Sri Lanka: Pressure Starts Young

pressure starts youngCOLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Shamindra Jayasinghe is a grade four student at Subharathi Junior School in Godagama, near the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Last year, he came home from school, scarred and shaken. His father, Mahendra, confronted the boy’s teacher, who admitted to beating Shamindra and kicking him out of the classroom for not bringing his Tamil-language textbook that day to school.

No matter that the class schedule for that day included no Tamil-language lesson, and Shamindra was not the only one to have left the book at home. His gumption at being the only student to try and explain his “mistake” had apparently prompted the violent reaction.

But the family believed there was also another reason for the incident. The teacher had been conducting paid private classes for students of grades three, four, and five. Two-thirds of the students from Shamindra’s class attended those private lessons, but he was not one of them, earning the teacher’s ire, in his family’s opinion.

This case highlights the problems that can happen when a student dares to question the teacher in the rigid Sri Lankan educational system that favors rote memorization over inquisitive thinking. And it also showed how highly competitive exams, starting at a very young age, have transformed the system into one that favors those who can afford to pay extra tuition for special private classes.

Unintended Consequences

As in Shamindra’s school, children throughout the country begin preparing already in the early years of primary school for their first competitive barrier: the Grade Five Scholarship Exam. Two separate exams test mathematics, language skills, and general IQ knowledge. The students with the highest marks receive the opportunity to enter popular and prestigious schools in the cities.

The system was launched in the 1960s with the intention of awarding scholarships to rural students from poor family backgrounds. However, the market economy that was introduced in the late 1970s has drastically transformed the nature of the scholarship exam. Besides spawning a thriving market for various practice tests (which include the answers), the changes have led to the emergence of tuition-based private classes as practically an obligation for a wide swath of the student body, or at least those that can afford them. They must start young or risk getting left behind because of the huge competition to enter the better schools in Sri Lanka.

For example, every evening, the streets of Nugegoda, one of the main suburbs of Colombo, are flooded with students on their way to and home from private classes – from young pupils in grade six to high schoolers studying to get into university. The majority of those who attend these extra paid classes in cities close to Colombo are students of the better schools in the capital. Tuition fees vary between 2,000 and 5,000 ($17-$43) rupees per month, quite a lot of money when per capita GDP averages out to only around $400 per month. Those studying for the Advanced Level (A/L) examination, the competitive test for university entrance, usually attend many classes, making the total cost at least 6,000 rupees per month.

Teachers conduct most of these private classes after school and during weekends. The examination results clearly show that urban and semi-urban, middle-class children receive higher marks on the exams and enter popular schools. Poor children, whose parents don’t have the money for private classes, are at an obvious disadvantage and only very rarely do well enough to best the fierce competition.

Champa Dahanayaka is a teacher from a well-known girl’s school in Colombo, among those that usually produce the best results on the A/L examination. Still, she is very critical of the current teaching style.

“Our results are 100 percent. Okay, but sometimes I ask myself whether we properly teach our students or just train them to run a race?” Dahanayaka says. “From the day we start the Advanced Level, we teach them how to answer the question papers [the practice tests]. What we are doing is, instead of providing knowledge, just teaching them how best to answer the questions on the examination.”

The result of this highly competitive examination system is that students who memorize well and reproduce the right answers at the examination will advance, but those who have the capacity to critically analyze but might not be the best at rote memorization will be rejected.

An Unequal Distribution of Resources

Although the Sri Lankan Constitution states that all Sri Lankan children have a right to a proper education, experts say that the categorization of schools has made that constitutional right a farce. With the intention of allocating resources equitably, the authorities select a single school in each divisional secretariat (an administrative area) and provide those schools with basic physical resources, such as computer rooms, sports equipment, vehicles for school transportation, and perhaps financial support for upkeep and maintenance.

Yet huge discrepancies among those schools can be seen, and since 30-35 are better off in physical resources than others, they have been singled out as “National Schools,” adding to their prestige.

Since all the popular schools are located in the center of cities, and the main qualification for admission is permanent residence close to those schools, mainly the children of the urban elite fill these coveted places, many from politically connected families and members of the armed forces.

That reality has accelerated the emergence of a network of private schools in urban and semi-urban neighborhoods. Such schools have been a relief to parents who either didn’t want to send their children to government-run schools or whose children had failed to gain acceptance for one reason or another.

Although a considerable number of students now study in private schools in Sri Lanka, those schools do not come under direct supervision of the Ministry of Education; instead, these schools are simply registered with the Board of Investment, which oversees the country’s commercial sector. Many question whether such regulation is sufficient.

“My eldest daughter is in grade six now. I was really delighted with what she gathered from the school in her primary grades, especially as she was taught in English,” says Wiranthi Mallika, one such mother. “But now my daughter frequently complains that her science teacher makes mistakes in English while teaching. So I am puzzled as to whether these teachers are competent enough to teach in English.”

