Crisis of school education in Sri Lanka


By Dr. S. Sivasegaram

[Primary and secondary education in Sri Lanka, once a leader among Asian countries in literacy and school education, are now in crisis owing to decades of callous neglect.]


Liberal influences on the thinking of the British colonial rule benefitted colonial Ceylon in several sectors and education was one of them. Thus the country was among Asian pioneers to implement free education in schools, technical colleges and universities.

Free education could not, however, assure everyone access to education or comparable quality of education in all schools. Access, long denied to sections of the people based on caste, class and ethnicity was slow to come. Steps to put right wilful wrongs arrived as a result of popular protest and political change, but with much remaining to be done.

The harsh reality of school education is evident from Ministry of Education statistics in 2013 that only 34% of state-run schools had computer laboratories, 36% had libraries and 74% had toilet facilities. Besides, 15% lacked electric supply and 16% access to water. The most deprived of resources were rural and estate schools as summed up in the comments by Joseph Stalin, General Secretary, Ceylon Teachers Union:

"Teachers are not allowed to talk but it can be clearly seen that school resources are not equally distributed. Students who go to the ‘popular schools’ get everything. Schools in villages do not have enough furniture and most that they have are not in good condition"

"There are 9,905 schools in Sri Lanka and the government is only focusing on developing 1,000 schools. What is going to happen to the rest of them?"

"Today the state is only paying for half of the school electricity and parents are made to pay for the other half...Parents have to spend on school expenses in some form. This is not free education".


The need to narrow the urban‒rural and rural‒plantation divide has for long been pointed out by educationists and eventually accepted by governments. But, much backwardness remains, and satisfactorily resolving the problem needs a different social climate and government committed to eradicating social inequality.

Thus this essay only seeks to identify factors that have led to the failure of school education policy as well as to unhealthy trends to the detriment of education even in schools that are expected to uphold standards.

National Expectations

I will draw attention to some of the proposals of the National Education Commission in its report on general education*, which recognizes the following among major goals of the general education system:

Contribution to national cohesion, integrity and unity

Establishing a pervasive pattern of social justice

Evolution of a sustainable life style

Creation of dignified, satisfying and self-fulfilling work opportunities

Opening up of a variety of possibilities for all to contribute to the development of human resources

Active partnership in nation building activities to ensure nurturing of deep and abiding concern for one another

Learning to adapt to changing situations

Developing capacity to cope with the complex and the unforeseen

Achieving a sense of security and stability

Securing an honourable place in the international community

Attainment of goals

A set of guiding principles for developing educational policies have been proposed by the NEC to help the attainment of educational goals.

The NEC defines any person younger than 18 years as a child and names the school as the central player in the attainment of educational goals and the principal provider of educational services to every child as a right, thus makes the school mainly responsible for:

providing compulsory education for children from the age of four to sixteen years; and

the care and protection of children and conform to basic standards in matters of safety and health.

The State is required to

attend to the interests of children to ensure their physical, mental, moral, religious and social development and protecting them from exploitation and discrimination;

take all appropriate measures to ensure that discipline is maintained in schools for the well-being of the community in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity;

recognize and enforce the right of the child to have leisure hours to engage in appropriate play and recreational activities;

respect and promote the right of the child to participate in cultural and artistic life; and

recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

The state is required to take suitable steps to assist parents and guardians to implement the rights of a child, in case of need for material assistance and support, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.

Specific recommendations are made to improve the service provided by the education system to ensure holistic development of the children. Effective coordination between various arms of the education system, pre-service training of all teachers, and decentralization of the continuous professional development of teachers, principals, administrators and support staff are recommended among other proposal for improving the education service

Also prescribed are special attention, care and protection including relevant legal protection for children with physical and mental deficiencies, and special consideration for children living in exceptionally difficult conditions. The NEC also urges enforcing appropriate measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and reduction of drop-out rates, and warns against the abuse of the Internet and urges monitoring by parents and teachers to ensure that children use Internet beneficially.

While the recommendations are on the whole desirable, their delivery poses problems. The system as a whole has for too long been indifferent to needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That, combined with fierce competition at examinations and for places in institutions of higher learning has led to a tragic situation from which rescue is difficult.

