Sri Lanka has the highest level of literacy (91%) in the South Asian region. An overwhelming majority of its school going population (4 million) enjoys free education from the kindergarten to the university undergraduate level.
But the quality of the education does not match the quantitative achievement.
In this year's General Certificate of Education-Ordinary Level
(GCA-OL) exam, held after 11 years of schooling, 51 per cent had failed. The
failure rate in Maths was 57 per cent; in Science, 51 per cent; and in English, 63 per cent.
21,813 students had crashed in all the subjects. But the most shocking aspect was that 4,128 of these came from schools in Colombo district, which supposedly has the best facilities.
A recent survey conducted by the National Education Commission (NEC) found that out of a representative sample of 4,054 students from 70 schools taken from across the country, 18 per cent of the 6 th. Graders could not write at all! Only 35 per cent of the 10th graders could take down a passage dictated to them.
"This is alarming," said Dr ST Hettige, Professor of Sociology atColombo University. "But not unusual," added the noted expert on school education, Prof. S Sandarasegaram. "Performance has been deteriorating over time," he said.
But the really worrying part, according to him, is that there should be such poor performance when the O Level exam is not tough at all. Secondly, the returns are not at all commensurate with the huge expenditure on school education.
"It is LKR 4000 crore ($363 million) per year overall, and LKR 8,500 per student, with the World Bank contributing a substantial part of it," Sandarasegaram said.
Inadequate staff, poor quality of teaching, political interference in appointments and lack of autonomy are blamed for the sorry state of school education. Many Tamil medium schools, especially in the war-affected North East and in the plantation areas, go without a full complement of staff.
Hardly 200,000 students are in autonomous, private, and fee levying schools, getting a decent education. Nearly four million are in state-run schools where teachers' appointments are made on political considerations and influence, sacrificing qualifications and quality.
"The lackadaisical attitude of the teachers results in the students having no motivation to study and do well. The curricula are not relevant to the needs of the students. Teaching methods are archaic. Schools are ill-equipped and not at all child-friendly. There is also violence in our schools," Sandarasegaram said.
"The Principals lack autonomy, with the result, Principals and teachers with innovative ideas find no outlet. What we need to promote now, is the bottom-up approach, where ideas come from the school level, and not imposed from the top, where the officials are not familiar with the ground conditions which vary from place to place,"
No doubt there are centres of excellence. But these are few and far between and concentrated in a few towns. Parents, politicians and officials try hard, and use fair means and foul, to get their wards into the few good schools. But they forget to improve the bad ones,which are the vast majority.