanka have equal opportunity to gain an education, irrespective of their social backgrounds and their gender. Sri Lanka legislated compulsory education for 5 to 14 year olds in 1998, and school enrolment ratio for primary education in particular is extremely high at 99% for both boys and girls. Of Sri Lanka’s 4 million students, approximately 1.7 million are enrolled at the primary level, more than 1.8 million at the secondary level, and a little under half a million are enrolled at the collegiate level or advanced level. There are more than 223,300 teachers in the education system, of whom approximately 39% are Graduates and 57% are trained.
However, it needs to be admitted that the education system overall needs improvement in terms of quality and equity. Of the 9,905 schools in the country, 3,406 are categorised as Difficult or Very Difficult, while a further 2,892 are categorised as Not Congenial for education. The availability of resources and teachers amongst such schools is sub-optimal. There is also regional disparity amongst the provinces, with the percentage of Not Congenial, Difficult and Very Difficult schools out of the total schools in each District rising from 32% in the Western Province to more than 50% of all other Provinces, and reaching as high as 80% in the North Central Province. Conversely, Very Congenial and Congenial schools comprise 67% of schools in the Western Province but less than 30% in the Northern, Eastern, North Central and Uva Provinces.
As a result of the disparity in quality amongst the schools in the Sri Lankan education system, there is very great competition amongst parents to enrol their children in recognised National Schools. The struggle to find places in these schools leads to a number of unfortunate consequences, including malpractice such as the forging of documents attesting to residence in the area and attempts at bribery. Increasing pressure through various means on school administrators has led to the entry of more students than can be accommodated comfortably within recognised schools, resulting in overcrowding, resource constraints and difficulties in administration. The clamour to enter leading schools is not limited to students; teachers too want to work at the best schools, and there is considerable reluctance on the part of many to work in rural schools. In the meantime, the schools that are not so well recognised have historically suffered from poor resources and the lack of teachers, and students attending them have considerable difficulty in obtaining a high quality education.
In order to overcome these difficulties, the Ministry of Education has recently launched an ambitious nationwide programme on instructions of His Excellency the President to develop 1,000 high quality secondary schools and 5,000 high quality feeder schools at the primary education level. Under the 1,000 schools programme, three large, high quality secondary schools are being established in each of the 332 Divisional Secretariats of Sri Lanka. Each of the 1,000 secondary schools will have 5 feeder primary schools that enrol students at year 1. The standards of these 5,000 primary schools are being uplifted in several stages. The first of these stages, which is the contribution of a grant by the Government for enhancing basic facilities, is already well under way. More improvements will be made to these schools in succeeding years, transforming them into high quality educational institutions. Students who complete their primary studies at these schools will automatically transfer to the associated secondary school in the area.
These secondary schools, each of which is more than 5 acres in extent, will cater to students in the junior secondary, senior secondary and advanced level classes in all streams. The first phase in uplifting the 1,000 secondary schools is the establishment of Mahindodaya Technological Laboratories. These technological laboratories include a well-equipped computer laboratory, a mathematics unit, a distance education centre, a language laboratory and science laboratories. More than 400 of these have already been established, while work is going on or tenders have been floated for the remainder. It is expected that all 1,000 schools will be equipped with Mahindodaya Technological Laborotaries by the end of this year. This is merely the first step in uplifting these 1,000 schools to a very high quality. With more work in future, it is envisaged that each of these schools will rival the leading nationally recognised schools in the country at present.
By continuing to support the development of the 5,000 primary schools and the 1,000 secondary schools that have been identified under this programme, Sri Lanka will possess a greatly strengthened and much more equitable secondary education system in the future. This will greatly mitigate the current pressure for admission of students to recognised schools. While these historic schools will retain their stature and prestige, they will no longer be considered essential for the obtaining of a high quality education. It is also important to note that because of the automatic admission of students to the 1,000 secondary schools from their feeder schools, the intense pressure brought to bear on young children to perform exceptionally well at the Grade 5 Scholarship Exam will be mitigated. Students all over the country will be guaranteed access to high quality education in their own areas of residence, irrespective of whether they are rich or poor or live in urban or rural communities. This is therefore an extremely positive initiative from the perspective of Sri Lanka’s future generations.
It should also be noted that those who can afford to pay for the education of their children have the opportunity of enrolling in private schools and international schools so that the burden on the free education system is lowered. However, it is important to stress that rigorous standards need to be established for these schools. It is an unfortunate fact that a number of international schools operate at a very poor standard, and that the students attending them do not get the education they deserve. Parents are sometimes taken in by the claims made by those who run such schools, and will unknowingly pay high fees in return for a sub-standard education. The establishment of new international schools should therefore be regulated and subjected to certain standards, and it is essential that all institutions engaged in education at the primary and secondary level be registered with the Ministry of Education. This will ensure some oversight on the quality of education provided. The introduction of mandatory subjects such as history and mother tongue to supplement the foreign curricula followed by international schools is also important in order to enhance the integration of students at these schools to our society.
Sri Lanka today is in the midst of a far-reaching and rapid development drive, and there is a misperception in certain circles that achieving this modernisation requires us to suppress our cultural identity and traditions. With the widespread presence of television and the rapid spread of the Internet, it is possible that external influences could erode our culture and traditional values. Irrespective of whether they are at state schools, private schools or international schools, children and teenagers are in particular danger of falling prey to these influences because of their impressionability. This could very well lead to the gradual erosion of our culture, traditions and even our societal values amongst future generations. Although the transmission and preservation of these is primarily with the immediate and extended family, the education system too has an important role to play in safeguarding our traditions. Instilling patriotism, inculcating knowledge of our history, and preserving the Sri Lankan cultural identity should be among the fundamental functions of the education system.
For this function to be properly served, it is essential that teachers take an interest in students that isn’t confined to their performance in the classroom. Teachers must have an interest in the welfare and wellbeing of their students. When I was in school, most of the teachers were of a very high quality and they took great pride in their profession. They approached teaching as a vocation rather than as just a job, and they had no greater pleasure than seeing their students succeed and reach a good position in society. The students also understood that their teachers had such an interest in their development, and respected them very much as a result. The bond that existed between students and teachers was very strong. Unfortunately, due to various reasons including the increased prominence of tuition classes, the increasing student to teacher ratio and the reluctance of many to enter the teaching profession due to economic issues. This bond is not as strong as it used to be. There is a feeling in society today that not many teachers approach their career with the professionalism and dedication it deserves. This is a problem, because it decreases the impact that teachers can have on students’ lives.
A visible effect of this deteriorating bond between teachers and students is the deterioration of discipline in schools today. Teachers in the past were well known for being disciplinarians, and most good teachers had a well-deserved reputation for being very firm but fair. Whenever they saw their students do anything wrong, they took immediate measures to correct them and punish them as appropriate. Because the students understood and respected the fact that the teachers had their best interests at heart, they accepted these punishments with humility and never bore grudges. In today’s society, however, societal attitudes towards disciplining students have changed considerably. Part of this is as a result of the distance that has developed between students and teachers. It is therefore even more important that teachers take an active interest in their students’ welfare and wellbeing, and guide them to grow into good and productive citizens through other means. Heads of schools must also take pains in selecting teachers to their schools, and ensure that teachers are trained and incentivised properly to approach their careers as professionals. This will contribute immensely to the creation of a more healthy culture of education within their institutions, and more broadly within the country as a whole.
Another disturbing trend in the modern era that needs to be discussed is the increasing isolation of children and teenagers from society. With the widespread use of mobile phones, tablet PCs, computers, videogames, and social media platforms, students and young people are increasingly becoming insular and their interactions are shifting from the physical plane to the virtual. This is a problem for many reasons, not least of which is that their ability to deal with other people when they grow older can be compromised. Psychologically and morally too, there are many harms that can arise from the increased preoccupation of children with this technology, including the ease through which they can become exposed to various vices. Because their absorption with these new technologies encourages them to spend more and more time indoors and in one place, their health and their physical abilities too can suffer. Many developed countries have serious public health issues due to the spread of obesity caused by the sedentary lives led by many in their society. We must ensure we avoid this hazard as Sri Lanka develops. Our children must be encouraged to engage in more and more physical activity by taking part in sports and games, extracurricular activities, and participating in more social and public activities.
The role that can be played by schools in this regard is both tremendous and essential. Schools should be centres of holistic education, and must foster the overall development of students. The inherent as well as instrumental value of sports, games, aesthetic, social and other extracurricular activities is enormous. All students need to be encouraged to take part in sports and games; engage in aesthetic activities such as dancing, music, and art; participate in extracurricular activities like drama, debating, cadetting and scouting; and become involved in social activities through service oriented clubs as well as religious and cultural associations. Schools are the best platform to promote these activities, which are critical to the development of essential qualities, characteristics and skills. Leadership, teamwork, social and emotional intelligence, confidence, oratorical ability, and the capacity for hard work are all fostered through engagement in sports and other extracurricular activities from a young age. These activities can be incredibly enjoyable for the students who engage in them wholeheartedly. That children have such things to enjoy is vital. Students need to play, interact with their friends, go on trips, engage in innocent mischief and in general enjoy themselves. A childhood without such enjoyments is not a childhood.
Unfortunately, because of the excessive focus on exams that exists in our society today, the opportunities students have to experience these positive things and enjoy themselves is diminishing day by day. The responsibility for this situation lies mostly with the parents of students, who force their children to prepare for exams at the expense everything else. They insist on sending their children to countless tuition classes, which essentially repeat the material that they learn every day in school. As a result, most students who go to school in the morning return home only late in the evening or even in the night, after having attended tuition classes the entire afternoon. They have no time to play or to relax. They are discouraged from spending time with their friends. They are forced to spend most of their lives with their heads buried in books. This is an unhealthy situation for these children as individuals and for the country at large, because the skills society needs from its members are not well developed as a result. Society needs people who can give leadership, communicate properly, work with teams, tolerate difficulties and understand one another’s differences. Such skills, attributes and qualities cannot be developed overnight after a student leaves school or university; instead, they need to be inculcated from a very early age and developed through use over time.
