Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On (free) education, issues, and disparities

Sri Lanka takes pride in being a bastion of free education. There’s a whole load of statistics, percentages, and numbers put out as evidence for this. Statistics, however, are meaningless if they aren’t used to adjust for the future.

This week's column is about Sri Lanka’s education system, more specifically its primary and secondary sectors. It is an attempt at pointing out disparities, flaws, inefficiencies, and solutions which continue to ail the system and what's more, stare at us and demand redress.

Independence, opportunities, and problems

Free education as such was institutionalised here in 1947, four years after the Special Committee on Education (chaired by C. W. W. Kannangara) finalised a report urging authorities to push forward reforms. The Committee had identified key issues which were contended to have prolonged inefficiencies and hindered progress in the system. They were all acted on gradually.

Free education was facilitated by a post-war economic boom, the dividends of which the country reaped after gaining independence. Not surprisingly, public spending on education amounted to as much as 4% of the Gross Domestic Product. With little to no resource-deficits and with budget surpluses and rising commodity prices, the government probably saw no need to rationalise the sector as it would later.

But there were problems. Prime among them, the mismatch between qualification and employment. The population boomed and so did the number of graduates, particularly from the Arts stream. Without a concomitant rise in employment opportunities though, this could only lead to two issues: mass unemployment and youth dissent. The 1971 insurrection (which was a metaphoric call to arms) prompted the government of the day to investigate, assess, and reform.

One insurrection leads to another

And so it got down to work. A Five Year Plan (1972 to 1976) and a Medium Term Development Plan (1973 to 1977) were sketched out. Both attempted to do away with the education-employment divide, in part by opening up agricultural, aesthetic, and technical colleges and in part by rewriting the curriculum to highlight more “employable” subjects. At the end of the day however, these reforms weren’t communicated to the public in time and hence didn’t receive the kind of interest and acknowledgment they should have. In other words, they withered away.

The second insurrection (in 1988) clearly showed how inadequate all this had been and consequently how it warranted immediate attention, a point the government of the day understood all too well. They hence lost no time.

Commissions, Task Forces, and haphazard attempts

A National Education Commission was set up in 1991 through an Act of Parliament. The aim was to come up with a body which could “survive” regime-change and withstand political interference. The election of a new government in 1994 was seen as a litmus test, on this count.

What happened next, though? There were, as expected, proposals for reform. The NEC had submitted a report in 1992. It submitted another in 1995, in turn succeeded by yet another filed by the Ministry of Education in 1996.

Meanwhile, the President planned out and chartered a Task Force to implement these proposals. They were acted on. And there were results. Results, however, which encouraged the government to restructure the whole sector: an attempt that not only attracted opposition but was also (in the opinion of some commentators) vague and misplaced in terms of intended outcomes. In later years, due to this reason, the NEC broke apart and survived in name only.

This continued more or less even in the government that followed, with the caveat that from 2005 to 2016 the focus shifted from rationalising existing structures to increasing inputs, mainly by building more schools and facilities and attempting to bridge the rural-urban divide. These were well intended no doubt, but were eventually marred by political shifts and rhetoric.

On the other hand, there were results. 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. 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 ideally translate into outcome, which is what we saw during these years.

When it comes to identifying the bigger picture behind all these, the focus should be on the institutions fostered by the system. In particular, schools.

Skimming through our schools

Sri Lanka currently has four kinds of state schools: Type 1AB, Type 1C, Type 2, and Type 3. The first two have classes until the A/Levels, with Type 1AB offering Science subjects and Type 1C offering non-Science subjects (the latter of these, for reasons which will be pointed at shortly, predominate). Type 2 schools go on until the O/Levels, while Type 3 schools don’t proceed beyond Year Five or Eight.

Not surprisingly, Type 3 schools are in the majority. They are located everywhere and are not just concentrated in urban areas. They tend to attract those who can’t “make it” to the top tier, while the brightest among them are sent up through either the Year Five scholarship exam or the Year Eight final exam. Naturally, both these exams (together with the O/Levels) are considered very competitive and are seen as stepping stones to the top tier, which is why Type 3 are sometimes colloquially referred to as “feeder schools.”

The fact that some of these schools, even within the Colombo district, don’t teach English as a subject until Year Three (at which point the student ironically is taught from the Year Three textbook, the assumption being that he/she would have gone through Years One and Two on his/her own!) indicates certain glaring resource-deficiencies. The top tier, conversely, consists of Type 1 and Type 2 schools, which (in a manner of speaking) have the best and get the best.

This fourfold differentiation, in the final analysis, has tended to increase social and economic inequalities in a way that was not intended by those who scripted such a differentiation into our education system. There are reasons for it, obviously.

Students, schools, and quantitative disparities

The 1971 and 1988 insurrections were augurs in that they unearthed structural flaws in our education system. These included the lack of any visible connection between qualification and employability: in the years following independence, for instance, a liberal arts curriculum (with an emphasis on unemployable and un-professional subjects from the Arts stream) could be sustained by amenable economic conditions, but an education of that sort couldn’t flourish in a context where the country needed to be industrialised to keep up with the rest of the world.

Have we realised this even now? Regional disparities would suggest that we have not. Urban schools are better equipped. Rural schools, on the other hand, are not. Consequently, non-urban schools suffer when it comes to “hard” subjects like Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Maths, which means that students outside urban areas rarely go for such subjects. Even if they do, one can contend, they don’t have enough facilities to get through exams.

