Sunday, May 10, 2015

Regaining the "free" in Free Education

Not everyone can become doctorate-holders. Not everyone can become lawyers, doctors, or engineers. Indeed, no country would want that. The focus of an education system isn't on turning every student into a professional, but to make sure that the returns they get on their education are satisfactory.

These returns can't be measured (obviously), but the golden rule is this: they must match with what the student wants by way of earning a living. Doesn't mean it's a magic formula.

Education cannot and will not eliminate every problem a country has. Take our education system. It's "free", in name at least. Not everything comes "free", of course, and as far as our schools are concerned, someone has to pay down the line. Someone out there has to pay for textbooks, uniforms, teachers, and schools maintenance. The principle here is that while those who enjoy these services don't pay for them directly, someone has to meet their cost. Indirectly. That's how "free" our education system is.

Let's analyse some figures here. From 2003 to 2013, government spending on education increased by more than 280%. We're talking about a rise of 112 billion rupees. That's a lot, considering that not even this was enough to make up 6% of the GDP. And this isn't all. Consider the results: in 1994, 22.5% of those who sat for their O/Level exams passed. In 2004, this had increased to 47.7%. In 2013, it was 67%. Spending should translate into result, which is what we're seeing here. Happily.

But what's the bigger picture? Well, there are problems. Close to 50% of all children who enter Grade I, for instance, fail to make it to the A/Levels. We're talking about more than 100,000 children here. We're talking about 11 years spent in providing them with textbooks, uniforms, and every other necessity they want. Who takes care of them during this time? The state, of course! But who looks after them when they fail? Who's there to demand "return payments" from them? No one.

There's a big mismatch between (government) spending and returns when it comes to education. We boast about those who enter University, willfully forgetting the number who pass A/Levels but can't enter because of overcrowding. What happens to them? Does anyone look after them? The state, let's not forget, can't do everything.

We still haven't sorted out that mess called Year One admissions. We've politicised it. We've failed to account for families who live near schools that admit kids from far-off places. What's the line that divides those families from these schools? What's the line that denies their children the education that families with "influences" get? Politics!

Free Education. Yes, I almost forgot. Rajiva Wijesinha claimed that our system was "free" thanks only to the absence of admission and class fees at schools. That's it. We forget those other hidden charges in our system. We forget the horrendous sums of money we pay to get our children into schools. We forget the fees we pay to tuition providers.

There's more.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara made a classic observation once. He had seen the conflict between the government and the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA). He said that it reminded him of the conflict between the biological and foster mothers in Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. The former Minister meant well. What he said was true. If those who are left behind are orphans, there will be those who claim to parent them. The government will try to claim, and so will civil society. Who wins? Neither of them. Who loses? The orphans! It's that simple.

Everything has its pros and cons. Education is no exception. What we have is a system that is "free" at the outset: the government charges next to nothing as term fees, nothing whatsoever for uniforms and textbooks. But deep within, there are fissures: costs that build up, syllabuses that are too advanced, and inapt teachers. All these come together. There's a boiling point somewhere. We've reached it.

This is why alternatives to our schools have sprung up. Why students cut school and attend tuition. Why our syllabus is so overstuffed that there's a horrendous mismatch between content and employability. Why talented students from far-flung places find it difficult to attend a popular school, while those who get lower marks than them get in because they happen to live nearby.

So what's the solution? As with every institutional problem, there are no shortcut answers. An Education Act needs to be in place. Our system is failing, and exactly because we refuse to see that it's failing.

I most certainly am not capable of coming up with every solution, but if it's about reforms, there are some proposals I'd like to see being implemented. Proposals I know not many will disagree with, which might just go a long way in denting into the problems we have today:

Admissions reform

New Zealand streamlines its admissions system quite efficiently. Section 11A of its Education Act of 1989 lays out a comprehensive enrolment scheme. This designates "home zones" for every child. Schools are selected based on whichever is closest in your area.

The only exceptions to this (based on three situations laid out in section 11D) are decided on by two people: the chief executive of the relevant Ministry and the school principal. That's a far cry from our system, which involves every unneeded and undesired person (and politician) when deciding whether to admit a child into a school.

The New Zealand model isn't perfect. But it's a model of efficiency. A model to look up-to and emulate.

Classroom reform

This is tougher. What is needed to reform our classrooms is classroom democracy. We need to strengthen teacher-student relationships. To do that, we also need to bring the school closer to the student. In other words, we need to customise education according to the lowest standardising unit for a student: his/her school. One solution, which is already being practised, is devolving the responsibility of setting up test papers to schools (and not the government).

Teacher reform

No other country allows 40 days of leave in addition to long holidays for its teachers. We do that. The reason isn't hard to see. Teachers, like pretty much every other government worker, are guaranteed salaries. This isn't to say they don't earn them, but more often than not, they're given enough job security to be complacent. Under-qualified teachers who can't handle the students they're in charge of mushroom for this reason. The solution is easy: filter teachers based on qualification and experience.

Syllabus reform

We memorise what we're taught. We're told to "vomit" anything and everything that a question touches on. That's bad, and hardly equals what we are expected to do in the real world. Rote-based learning must be out, and for that to happen, the syllabus needs to be reformed, precisely because it emulates an old (and unnecessary) version of the British model.

There are those who claim that the national syllabus is far superior to anything else because of volume and quantity, but that doesn't (always) equal quality. Stripping it down, emphasising writing more than reading and memorising are practical suggestions.

School reform

It's an open fact that most of our schools are segregated. They are divided racially and religiously. For a country that houses four major religions, this isn't exactly ideal. But the solution isn't to do away with any kind of ethno-religious consciousness, because inasmuch as I am opposed to how certain (faith-based) schools engage in religious indoctrination (brainwashing), I am less than convinced that we must do away with it completely.

There are schools that have set percentage quotas on students practising a particular faith. Forget the ethics involved here. What are we teaching our children exactly? That education reflects identity, that identity is based on what religion you follow or what race you're born into. Hardly what we need now. But until and unless cooperation is given from every corner, we can't hope to reform this.

We've gone a long way since the Kannangara reforms. There are those who berate them, who think that they weren't necessary. That school of thought is in the minority, however. The truth is, far from implementing something that was unneeded, we haven't come close to implementing what those reforms aimed at in the first place. We remember them for one main thing: the central school system. That has worked out, tremendously, though it's the exception.

Free Education is a burden. Any government service is, for that matter. The "free" in education is for those who enjoy it directly. There are others who pay for it indirectly. They ought to have a say. It's their money, after all. And it's not just a matter of rupees and cents.

We're talking about billions of rupees spent on a child's welfare every year. When you see students who don't really need all that money pilfering what they get, while students in far-off regions remain neglected, you tend to worry.

Education isn't just an asset. It's also a liability. That is why reforms are necessary. That is why we need to start with the admissions system, end with the school, and true to regain the "free" in our Free Education system. And just so we can stop government changes affecting all these reforms, it's best to consolidate them in a statute. That's a first step. Needed and demanded.