Teachers and school administrators have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that the students in their charge as well as their parents understand just how important it is for children to have a holistic education. Unfortunately, too many teachers today focus only on the exam syllabus and do not even encourage their students to develop an understanding of broader issues beyond their curriculum. They also frequently discourage students from getting involved in sports and extracurricular activities by telling them they will only endanger their future if they spend time away from their books. This occurs because teachers and even school administrators, just like parents, have bought into the myth that achieving outstanding results at examinations is the only way for students to achieve success in life. What they don’t realise is that today’s world is far different from the one that they and their parents grew up in. It is no longer necessary to become a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or an accountant in order to lead a successful and happy life in Sri Lanka. There are so many different paths that young people can take today to achieve success in life. Pursuing an academic degree in the traditional streams at state universities is only one of those paths. Excessive focus on that one path is a mistake.
In addition to academic education through state universities, students today have many opportunities to follow vocational training, study at degree awarding institutions affiliated with foreign universities, obtain professional qualifications in a variety of fields, and engage in entrepreneurial activities. There is a lot of demand for students who follow these alternate paths in today’s job market. Jobs for qualified people in several professions are increasing at a very rapid pace in line with Sri Lanka’s development. Even though we don’t ordinarily think of them when we discuss students’ career prospects, most of these job opportunities are essential for the future growth of individual industries and the country as a whole.
Take the healthcare sector for example. Medical doctors are only some of the professionals engaged in this sector. Instead of focusing only on becoming doctors, students have so many more options and career paths to pursue to find gainful employment in the healthcare sector. Qualified people in so many fields are required for the sector to function effectively. There is high demand in Sri Lanka for clinical scientists, nurses, nutritionists, optometrists, paramedics, pharmacists, physiotherapists, psychologists, radiographers, and laboratory & other technical staff. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka doesn’t have enough people to supply this demand. Similarly, there are so many other professionals apart from architects and engineers who are needed in the construction industry. CAD technicians, facilities managers, supervisors, project managers, and surveyors are all in high demand, as are skilled tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians, masons, mechanics, plumbers and welders. By starting in any of these fields, it is possible build a successful and fulfilling career.
In this context, it is important to mention that the Government has taken steps in recent years to establish and strengthen the National Vocational Qualification framework through which the abilities of people in vocational skills can be assessed and certified. Formal institution based training and recognition of prior learning are paths to obtaining the NVQ certification, which has levels ranging from the basic certificate to a degree level qualification. There are already a large number of vocational training centres around the country as well as many technical colleges. The University of Vocational Technology was established in 2009 to provide courses of study in technology for fields such as construction, manufacturing, electrical & electronics, agriculture and food technology etcetera. The establishment of more fields of study and institutions that offer degree level courses is planned. It is also important to note that a Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework will be introduced in the future to improve the quality of higher education and training by recognising and accrediting qualifications offered by different institutions. By establishing levels of parity between different streams of education, the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework will also enable those with the highest level of NVQ qualification to move laterally into the academic stream, eventually allowing them to even obtain doctoral level qualifications.
Such initiatives, together with the many other education and employment paths that students have in the present era, are important in broadening the mind-set of parents, teachers and students from traditional choices. At present, more than 50% of students studying for the Advanced Level examinations are in the Arts stream, and even at university level, the majority of degrees awarded are in the arts instead of technical fields. However, these degrees are not in sync with the demands of the present day job market, and most of the unemployed graduates in this country possess degrees that are do not cater to employer requirements. This leads to tremendous frustration, and ultimately there is great pressure on the Government to absorb such graduates into the civil service. This is not the most productive way in which to go forward, and highlights the need for the country’s education system to be better aligned with its development needs.
The recent introduction of the Technology stream to the Advanced Level curriculum is another welcome step in this regard. More technical education is necessary to foster industries, develop services and improve the agriculture sector. Encouraging entrepreneurship is also critical. In many developed as well as fast developing countries, much of the economic growth is centred on small and medium enterprises. Our education system should encourage more young people to become entrepreneurs, start businesses and create employment rather than always seek to join the state sector or become private sector employees. New and innovative thinking is the need of the hour, and schools must encourage this in its students instead of forcing them to conform to out-dated norms.
Private schools and international schools in particular have a role to play in this regard, because they can be more flexible and responsive to change than Government schools, which need to change along with the entire education system. International schools should be more innovative and intrepid, and should identify and remedy weaknesses in existing curricula and adopt global best practices in their teaching as well as in management. The heads of schools, government and private, must contribute to systemic change by proposing ways to increase the relevance of education to the needs of the nation. You must increase your school’s focus on holistic education and strongly encourage students to engage in sports and extracurricular activities instead of spending all their time at tuition classes or isolated from society by technology. Your actions must help the education system gear itself to the challenge of moulding current and future generations of students into educated, capable, well rounded, and productive citizens. In closing, I urge you to remember that the future of Sri Lanka is in their hands, while their future is in yours.
* Speech delivered by Secretary to the ministry of Defence at the graces Inaugural “TISSL” Conferene on November 08, 2013 at the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle