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Crisis in Education and Policy Responses

2013 Jul 16

It is common knowledge that modern education is a major factor contributing to social and economic development, which in turn improves the life chances of a large proportion of the population in any country. Education also has wider impacts on society. It facilitates innovation and knowledge production by preparing younger people for higher education and independent learning. Moral and civic education which is often part of general education in many countries helps younger people to become morally and socially conscious citizens. Last but not the least education also has the potential to broaden the world view of younger generations thereby helping them to recognise and appreciate social and cultural diversity in time and space. Yet, the realisation of the above potential depends on the nature of the education system of a country. It is the educational policies that a country pursues that determine the shape of the education system.


In spite of various ad hoc measures in the recent past to address issues in education in this country, many issues remain either inadequately addressed or unresolved. The persisting issues could be identified as follows:  


Growing inequalities within the education system

Overwhelming desire on the part of parents to admit their children to a small number of privileged and better equipped urban schools at the expense of rural schools

Ethno-linguistic segregation of schools leading to monolingualism  and reinforcement of parochial identities


The persisting emphasis on religiosity and superstition that often hinder rational, innovative and scientific thinking among children and youth

The failure of the education system to impart useful life skills and persisting high rates of school drop-outs at and beyond post-primary level.


" Old boy/old girl networks connected with elite schools infiltrated higher professional, bureaucratic, business, military and political circles and helped mobilise resources and political patronage for their respective schools "


Educational inequalities that have persisted over several decades are getting worse. Kannangara reforms introduced a system of central schools in all parts of the country mainly as a way of providing equal opportunities for educational advancement in the face of persisting domination of a few elite urban schools. Central schools had a significant positive impact regarding the above. However, old boy /old girl networks connected with elite schools infiltrated higher professional, bureaucratic, business, military and political circles and helped mobilise resources and political patronage for their respective schools reinforcing their hegemonic position within the education system. Central schools that performed well in the past have already been abandoned by well-to-do parents.  There has also been competition among teachers to join well-equipped urban schools so that they could also admit their children to such schools.    While the gap between rural schools and privileged urban schools widened, parents with the means and or political and social influence have abandoned rural schools in favour of the latter. The poor and the powerless often have had no choice. The fact that most of the rural secondary schools lack facilities for offering the AL science stream is highly significant here. As a result, those who enroll in AL classes in these schools are confined to Arts and commerce streams. Many male children leave school early instead of continuing into GCE Advanced Level in Arts. The result is a persisting high rate of dropping out, making formal education irrelevant for a majority of youth.




As mentioned above, the demand for urban privileged schools has been growing over the years. Many parents have been using these networks and their political, social and economic resources to find places in these schools for their children. As a result, most popular schools are bursting at the seams today, making them virtually unmanageable while some small schools are under pressure to close down due to decreasing demand. Authorities have failed miserably to arrest this trend. Closing down of small schools in the remote villages has deprived many marginalised communities of access to even a basic education for their children. What we would have done was to allocate more resources to these schools to make them more attractive.


A significant outcome of the increasing concentration of pupils in urban schools is that most children today travel long distances to attend school with serious negative consequences such as increasing transport costs, long hours spent to travel and inadequate time available for children to engage in other activities. There is also growing unrest, indiscipline  and violence among students in large urban schools pointing to an almost total breakdown of moral authority on the part of educational administrators.


An important feature of the public school system is the de facto ethno-linguistic segregation. As long as schools remain segregated on ethno-linguistic lines, it is inevitable that children remain confined to their ethno-linguistic groups during their formative years. Inadequate facilities for teaching second and third languages have prevented children in most schools from learning other languages impeding their interaction across ethnic groups and educational advancement. This pattern has persisted for several decades with significant social, cultural and political implications.


Education has long been considered as a major factor contributing to modernisation of society. The spread of secular values and rational thought through school education has facilitated the development of modern institutions in diverse fields and the advancement of science and technology in many countries. The same process has reduced the significance of religion and superstition in society. However, in the context of Sri Lanka, education has not played a decisive role in the spread of secular values and scientific ethos. Education thus remains a major impediment to rationalisation of society and its institutions.


And finally, the fact that education in Sri Lanka has long been mostly examination/qualification oriented rather than skill oriented continues to be a major policy issue. A recent survey on youth carried out in the country showed that only a small minority of youth felt that education had been relevant for their employment. So, beyond paper qualifications, education does not prepare children for the world of work. The only exceptions are of course the professionally oriented educational streams but these constitute only a small part of the education system. While many countries around the world invest heavily in secondary and tertiary education in order to not only prepare young people for the world of work but also develop technical and scientific capacities of the younger generations, we continue to simply maintain the country’s education system with all its defects and shortcomings with little or nothing being done to make full use of education for economic development, rationalisation of society and socio- political integration. The disastrous consequences of the persisting careless approach to education are all too evident today


And finally, the fact that education in Sri Lanka has long been mostly examination/qualification oriented rather than skill oriented continues to be a major policy issue. A recent survey on youth carried out in the country showed that only a small minority of youth felt that education had been relevant for their employment. So, beyond paper qualifications, education does not prepare children for the world of work. The only exceptions are of course the professionally oriented educational streams but these constitute only a small part of the education system. While many countries around the world invest heavily in secondary and tertiary education in order to not only prepare young people for the world of work but also develop technical and scientific capacities of the younger generations, we continue to simply maintain the country’s education system with all its defects and shortcomings with little or nothing being done to make full use of education for economic development, rationalisation of society and socio- political integration. The disastrous consequences of the persisting careless approach to education are all too evident today.


Most school leavers have almost nowhere to go. Many of them become three wheeler drivers, pavement hawkers or manual workers in construction sites. Others leave the country as unskilled or semi-skilled workers. The few who go for higher education end up being unemployed and wait for the government to absorb them into state institutions. The best and the brightest leave the country looking for better life chances in the developed world. Meanwhile, the country imports all the technological goods from other countries and the younger people have become avid consumers of modern gadgets rather than inventors or producers of such gadgets.


Meanwhile, primordial identities based on race and religion are on the ascendance at the expense of a broader national identity. More and more people are attracted to parochial political projects that, in the not so distant past undermined ethnic harmony and socio-economic progress. The country’s ethno-linguistically segregated education system that does not necessarily help younger people to transcend parochial divisions and appreciate secular democratic values  needs to be revisited in order to transform it into a positive agent of social change.

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