Thursday, January 29, 2015

Do we really need junior secondary schools?

There has been much debate about the role that University students and lecturers played in Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat. It's true that the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA) launched a no-frills, disciplined campaign against Rajapaksa's regime and in particular the two Ministers of Education. While Sirisena's campaign didn't make education as top a priority as, say, the proposed National Drugs Policy, it's not far-fetched to say that education factored in Rajapaksa's defeat. Tremendously.

So now it's reform-time. Everyone, from civil society activists to diaspora singers who know zilch about what they're talking about, wants to butt in. "Reform" is the magic word, obviously, notwithstanding the pitfalls associated with trying to achieve everything at once. Sirisena's manifesto, however, is different. It's simple. To the point. Concise. Everything a good reform program must be.

Its take on education worries me, though. While making Free Education a top priority, it hasn't talked about an Education Act. That's bad. The Education Act has been in the backroom since the Kannangara reforms. Not even two insurrections pushed it. Halfhearted as they were, reforms lagged behind, eventually being abolished the minute the government changed hands.

Reform must begin at the beginning. In education, the beginning is to be found in schools - Grade One admissions, to be specific. Sirisena's manifesto has pledged to get rid of this issue with the following proposal:

"Since there is a great demand in the country for 55 principal schools while some rural schools are being closed down, a more extensive system of primary schools, another system of junior secondary schools feeding on the former, and a system of main schools catering to Advanced Level students and feeding upon the latter junior secondary system will be set up. After completely providing all primary and junior schools with necessary facilities, primary and junior sections will be gradually removed from main schools." (Page 40)

Sirisena's solution is to build more junior secondary schools. I wonder whether that is really needed. It's heartening to see that such a system will prevent rural schools from being shut down. But what's at stake here isn't only that. It's also about a whole lot of other factors. And this is where the "solution" isn't as practical as it's cut out to be.

Firstly, Sirisena isn't the first President to propose a system of junior secondary schools. A policy dialogue conducted in 1999 debated whether such schools were needed. Eric J. de Silva argued against the idea. His argument was simple. Sri Lanka has a transition rate of 102%. That's the proportion of students enrolled in Grade Six against those enrolled in Grade Five. Silva observed that this was a high figure for a developing country.

He also observed that the school dropout rate increases as the student progresses in secondary school. In other words, it is at the junior secondary level (i.e. from Grade Six) that students begin to drop out. Silva then made a classic observation: "What happens beyond Grade Six cannot, surely, be corrected by establishing junior schools!" (Politics of Education Reform and Other Essays, p 80)

He was correct. The focus should be on school attendance and exams, because while we can boast of a high literacy rate, about one out of every three students who sit for the O/Levels fails it. That's not cause for pride. That's cause for shame.

Maithripala Sirisena hasn't promised everything, I've noted. He doesn't promise an Education Act, naturally given that these are still early days. He pledges to ease the burden of the more popular schools by "connecting" them to primary and secondary schools. In other words, the focus of this proposal is on easing the Grade One admission fiasco. That's laudable, some will say.

Laudable, but hardly enough. Education reforms in Sri Lanka shouldn't just aim at Grade One admissions. Yes, reforms must begin at the beginning. But doing so while ignoring other factors, such as the dropout rate, misses the point. In another article I hope to explain why segregating schools based on the primary/secondary/upper divide misses the point in every possible way. For now, however, a few thoughts would do.

When Chandrika Kumaratunge's government debated on building more schools, the argument against it was that infrastructure alone wasn't enough. That's true. What the proposals missed, quite obviously, was that inasmuch as new schools were needed, they couldn't dent the dropout rate in existing schools.

The junior/secondary/upper classification divided schools into three categories: Type One (Grades 1 to 13 and 6 to 13), Type Two (Grades 1 to 11 and 6 to 11), and Type Three (Grades 1 to 5 and 1 to 9). As the then Chairman of the National Education Commission (NEC) Professor Lakshman Jayatilleke admitted, there were moves to encourage student dropouts from Grade Nine (which fell under the proposed junior school system). No two points for guessing why such dropouts were encouraged or whose (vested) interests these reforms were kowtowing to.

Needless to say, they were not implemented. Thankfully.

And now, 16 years later, they are being proposed. Again. They ideally will get rid of anomalies with Grade One admissions. Unfortunately, ideals aren't that easy to reach. Consequences can't be predicted, especially when unintended. What may be applause-worthy can be used to subvert what it aims at. It can also be used by certain interests whose end-target certainly won't be the child's welfare or education.

In other words, reform needs to be scrutinised. The junior secondary system will dent one problem. But denting one problem isn't to be cheered if another crops up. Let's face it: when schools are divided this way, it won't take much time for the dropout rate to increase, which will probably play into the hands of those who want to exploit (dirty) cheap labour. That's extrapolating a little too much I agree. But think again. It (almost) happened once. And history, as we all know, can repeat itself.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at