Devpro Resource Centre

Sri Lanka

Mainstreaming child-friendly schools

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2007/M. Hugh
Students at play at a child-friendly school in Eastern Province, Sri Lanka.

Context and challenge: Protracted conflict and socio-economic disparities create barriers to accessing quality education

The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka, located off the southern tip of India, has endured nearly three decades of violent internal conflict and suffered staggering devastation from the 2004 tsunami. Yet Sri Lanka – a multi-ethnic, lower-middle income nation – has made remarkable strides in development, including hard-won gains in education.

Since the establishment of a national education act in 1938, the country has provided free and compulsory education. Its literacy rates are among the highest in the developing world for young people 15–24 years old, at 98 per cent for young women and 97 per cent for young men. It has already achieved the Millennium Development Goals for education, with almost 98 per cent of its children enrolling in school and gender parity achieved throughout its educational system.

Despite these education successes, Sri Lanka faces ongoing and pervasive challenges to both access and quality, particularly among its most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Indiscriminate violence and conflict-related violations of children’s rights have created fear and uncertainty; entire communities have been displaced. Socio-economic and regional disparities continue to create barriers to accessing a quality, rights-based education.

Almost one fifth of Sri Lankan children drop out of school before completing the compulsory nine-year cycle. A recent UNICEF-supported study on school dropouts concluded that poverty is the overwhelming reason for non-completion of schooling.

Moreover, quality of education is a serious issue in Sri Lanka, with a wide variation in facilities and resources. Schools in remote and conflict-affected areas often have inadequate classroom space, furniture, and water and sanitation facilities. Acute teacher shortages in some parts of the country, coupled with outdated pedagogy and insufficient teaching and learning materials, impact students’ ability to learn.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1363/Pietrasik
Children wash their plates and utensils after lunch, in recently rebuilt Thruppathi Vidhyalaya School, in the eastern Ampara District. The original school was destroyed during the tsunami in 2004.

Action: Creating child-friendly schools

Since 2002, UNICEF has been working closely with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education to promote the child-friendly school (CFS) approach as a means of improving the quality of education through a holistic, rights-based strategy. The CFS initiative began as a small pilot project consisting of 125 schools serving approximately 5,000 children from poverty-stricken families, and aimed to address sharp disparities in access to and quality of schooling.

Among other characteristics, a child-friendly school:

  • Realizes the rights of every child by monitoring the well-being and rights of all children, and protects them from abuse and harm, both inside and outside the school.
  • Understands the whole child in the context of their homes, communities, native languages, health and nutritional status, and social skills.
  • Is child-centred, encouraging participation, creativity, self-esteem and psychosocial well-being, and promoting a curriculum and teaching-learning methods appropriate to the child’s developmental level, abilities and learning style.
  • Is gender sensitive and girl-friendly, reducing constraints to gender equity and eliminating gender stereotypes; it provides facilities, curricula and learning processes that are welcoming to girls.
  • Promotes quality learning outcomes, as children are encouraged to think critically, ask questions and express their opinions; it helps them master the essential skills of writing, reading, speaking, listening and mathematics.
  • Is flexible and responds to diversity, acting to ensure inclusion, respect and equality.
  • Promotes mental and physical health, as it guarantees a hygienic, safe, secure and joyful learning environment.
  • Provides education that is affordable and accessible.
  • Enhances teacher capacity, morale, commitment and status, as it ensures that teachers are provided with sufficient training, professional development opportunities and income.
  • Is family-focused and community-based, promoting community partnerships and encouraging parents, local government and civil society to participate in the management and financing of education.

Using a loose definition of ‘child-friendliness’, the CFS pilot project began by gathering principals and teachers to discuss the issues and challenges in their schools and to plan ways of addressing them. Although the term ‘CFS’ was new, many of its aspects were already familiar to Sri Lankan educators. Concepts of community participation, school development planning and active learning were already discussed within the educational system, although not consistently implemented.

Over time, the initiative evolved to include CFS training for principals and teachers, the revitalization of school attendance committees, reconstruction and renovation of schools, provision of water and sanitation facilities, and distribution of books, furniture and equipment.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1356/Pietrasik
Fifth-grade girls stand outside recently rebuilt Ak/Al Badhur Vidyalaya School in the town of Akkarapattu in the eastern Ampara District.

Impact and Opportunities: Safer, more supportive learning environments created for children; the potential for far-reaching change

Since its inception in 2002, the CFS initiative has taken root and flourished in Sri Lanka. Despite the sometimes limited understanding of the scope and participatory process of establishing and maintaining child-friendly schools, the concept is popular.

Many schools have made progress in transforming their environment and practices, making them better places for children to learn and succeed. Although no empirical studies have been carried out, anecdotal evidence points to transformations in the attitude and approach to children and learning in schools across the country, even in remote and conflict-affected areas.

As a result of child-friendly approaches, many schools report improvement in attendance, better relationships between children and adults, reduced acceptance of corporal punishment within families and communities, and increased parental involvement in the life and well-being of the school.

By 2007, based on the observable success in schools and a rising awareness of a rights-based approach to education, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education identified CFS as a key strategy to holistically improve children’s experience in school as well as enrolment, retention and learning achievement rates. The initiative is shifting from a project-based approach to a more systematized and coordinated strategy with the development of a framework that integrates CFS at national, provincial and local levels.

Today, children in 1,169 schools are being supported by the CFS approach. More than 2,000 principals and teachers have received training. Child-friendly toilets are being constructed in 60 schools in six districts along with water facilities in three schools, benefiting a total of 22,000 children.

Despite these successes, a number of challenges have prevented the initiative from achieving its full potential. The 2004 tsunami caused major interruptions in programming as priorities and funding shifted to emergency response. Limited technical capacity, poor coordination, and a lack of systematic monitoring and evaluation have also created barriers for comprehensive implementation.

Sri Lanka, however, remains deeply committed to the CFS concept.

8 May 2009



A focus on

Child-Friendly Schools Manual, Chapter 1, 'Purpose, scope and concept,' 2009 | PDF English

To learn more

UNICEF, Child-Friendly Schools Manual, 2009 | PDF English

UNICEF, Mainstreaming Child-Friendly Schools in Sri Lanka: A case study, 2009 | PDF English

UNICEF, Global Capacity Development Programme on Child-Friendly Schools | website

UNICEF, Resources on Child-Friendly Schools | website

UNICEF, "Quality education and child friendly schools," Actions for Children Issue 5, March 2009 | PDF EnglishFrench | Spanish

UNICEF Sri Lanka Country Office | website

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