Falling Behind in English Instruction

Back in 1943, the Kannangara Education Restructural Proposals called for free education for all Sri Lankan students and a system that did not place a premium on English-language instruction. Since then, many things have changed. Recent trends have indicated that English-language knowledge is key to getting a good job, yet many students are graduating without that ability. Reforms in 1998 tried to remedy the problem through the introduction of English in grades one through five and English-language instruction for grades five through nine for subjects such as mathematics, science, social studies, and environmental studies.

Today, however, the plans to overhaul the use of English in schools have largely failed. Even the popular schools merely have English as a separate class instead of teaching many subjects in English. A report released in 2008, ten years after the reforms to boost English-language instruction, found a decline in the quality of the teaching of subjects in English as a result of the lack of trained and skilled English teachers. The authors of the report recommended a five-year-long, in-service training scheme to increase the number of qualified personnel.

Inequality in the distribution of English teachers among schools is also a problem. Although the government has failed to recruit English teachers to schools in the so-called plantation sector (where the students are predominantly children of Indian laborers), in some schools in urban areas, there are so many English teachers that some have been appointed to teach other subjects such as health science and Buddhism.

“Our children have been educated in Sinhala for nearly 40-50 years,” says Professor Sucharitha Gamlath, a veteran educational expert who has been campaigning for an English-language educational system in Sri Lanka. “So it is difficult to transfer the education medium from Sinhala to English overnight. Initially we will require a pool of qualified teachers who will need to undergo full-time training in English.”

A Paucity of Teachers

It’s not only qualified English teachers that are high in demand, but many other educators – a problem that has plagued the sector for years. In 1994, the People’s Alliance government presented a “Teacher Service Enactment” after considering the ideas and proposals of working professionals, education specialists, and the trade unions in the education sector. The enactment included new recruitment schemes, proper procedures for awarding promotions and granting transfers, and new salary scales. But similarly with many other programs in Sri Lanka, government inefficiencies have translated into a lack of the support services needed to implement such reforms and live up to their grand ambitions.

In the meantime, teachers’ unions have complained that the government still does not have a proper recruitment policy designed to maintain the quality of education. The unions, for example, recently accused the authorities of hiring over 3,000 unqualified teachers for the plantation sector schools despite the union’s protests.

“Now when they [the new teachers] applied for teacher training from the College of Education, they have been rejected as they do not have the necessary basic entrance qualifications,” says Josap Staline, a trade union leader. “Hence they continue their service at the estate sector schools although they do not have the necessary training. The students of those schools will have to learn from those untrained teachers.”

In the government’s defense, the necessity of staffing positions far away from the country’s cities has not been easy. According to the “Teacher Service Minute”, every teacher in Sri Lanka that graduates from university must first work in a remote area for four years, a compulsory requirement.  These are often very tough assignments where the infrastructure and resources of the schools are minimal, and, with fewer teachers on staff, the workload is also heavier.

Pubudu Siriwardhana is a teacher who was appointed to one of these remote schools in the Southern Province. “The total number of students in my school is 75, and there are five teachers,” he says. “Among them, three are graduates and two are education diploma holders. But our principal has neither qualification.”

Yet with the unpopularity of these rural postings, qualified people are hard to come by.

Disappointing Results

Critics of the country’s education system also wonder why the fairly large allocation from the annual budget (8-10 percent) – not to mention the expenses incurred by parents for private tuition classes – continues to yield such poor, overall results.

In 2008, of those students who took the Ordinary Level (O/L) examination – as opposed to the advanced level one – 49 percent failed in mathematics, 68 percent in English, and 55 percent in science (to pass a subject a student needs to receive at least 25 points out of 100). In addition, 49 percent failed at compulsory subjects, which meant that they had failed the examination as a whole.

Experts see a variety of reasons behind such disappointing figures, including some of those noted above, such as unqualified teachers and the emphasis on rote memorization instead of analytical thinking. Over the years the conflict involving the Tamil Tiger insurgency also meant that some rural schools might not have had sufficient textbooks or other resources to educate their students.

“The results of the O/L examination were not at a satisfactory level,” said Dr. Thilokasundari Kariyawasam, an education specialist. “Those who are in the education sector, including the respective ministers and school principals, should take responsibility for this failure. If this situation is not improved immediately it will, no doubt, get worse.”

Making the system even more frustrating, the country’s best students sometimes don’t advance to university.

Although 350,000 students annually enter the education system, only 18,000 students (around 5 percent) then have the opportunity to enter the university system. These students are selected based not only on the highest marks and rankings but also according to a quota system that determines the number of students from each district. As a result, some children may not be selected to attend university even if they get the highest marks for all the subjects on the Advanced Level examination.

For example, in 2006, there were at least 2,000 cases of students with lower marks from remote areas entering Colombo Medical College, while many urban students with much higher A/L marks failed to gain entry to any medical university that year.


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