Monday, May 30, 2011

Universities are only one part of an education system needing overhaul

The Island, 29/05/2011, By David Bandara

I fail to understand the argument currently being aired about new university students engaging in a short leadership training programme. Having been a scout leader, though now retired, for 20 years, the activities these young people will undergo are very similar to those of good traditional scouting, and which still hold good to this very day. Maybe some of the success of Singapore is due to the two years National Service that all boys are required to undertake at 18 years, before entering higher education. Israel and South Korea also require all young people to complete a period of National Service. Hopefully the current program will not include any training in weapons, combat.or military discipine which should be left to those who voluntary enlist in the army.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has the qualities of vision and leadership essential to any head of state. However inspiring his speeches maybe, and no one should doubt his sincerity, they do not lead to facts on the ground. Proclamations of tourist numbers reaching 2 million by 2012, GDP $ 5,000 per person by 2015, and Sri Lanka becoming the educational hub of South Asia, seem overly ambitious and unlikely. An educational promise that all schools will become as desirable as Royal College, thus making every school a "popular" school, can only be seen as rhetoric.

The President’s concern with the low standards of English language is welcomed, but his responses to bring about improvements, have yet to bear fruit. The education system does function and certainly far better than neighboring India, in spite of Sri Lanka being a recipient of that government’s generosity towards Sri Lanka’s educational institutions. But it is not an education system in keeping with a country aspiring to educational and technological superiority.

Recently, the newspapers carried government announcements about the application process for grade one students’ school admissions for 2012. Around six thousand words (sufficient for a dissertation) gave step by step details of a most complicated points system that parents must understand to apply for admission to a "popular" school. Parents can file applications for up to six schools and since the admission process is so complicated, there is scant chance that the many thousands of applications could be computerized. So for many months to come, school principals and other staff must spend countless hours reviewing, checking and interviewing thousands of prospective parents. A small paragraph towards the end states that parents can only be asked for financial contributions towards the school activities fund, but failed to show what the maximum that could be charged. Parents feel devastated when their child fails to be selected for a grade one class that may have in excess of 50 students; be so tightly packed into a classroom meant for half that number; and subjected to long, and often dangerous school transportation. In grade five the pressure starts again with the Scholarship Examination. Except that preparation for this hurdle now begins as low as grade two both in school and with extra tuition classes that prey on parents hoping that their child will obtain sufficient marks for the "popular" school of their choice. Sadly, as with grade one enrollment 90% of children "fail". The A level examinations scores that hold the keys to university admission are regulated by the "magic" Z scores. One single mark more or less can mean success or failure for a coveted place. So the more tuition classes attended can mean a few precious extra points. However good the school attended might be, every student must attend tuition classes to stay in the rat race.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed an experienced and able Minister to spearhead his educational reforms. There has been no lack of speeches, meetings both large and small at Temple Trees, new initiatives, funding from good neighbours and other sources, but little seems to have changed. Examination results are not very inspiring and would be far worse if students did not attend tuition classes, and if the large number of dropouts and retakes were included in statistics. The President has an unenviable task to create a modern education system, especially to create a university system that vies with the best in Asia. The Peradeniya University may boast of being one of the "finest and most prestigious" universities in the world, but the facts prove otherwise. The leading university in the country does not have a theatre, a museum, an art gallery, desirable places for eating, a visitors’ centre, or quality sport facilities. Culturally, it has no proper drama, music, art, dance, or many fully functioning student societies. Compared with Malaysia, Singapore, and other regional universities, Peradeniya, apart from its attractive landscape is no show place.

The President, wisely and occasionally, diverts from his planned itinerary to walk in unannounced to some government offices. Were he, or the Minister of Education, to make similar visits to schools both urban and rural, a valuable insight into what is right and wrong with the system could be gained. Planned visits to selected schools as Chief guest for a special occasion accompanied by an overly large entourage, may provide good publicity but little insight into the real problems.

Despite the fact that the First Lady is a highly qualified preschool teacher and directs a large private preschool in Colombo, the government has failed to give any real attention to this highly important area of education. As many as half a million 3-5 year-olds attend some form of so-called Montessori, though the majority of the estimated 12,000 preschools have little or no connection with the best of Maria Montessori’s philosophy or any other.recognised educational methodology. Apart from a distant education course conducted by the OUSL, no university offers Early Childhood Education as a full time or part-time course of study towards a degree or diploma. Meanwhile, Singapore and other universities have Early Childhood Education departments with degrees to Doctorate level, and which require full-time study for 3 or 4 years. In place of a quality university department with a model preschool for practice and research, numerous private higher educational colleges award diplomas, certificates in Early Childhood Education, Development, and Psychology, for as little as 3 hour weekly lectures over a 6 months period. Failure rate is unrealistically low. Many Montessori schools have also jumped on the bandwagon and award Australian and American Montessori training and diplomas to their trainee teachers for a substantial fee whilst utilizing them as unpaid teaching assistants. Indications are that most of these courses do not prepare teachers for this very exacting area of preschool education, and the various diplomas and certificates are hardly indicators of quality.

Private education, whether the government likes it or not, is here to stay. The burgeoning number of ‘International schools’, with study in the English medium, indicates a general concern that the state schools are unable to teach English to a high standard. The tuition classes have now become a parallel education system and a necessary though unfortunate part of most children’s lives. The government recently announced that it would provide jobs for 30,000 unemployed graduates in various government departments. Were the number of graduates to double, there would exist a serious unemployment problem that would be difficult to mop up by creating even more government jobs. Before any more educational announcements are made or new initiatives started, a full and honest analysis of the entire system needs to be made by independent observers and researchers not aligned to politics. There are some very praiseworthy highlights hidden in the system, and these should be explored for their successes. 2% of GDP spent on education will not allow for any improvements. 5% is closer to what is needed, but even this amount cannot guarantee success without a clear and well-defined understanding of the problems and their solutions. Meanwhile the solutions are being made in advance of an analysis covering the crucial problems and failures in the system.