And in a large way, this explains certain sobering statistics. In 2014, nearly 10,400 failed their O/Levels. The highest fail rate was in the Monaragala District, reputed to be one of the most unequal in the country: in the previous year, for instance, it recorded a Gini coefficient (the standard measure of economic inequality today) of 0.53, the highest in the country. Free education would seem to NOT have done away with disparities and would seem to have a link with the income gap.

Not that there isn’t a flip side, of course. Free education has its merits. Our transition rate, or proportion of students enrolled in Grade Six against those enrolled in Grade Five, is commendably high for a developing country (at 102%), as is our literacy rate. The government provides nearly everything, from textbooks to uniforms to scholarships to even food (whether these are adequate quality-wise is another debate altogether). Structures and policies have done away with gender differentials to a discernible extent (whereby girls are actually LESS likely than boys to “drop out”). And above everything, the system has emancipated the most underprivileged in our society and encouraged social mobility.

Going by this therefore, the problems in the sector don’t lie with the student alone: they lie with the teacher and administration as well.

Teachers, curricula, and qualitative disparities

In his influential book My Larger Education, Booker T. Washington observed that an education system which catered to an “elitist” minority would eventually hinder the ability of a community to advance socially in the long term. He also observed that the liberal arts tradition, with its emphasis on the arts over more practical subjects like agriculture and carpentry, falsely promised students a future they couldn’t claim owing to the mismatch between qualification and employment in what they studied.

The other day I was talking to a teacher who more or less affirmed what Washington said more than a century ago. This teacher, a principal and a veteran with 28 years behind her, began by arguing that her profession lacks QUALIFIED graduates today. I prompted her to explain.

“Before teachers are appointed, they must be ‘qualified’, by which I am not talking about Diplomas only. They must be productive and must be capable of teaching more than one subject. In my day, for instance, we were required to enter what was called the ‘පූර්ව සේව්‍ය ගුරු පුහුණුව’ or Pre-Service Teacher Training, where we picked up several disciplines and because of which we were able to look through any syllabus and absorb it quickly. That was unfortunately done away with later on, a pity by all accounts.”

I asked her as to whether this explains why teachers today are felt to be unreceptive to the demands of the student, and she agreed. “We come across teachers who are unable to identify the needs and abilities of their students. That’s a problem, because we can’t salvage this profession if we aren’t alert to those we teach.”

What about the curriculum? “I’d say that it’s obsessed over injecting knowledge into the student. There’s little to no room for anything else. The teachers, in their rush to finish an overwhelming syllabus, are consequently unable to pay enough attention to the student. This does away with the relationship between the two so much that the student is forced to resort to tuition. True, there’s less emphasis on rote studying now, but despite that we still see a gap between a subject and its employment potential in terms of skills obtained.”

What of the dichotomy between popular and non-popular schools, a virtual motif in our education discourse? “That has sustained disparities between the rural and the urban student, which is undesirable. I can see two ways of engaging with this. One, you can set up new schools. Two, you can restructure existing schools. I believe in the first method. Build more science labs, computer labs, even playgrounds and swimming pools. Build them in a meaningful way and disparities will eventually crowd out. The issue, let’s not forget, is largely to do with inputs: facilities, classrooms, and teachers.”

The Ministry of Education recently unveiled a new program titled “ලගම පාසල හොඳම පාසැල” (the nearest school is the best school). Speaks for itself, but would it make sense without a corresponding drive to provide facilities and labs to existing Type 2 and Type 3 schools?

The government should take stock of lessons learnt in the past, no matter how well intended their programs may be at present. And not for nothing: to give one example, despite their attempts at combating the elitism spawned by the differentiation of our schools, the most that past administrations could do was open up schools categorised as “Navodaya” and “Isuru”, which as that teacher cautiously argued did very little in achieving the goals set for them. Clearly then, officials and administrators must think beyond program-name if they are to obtain tangible results.

Concluding remarks

No industry or sector “owned” by the government (and owned by the people) can hope for perfection. There are degrees of perfection, however. There hence are a number of points we can be proud about and a number of points we can be humbled by when it comes to our education system.

What of the “free” in free education, though? Some will argue that it’s a misnomer: what’s free in a system where economic disparities have become a norm, they’ll ask. The argument is stark and lends itself to easy simplification, but at one level it makes sense.

And it’s not hard to see why. The differentiation of schools into four broad categories did as much harm as good. The top tier has and gets the best. The bottom tier does not. Factoring in the tendency of teachers and parents to “target” the best and the discernible trend of “outstation” schools and students to opt out of employment-oriented subjects like Science, this means that the system has managed to sustain disparities while maintaining a façade of equality (whereby the top tier is as freely provided for as the bottom in terms of “education at no cost”). An irony and an indictment on us, I believe.

On the other hand however, no one can contend that free education was misplaced. It did away with many of the social inequalities perpetuated by colonial administrations. In the end it helped the country clinch literacy rates, transition rates, and retention rates which surpass our neighbours. The only problems we can point out, hence, are structural flaws that can be dealt with in two ways: by reforming our schools and by reforming our curriculum. The solution lies somewhere there. I hope.

Written for: Ceylon Today, August 2 2016