Educational reforms: Urgent national need



A Sri Lankan school. Image courtesy UNOPS

By Prof. O. A Ileperuma

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has recently stressed the importance of reforms to our ailing education system. In particular, he has mentioned the need to produce younger graduates. He also wanted to do away with the GCE (O/L) and the Grade Five Scholarship examinations. However, there are simple and practical approaches one can embark on without major financial commitments.  Some of these are as follows:

 1. Reduce school commencement by one year so that Grade 1 starts when a child is over 4 years instead of the present 5 years.

2. Reduce GCE O/L curriculum to two years instead of the present three years.

3. Combine the biological and physical streams at the GCE A/L

4. Make Mathematics compulsory for all students at the GCE A.L.

5. Admissions to universities to be finalised within six months of holding the AL examination.

6. Conduct the GCE (O.L) Examination in December and commence the A/L programmes in January. At present students idle for at least eight months waiting for the release of the GCE O/L examination results to commence their A/L work.

Our educational system needs a complete overhaul and not ad hoc patchy revisions. Successful educational systems such as those of USA and Japan emphasise broad based education in schools leaving specialisation to universities. In Sri Lanka, students are segregated to Arts and Science streams with further division into biological and physical sciences at the advanced level.

In the US, high school seniors (equivalent level to our GCE A/L) have to offer the following compulsory courses: English (4 credits), science (3 credits), Sociology (3 credits), sports (1 credit) and health education (½ credit). Here a credit implies 15 hours of instruction. The colonial educational system we inherited from the British has not been reformed to suit our own needs and has not changed according to the global changes in education. Instead of completely overhauling this system, we have simply tinkered with it in a haphazard manner at different times during the post-colonial period.

Restricting students at the GCE A/L to a narrow area of subjects has disadvantages in their search for jobs, since only 10% of the students who sit the GCE A/L gain university admission. While there are jobs in the private sector, particularly the IT industry, 90% of the students who have not done mathematics will not be competent to achieve higher levels of attainment in the IT sector. If mathematics is made compulsory even for Arts students, it will open the doors of computer science for them.

Similarly, it is possible for an undergraduate in Economics to follow Mathematics as a degree subject in the science faculty. Actually, such combinations were possible several decades ago and there was a Professor of English at the Colombo University who offered Mathematics as a degree subject. During my undergraduate days, there were students doing combined degrees such as Economics and Mathematics. This is another example where we have gone in the reverse gear from a good system to a worse one.

Any major revisions will receive objections mainly from the universities who will complain about the lack of specialisation in specially the sciences.  It is a challenge the universities will have to face if we need to produce more rounded graduates. For example, mathematics is essential for economics and there is no possibility for a student to offer economics and mathematics in the present system. Some of the sections in the current A/L syllabi in Chemistry and Biology are best taught in the universities and not schools. There is a significant portion of the biology syllabus dealing with human biology which is more relevant to Faculties of Medicine.

The President has appointed a 10-member parliamentary committee and a sub-committee to propose educational reforms. I do hope that they are competent to carry out this task and get public opinion from professionals and private sector managers in carrying out this national task. Getting the opinion of only those professionals in education and any self-appointed experts from the NGO sector is of no use since some of them are responsible for the sorry state of our existing education system.

Part of the blame for this situation should go to the so-called educationists who have been at the helm of matters in the past. One particular instance is the removal of the practical examinations from the GCE (A/L) science stream by a former secretary in education who had a Ph.D. in education. As a result, we are producing school leavers in sciences who cannot even fix a wire to a plug base. Our education from the kindergarten to A/L is teacher centred and there is no role for active student learning.

Teachers hate being questioned in class by students because of their own sheer incompetency and exceptional students are not identified and excellence not promoted. Selection of students as school prefects and for other extracurricular activities is not based on merit but by favouritism. Children of parents who reward the teachers with gifts are selected over others.

Students do not even attend classes regularly when they come to A/L and they get all their education at tuition classes. Maybe the government can consider abolishing A/L classes from such schools if this trend continues. Also, 80% attendance in the school should be made mandatory for giving admission to sit the examination. Attending tuition classes during school hours leads to other sociological problems such as these students loitering in parks and other nefarious activities.

It is also important to do away with the present criteria for university admissions which should be based solely on merit and not on district basis or underprivileged quotas. This is what determines university admissions in the Arts stream but all those in the science-based disciplines are selected on a useless outdated system based on district basis. For example, a student from Nuwara Eliya district can enter the medical faculty with a much lower Z score even though these students attend the same private tuition classes in Kandy and sit next to each other.

Societies are shifting to knowledge-based systems in the globalised economies and there is an urgent need to restructure our educational system to suit this trend. India has successfully achieved these goals through its higher education system which has risen to this challenge and the main driving force behind India’s recent economic boom can be attributed to the system which provides relevant trained manpower such as engineers and scientists. We are far behind, getting bogged down mainly due to shutting the doors behind a lot of educated youths who qualify to enter a university. Furthermore, our archaic and rigid school education is responsible for not producing marketable graduates. There is also a dire need to increase the number of students doing sciences at the GCE A.L.

(To be continued)