Sunday, August 5, 2012

What ails our education system?


Prof. Nedra Karunaratne

Sri Lanka boasted of an impeccable record for having the highest literacy rate in Asia. The credit was largely attributed to free education and implementation of compulsory primary education to all citizens. However, over the past decade or more, erosion of the education system with respect to teacher quality, availability of resources in rural schools, interference in school admissions and various forms of corruption in conducting examinations has led to a gradual deterioration of the system. The recent Z score fiasco is a good example of the infiltration of ‘nonexperts’ into controlling areas where subject experts are required. In any administrative structure, the lack of a knowledgeable leader at the helm eventually results in the boat steering in the wrong direction.

To start at the beginning- a firm foundation is the key to building a solid structure. A good primary education is the foundation for a future generation of intelligent, conscientious, responsible and hardworking society. Primary education is not only for learning subject matter but also for shaping the character and moral values of the children. Sadly the children of today only receive a partial education in subject matter (with the rest to be acquired compulsorily at the private tuition class conducted by the class teacher) with hardly any education in character building, no example set by the teacher toward moral responsibility and little guidance by many parents who are too busy with making ends meet.

A recent survey on the sexual abuse of children has revealed that the victims were mostly from families with no parental supervision or care. With this dismal start, the child is programmed to passing one examination after another by hook or by crook invariably being channelled from one tutory to the next in search of the ‘god’ teacher who can give them the passport to the seat of higher learning. This is appalling for those of us who had the luxury of going to school to play and learn and not require the help of any teaching assistant other than the class teacher.

Now why has this happened? What ails our education system? Primary and secondary education moulds the workforce and builds up the nation. Nation building is not carpeting roads alone. To mould a child, a trained teacher is a must. Training in both subject area and teaching practice incorporates a dimension not inherent in everyone. With the appointment over a period of 30 years or more of untrained teachers, many on minimum qualifications, some with just a basic degree, a slow crumbling of the high standards of education along with ad hoc syllabus changes has given rise to the present situation.

What happened to the trained school teacher of yore? The increase in moral deterioration of the society, lack of responsibility of administrators and the nonchalance of the general workforce is a consequence of this. The solution should be in the criteria of teacher recruitment, and inculcation of social responsibility in those aspiring to enter the profession. Fr. Mervyn Fernando’s article ‘A godless, dhamma-less education system?’ in The Island of July 11, 2012, explicitly states "The key role in a holistic/humanistic education is played by the teacher. Child psychology or even common sense makes clear that the life of a child is shaped firstly by parents (or parent substitutes) and subsequently by teachers. These are the two sets of gurus, the de-guru, recognized by the ancient educational wisdom of the East. The experiences of the child from these gurus and their example shape the child’s life–his/her mind, heart and spirit—especially in the early impressionable years.  A vision or dhamma is concretized in a vision of life and a set of values which a child has to absorb in graded steps to grow in wisdom and virtue as he/she grows in age."

Having gone through this rat race the student who progresses to the next stage in the education system, very likely does not seem to understand that there is a transition from the school setting. This may be why the Higher Education Ministry decided to impart leadership training (again without consulting subject experts) to new University entrants last year. However, the UGC and the Ministry are unaware that students need to be trained in leadership and character at a younger age. It is not possible to teach an old dog, new tricks. The university is a place of higher learning rather than a place for character moulding.

These inadequacies in the school education curriculum do not seem to have caught the attention of the general public - or are they oblivious due to their tunnel vision of one goal - entering the university? The gravity of the situation and lack of interest by those responsible has resulted in University Academics taking up the task of attracting the attention of those holding the reins to this reality with the demand for allocating 6% of the GDP towards education. Did anyone wonder why the demand for the allocation is for education and not an allocation for higher education? The answer is obviously because the formative years are the most important in the life of a human.

Reform the schools and the education system along with changes to the examination system and teacher training methods and lo and behold no doubt the output would be very different. The attitudes of every officer dealing with education whether primary, secondary or tertiary need to be re-evaluated if any of these changes are to take effect. Train the teachers in teaching practice and child psychology and a better society will be born. Build more schools without closing down the existing schools to continue the tradition of free education.

Interestingly, a broadcast on TNL News Radio and a report in the Srilankamirror of June 25, 2012 was to the effect that the Minister of Higher Education had stated that "the closure of rural schools is a sign of development and that rural children preferred to attend urban schools since they have better facilities." The truth of this statement is of utmost importance since the rural child is daily being deprived of the right to attend a school nearby while the urban child travels miles to a National School of repute. In some of the North American countries, children must attend the school nearest to their home. No child is permitted to by-pass the closest school he is eligible to attend and travel to one further away.

So far the ministerial advisors have had no solution to the school admission policy. What kind of future generation are we producing? Will it be a nation of disillusioned students and disappointed parents seeking other avenues to satisfy their dreams? What will our nation gain by continuing to turn a blind eye to this bubbling hot pot? Definitely an exodus of young talent seeking education abroad and young families seeking better education for their children overseas if affluence permits, or bite the dust if not.

If the demand for the 6% of GDP allocation for education is met, would there be better teachers, better schools and more satisfaction for students and parents? The answer lies in the manner in which educational policies are implemented. Of prime importance to any successful system is the execution of the policies according to the set standard. It is more the exception than the rule these days that administrators follow not the policy but the fancy of the person under whose jurisdiction they come. Several of the appointed administrators are unaware of the duties they need to perform to get the job done. Needless to say it is a consequence of the most suitable not receiving their due place.

The appointment of school principals and vice principals is a case in point (not to mention other appointments in the seats of higher learning). The Daily Mirror of June 12, 2012 reports that "a fresh crisis emerged in the education sector after the Public Service Commission (PSC) rejected recommendations by the Education Ministry regarding the appointment of principals to national schools". The story goes on to say that Minister Bandula Gunawardane received Cabinet approval to do away with the requirement of those qualified in Sri Lanka Education Administrative Service (SLEAS) for appointment as national school principals.

This malady has spread to all sectors of the government departments and rectifying an error of such magnitude cannot be done overnight leave alone in a lifetime without adopting drastic measures with respect to restricting politicized appointments. The lack of responsibility and accountability has created a monster in the entire government sector. No wonder the private sector is more productive and socially responsible as accountability is a prime requirement from the highest to the lowest employee. Is this the reason why many of our graduates demand jobs from the government rather than seek employment in the private sector?

So what then for our universities? The Z score for selection to Universities has opened a fresh can of worms. A few years back in 2005, when the marking of the A/L scripts were defective due to a faulty computer, several undeserving students found their way into the Universities citing human right violations and mental stress. If a mistake is made in issuing results, how can the mistake be corrected by giving places at the University to those selected in error? This time around, the problem is of far greater proportion due to the controversies of calculating the Z scores for two different examinations. Considering the first verdict cancelling the Z score, is it justifiable to seek redress in the very court which deemed those results null and void? The Daily Mirror (July 24, 2012) quotes Senior Professor R.O. Thattil who said "the previous Z scores had been nullified and therefore, students should not compare them with the new Z scores. It is incorrect to compare the two calculations now that the previous calculation has been declared null and void."

Again are we forgetting that ‘two wrongs do not make a right’ in trying to reach out to another error to rectify the original error? The delay in the rectification has caused undue stress to the candidates. How the Ministry of Higher Education should or would handle this is anyone’s guess. There may be many solutions to this dilemma, but whichever is adopted one set of disappointed candidates will prevail. The root cause of this problem has not dawned on anyone as yet. The lack of planning with regard to pre-allocation of places for the two different sets of candidates or with regard to prior consensus on the calculation of the Z score has given rise to this heartache and bitterness. All this boils down to the stark reality of the unsuitability and incompetence of those in responsible places. Let’s vote for the 6% of GDP allocation for education and hope it will save our schools and Universities as well as provide our children with good governance. Investing in responsible development ensures the security of the future generation and benefits all its citizens.

(The writer is Professor of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya)

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