Colombo Telegraph

Some Lessons To Fix Sri Lanka’s Broken Public Education System

By Shyamalee Mahibalan –

Shyamalee Mahibalan

This is a long overdue article that sheds a grim truth in to our education system. There were many reasons that prompted me to write this story, a relative who was unable to fund an International school education for her child was pleading to find a local school, her child was refused entry by many Colombo schools despite maintaining the right distance to the school. These slots are most likely filled by political connections, fake addresses or high donation fees. The social media is full of stories of political appointments to the government schools. One may ask are they new stories? Or are these stories trying to tell us the trajectory of a broken system, years of broken political legacies. Every Sri Lankan knows hundreds of such stories and behind them are the usual suspects-a political influencer, an educator and a desperate parent.

Sri Lanka has the highest literacy rate in South Asia, yet, it is unable to develop the fundamentals to create a sustainable and a progressive education system. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is also unable to retain the best brains the brain drain is a huge issue for its development and growth. With thousands of unregulated International schools across the country parents are forced to send their children for the simple reason that the political establishments are only interested in short term policies and the inability to think for the future and create a future ready society. International schools were initially created to cater to the children of expatriates but it seems now the growing needs of local students is what is driving these schools. I remember in the early 80’s foreign students were placed in our local schools.

The fundamental issues in the Sri Lankan public education system can be sited as; access to quality education, dearth of trained teachers across the country (trained teachers are usually provided mostly to the elite schools), lack of government funding for education, no future focus, serving their own political interest, and an unregulated education system.

On the other hand, Singapore’s Education System is Considered the best in the world by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD AND PISA ranking) in Math and science. Singapore students are three years ahead of its American peers.

The National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University are rated as two of the best universities in Asia. None of this was achieved over night but by a gradual change over the years. Meritocracy and education work hand in hand in Singapore.

During the initial years of self- government, a five-year plan was set up to boost education standards with the introduction of three main features: the main feature being Equal Treatment for the four streams of education (Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English)

After the first year of Independence in 1965, the government allocated 59% of its annual budget for education. There was a rapid construction of schools, class room desks, and chairs were designed to provide comfort and long term usage. By the mid 70’s there was a severe shortage of Engineers, Management personnel, and Technicians, this is when the open- door policy was implemented. The government then accelerating the development of education in science and technology. By the end of 1970 Singapore was leading in Social and Economic development ahead of most developing countries. In 1979 education was revamped again to reduce education wastage. This system provided 3 streams in primary and secondary school to allow progress at a more suited pace. By 1980 this system saw more changes in Bilingualism, Moral education, Civic science, mathematics and technical education. Regular student assessments were carried out by the Ministry of Education Research and Testing division. Schools were given greater autonomy. Teacher shortages were tackled by greater training programs and increased salaries. In 1990, the education system was revamped again from efficiency driven to ability driven schools under the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”. Ability driven education believed that every child has some talent or ability. Schools were strongly encouraged to take ownership of their curriculum and activities to identify talents and abilities. This includes gifted education, Music, Art, PE and leadership. All these changes were fully funded by the government (World Bank Report).

In 2004 Education Ministry launched “Teach Less Learn More”, it called on the educators to teach better, engage and prepare students for life instead of only exams. The most sought after Singapore Sports School and the Singapore School of The Arts were launched during this period. In 2010 and Beyond, “Every School a good School was launched”. This was initiated by the ministry to scrap the Banding of the schools. The education system is not without its flaws to reduce exam stress and build a more forward thinking generation banding was been re considered. The Government launched its newest initiative “Life Beyond Grades” recently. Under this initiative sweeping changes are being made to the education system. No more waited tests and exams for primary 1 and 2. No mid-year exams for primary 3 and 5 pupils. Classes will no longer be segregated as high progress and low progress. Kindergarten kids will get priority in Co-located primary schools, these are a few of many measures under the new changes.

None of this is possible without the political will, strong leadership and long term planning.

Singapore’s education system is constantly evolving and changing in line with its economic growth and future demands.

To quote Nich Alchin, Principal, United World College of South East Asia, “If it ain’t broke make it even better”, As a tiny country with very few natural resources, the talent and capabilities of Singaporeans has been the bedrock of the country’s success, and so education has always been and remains a top priority (N Alchin). 



World Economic Forum

*Shyamalee Mahibalan was a freelance Sri Lankan journalist. She won the Subramanian Chettiar Social Development reporter, merit award in 2007 for her stories about women and Juvenile prisoners. She now lives in Singapore and writes mainly academic essays.

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