Lack of resources in some types of school can be well addressed if government takes serious interest. But teachers like to work in schools either close to their homes or in urban areas, which are socially more attractive than rural or plantation schools far from home, and teachers serving in remote areas ‘under duress’ are unlikely to show much interest developing the school. Corruption in the system is a major obstacle to resolving such problems, which are best addressed by advising the local community of the right of children to good education and allowing the community a major say in the running of schools.

Educational authorities have implemented several healthy educational reforms to make school curriculum pertinent to the Sri Lankan context, especially since the takeover of schools by the state in 1960 which led to a significantly more equitable regime in schools. But there was also poorly thought out adoption of Western experiments in pedagogy with adverse consequences, as in the teaching of mathematics and language. Overall, the school curriculum saw broadly welcome changes in overall emphasis, but there are also many negative features including controversial course content in social studies, especially history.

While the current GCE-OL programme is commendably broad-based in course content, it is seriously weak in science content. The GCE-AL programme since some years ago includes a Technology Stream besides Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Arts and Commerce streams. But the implementation of the Technology programme is hampered black of planning and resources to guide the students into appropriate higher education disciplines. Also little has been done to restore the laboratory work component which was effectively eliminated in the mid 1970’s alongside Standardization initiated in 1970. Governments have sought politically expedient solutions for the crisis of education than investing more in education to increase the number of good schools and equip them adequately. What continues to ail education policy is the ad hoc way in which policy makers respond to problems.

Welfare benefits like free textbooks and school uniforms for all children and nutritional mid-day meal and a glass of milk to needy children are welcome and help the poorer children.

But the system has yet to assure allocation of competent and committed staff in adequate numbers to backward schools and ensure that allocated resources are properly used.

But economic arguments plead closure of schools with small population, to the detriment of many rural and plantation schools without taking remedial action to make the schools attractive to local populations.

Issues as commonly perceived

Despite the gross neglect of a vast majority of state schools, the crisis of school education as commonly discussed refers to the decline in academic quality of school leavers, poor performance in public examinations, deterioration of student conduct, the general lack of discipline in schools―even in the much sought after ‘good schools’ in the metropolis and major urban centres―and corruption that pervades the school education system. These highly visible aspects of the crisis have their roots in our flawed perception of the purpose of education, which is also a factor responsible for the neglect of rural and plantation education.

As education is seen only as a means to fulfil career ambitions of the children― or more correctly their parents―emphasis is increasingly on performance at competitive examinations and seeking ways to enable less qualified students to enter their desired programme of study.

A minority of the intellectual elite urge learning and knowledge as ends in themselves, but the community as a whole sees education as a path to personal advancement and a doorway to secure jobs with less toil, better wages and good social status. The attraction of urban schools has been strong for the growing middle class as they offer access to facilities and career prospects, besides the relative comfort of urban life compared to rural life. Such attitude adds to the agony of rural and plantation schools.

The education system still upholds values instilled by colonial rulers who aimed to produce a literate class to serve state administration and a primitive industry to process and handle plantation produce for export. Schools developed since the 19th Century, initially by Protestant Christian missionaries and followed by Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim rivals, were modelled after the British school education system. Secure employment and white collar jobs with preference for state employment was a major driving force. Although the state does no more have monopoly over white collar and professional employment, the old attitude to learning lingers many decades after direct colonial rule.

Educationists have mainly drawn attention to the following issues:

Decline in academic quality

There has been a significant reduction in the science component of the school curriculum after the GCE (OL) programme was amended to contain a set of six core subjects and two optional subjects (one technical and the other aesthetic or a language) for all students. This was in the context of a decline in laboratory component of science teaching in schools since the mid1970’s.

The large course content comprises large volumes of data and students resort to committing information to memory than to study it. This has adversely affected analytical skills among students. The problem is further compounded by ready access to information via the Internet, and a tendency to accept information without question.

The NEC Report points out that, despite instituting supportive structures for quality improvement, learning in the classroom has not changed much from the traditional knowledge imparting model. This combined with an examination oriented approach to learning is an important contributor to the decline in academic quality.

Overburdening of students

The work load on students is higher than what it used to be several decades ago; and is made worse by the tendency of parents and many teachers to encourage private tuition for students.

To be continued...

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