Child friendly schools in Sri Lanka
By Suzanne Davey
Write off: Child Friendly Schools helping to boost attendance and retention of children caught up in poverty and hardship in the conflict affected Eastern Sri Lanka.
AMPARA, Sri Lanka: Bright bougainvillea flowers arch the entrance of the Pannalagama School in the conflict affected region in Eastern Sri Lanka.The word ‘Ayubowan’ (welcome) embossed on a wooden signage is neatly planted by the schools main gate greeting the three hundred or more students that enter its fold each day.
13 year old Asangika Probodhi eagerly makes her way past the coloured potted plants, to her 9th grade classroom. She stops by to read the posters celebrating student achievements, also placed along the walk way.
Asangika is from a single parent family, her mother is employed as a housemaid in the Middle East. Her father committed suicide several years ago due to depression, he was working as home guard at the time of the incident.
For several years, Asangika was left in the care of her ailing grandmother. Her school attendance was severely disrupted as she often had to remain home to care for her. A few months after the death of grandmother she returned to school. At the time, Asangika had very poor skills in reading and writing when compared to her fellow students in the 9th grade.
“We had to give her a chance to regain her lost education” said the Principal of the school, Mr. Chaminda Panditha. “Teachers volunteered extra hours to provide tuition” he said.
The Pannalagama is a model Child Friendly School embodying all the essential elements that exemplify the CFS approach. The school has an inclusive approach to education so that low performers and slow learners like Asangika could be better supported.
Behind the success story is its leader, Mr. Chaminda Panditha, the principal of the school. He has been at the helm of embracing CFS and leading the changes in the school. As part of this, Panditha has built a database containing information on each student’s profile. “This is all part of the child centered approach, the information is used to hold awareness meetings to boost school attendance” says Panditha.
A robust School Development Society is also functioning, where both parents and the village community actively participate in nurturing a healthy school environment where children could learn, develop and thrive.
Many of the families from the Panalagama village are marred by poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse. “A large number of children have mothers working overseas” says Panditha.
While 97% of Sri Lanka’s children are enrolled in primary schooling throughout the island, poverty, the past conflict, inadequate resources and outdated pedagogy have led to high drop-out rates. Nearly ten percent of children drop out of school before completing Grade 5 and 17% do not complete the nine years of compulsory education. The situation in the conflict affected Northern and Eastern districts like Ampara is far alarming; children in these areas are almost four years behind their learning achievements when compared to the rest of the country.
“Every principal should be creative, innovative and think positive then we can do anything” says Mr. Chaminda. The school requires more staff to teach the maths and science subjects. “If I get more teachers – I will guarantee 100 per cent completion” affirms Chaminda.
Asangika Probodhi now lives under the care of her aunt. “I want to be a dance teacher” she says. Thanks to the open and friendly approach of the Pannalagama School, she is fast developing her skills and will be able to complete her education.
Since 2002, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education to mainstream CFS as the national approach to primary education. CFS aims at addressing the sharp disparities in the quality of education, school facilities and access to schools. To date, 1,400 schools in Sri Lanka have joined the programme.
With the end of the conflict, the Ministry of Education is now targeting 4000 more schools to join the CFS program in the country. As the lead government partner on CFS, UNICEF is challenged with the task of raising U$5 million for the next two years to help boost rates of learning achievement, attendance and retention and to ensure that more of Sri Lanka’s schools are child friendly.