By R.P. Gunawardane –
Recently there were several news items regarding a proposal to conduct the GCE A/L examination in April every year instead of conducting this exam in August. This proposal is a welcome move. In fact, this desirable change was done 14 years ago in 2002, after careful consideration of the relevant factors and the benefits associated with this change. Unfortunately, this change was reversed and the exam was brought back to August in the year 2007, disregarding all the benefits of having the exam in April thereby affecting a large number of our students.
The GCE A/L examination is the final examination at the secondary school level and it also serves as the University admission test. This examination determines not only the selection of students to university entry but also serves as a barrier for entry into most of the tertiary education/training institutions.
Of the national examinations in Sri Lanka, the GCE A/L examination is considered the most important and most highly competitive examination, which determines the future of our youth. Furthermore, our GCE A/L examination is considered as one of the most competitive examinations in the world today. Thus, it is apparent that any changes or adjustments with regard to conduct of this examination will have far reaching consequences in our education system. Therefore, it becomes a sensitive issue, and it is in this perspective that we should look at the necessity and relevance of holding this examination in April instead of holding it in August every year.
In this context, it is of interest to go into the history of this examination briefly. In the 1950s Higher Senior School Certificate (HSC) examination was conducted as the terminal examination at the secondary level. HSC Examination was held regularly in December every year and it was replaced later by the GCE Advanced Level Examination in the year 1964. The GCE A/L examination was also held during the month of December from 1964 to 1968. During this period practical examination for those offering science subjects (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology) was held in April. Only those who attained minimum stipulated marks for the theory papers held in December were called for the practical examinations held in April the following year. These practical examinations were held in the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya at the time.
For the first time in the history, the GCE A/L examination was shifted to April in 1969. The examination was held in April until the year 1977. During this period yet another significant development took place. Practical examination for the science subjects was abolished in mid 1970s deviating from accepted international practices.
However, during this period and until the year 1977 it was possible to admit the students who qualified for admission to universities in October the same year. During this period the universities had a regular academic year beginning October and ending in July/August making the transition from secondary education to tertiary/university education smooth. As a result, the students at this time did not waste much time awaiting admission to the universities.
For the first time GCE A/L exam was shifted to August in the year1978. From 1978 the GCE A/L examination was held regularly in August every year until 2001. During 2000-2001 period extensive discussions were held in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the National Education Commission to review the exam time tables in order to reduce the waiting time for students. After careful consideration of all the issues involved it was decided as follows:
(1) To commence new A/L classes in all the schools in April/May after the new year holidays with effect from the year 2000.
(2) To conduct the GCE A/L Examination in April with effect from the year 2002.
After implementation of this plan the GCE A/L exam was conducted in April every year until the year 2007.
When A/L examination is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the fresh students who sat GCE O/L exam in December previous year until September the following year. The class rooms and teachers would be available for the new students only in September. As a result, those who sat O/L examination in December wait for nearly 9 months wasting valuable time in their prime years. Similarly, after A/L examination in August the students have to wait till September or October the following year for admission to Universities under normal circumstances. This state of affairs can be further aggravated in situations where there is a backlog of students waiting to enter different faculties of the universities.
In these circumstances, those students who were fortunate enough to be selected to the universities had to wait periods up to 2 years at home wasting their valuable time. As explained earlier time lag occurs in several stages – after O/L examination, after A/L examination and also due to delays in admission to individual universities. All these delays are avoidable if appropriate action is taken by education/examination authorities, the UGC and the universities.
A disturbing feature currently prevailing in the University System is that different universities adopt different academic years/semesters due to various reasons. What is worst is that in the same university different faculties are adopting different academic years resulting in a chaotic situation in most universities. It is worth noting that no other country in the world has such a situation in the university system. An internationally accepted fixed academic year (September/October to June/July) is being practiced in all the countries in the world. Thus, this situation has to be corrected by synchronizing the academic years in all the faculties and the universities in our university system in order to obtain the best benefits from the proposed changes in the national examinations.
It is a national crime to waste years of precious time of our young generation. It is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce the waiting time of students at the GCE A/L stage and at the university admission level as early as possible.
The following action plan is proposed as a remedial measure.
(1) To commence new A/L classes in all the schools in April/May after the new year holidays with effect from the year 2017.
(2) To conduct the GCE A/L Examination in April with effect from the year 2019.
This would enable the students to commence their A/L courses immediately after the O/L results are released, thereby saving at least 6 months of their valuable time at this stage.
In April 2000 when the instructions regarding the commencement of A/L classes went to schools there was some confusion and excitement in the schools. Some school Principals, Zonal and Provincial Directors complained that it was not possible to conduct these classes in May due to lack of space and also citing various other difficulties. It was pointed out to them that the difficulty will arise only for 3 months (one term) from May to July in the transition period of two years – 2000 and 2001. As such, instructions were issued to them to make alternative arrangements to conduct the classes even by conducting some classes after normal school hours, in the afternoon. Many schools welcomed this move and cooperated with the Ministry in conducting classes by making suitable alternative arrangements. As a result, other schools also fell in line and commenced their classes in May. Most teachers and principals extended their fullest cooperation to implement this program at the time. As during 2000 and 2001 some additional temporary measures may be necessary to overcome these difficulties during 2017 and 2018. However, if the Ministry decides to make this change, there is no doubt that all the parties will extend their cooperation to implement the change in the best interest of the students.
It is important to note that this initiative to hold the exam in April was hailed by many government and opposition politicians at the time. In fact, a leader of a political party currently holding a highest position in the country not only praised this initiative but also questioned as to whether we could further advance the examination to December every year. Then it was pointed out to him that it is rather difficult to conduct both O/L and A/L exams at the same time owing to numbers siting the exams, shortage of centers and supervisors and many other obstacles. Thus, I believe it will not be difficult to convince the highest authorities today for the urgent need for the proposed change.
In order to obtain the best benefits of this change it is necessary for the UGC to take an initiative and implement an action plan in consultation with the universities to adopt a fixed academic year with effect from September/October 2018. As practiced internationally the academic year of the universities in Sri Lanka should begin in September/October every year and end in June/July the following year.
With the implementation of this important scheme the waiting time for university entry will be reduced to a minimum. Sri Lanka will be on par with other nations with regard to the operation of higher education system. From 2019 and thereafter those who qualify for admission to the universities based on the April A/L examination will be admitted to all universities in September/October the same year. This will continue uninterrupted with the implementation of fixed academic year effective from October 2018.
If this plan is implemented, those who qualify for admission to universities based on the results of this exam can be admitted to universities in the same year minimizing the waiting period. This effectively saves a total of about two years of their prime life time, which can be profitably used in their higher education or professional advancement.
Unfortunately, some previous batches of students did not have this opportunity to save their valuable time in years. They have lost many years of their precious time. The new batches of students who will be sitting the A/L in April from 2019 and beyond will be a fortunate lot who would effectively save at least 2 years of their prime life time, which can be profitably used to further advance their professions, contributing towards national development.
If and when the proposed action plan is properly implemented, a child will be able to continue his or her education from primary through secondary to tertiary education without a time lag, devoid of any interruptions, while at the same time benefiting extensively from the new features introduced through education reforms.
*The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka