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Primary education net enrolment is 97 per cent[1] and survival rate to Grade 5 is 97.39 per cent, with boys (96.86 per cent) trailing nearly 1 percentage point behind girls (97.93 per cent)[2]. However, despite the high access and coverage levels, an estimated 1.9 per cent[3] of primary school and 3.7 per cent[4] of junior secondary aged children are still out of school.


Quality remains a key concern:  The percentage of non-trained and professionally unqualified teachers is 18.75 per cent of the total government teacher population and the availability of subject specific teacher cadres at school level has become an issue. In 2009 on the Grade 4 national assessments, only 82.9 per cent of students scored over 50 per cent in first language with a disparity of 13.4 points between highest and lowest scoring Provinces. The performance was equally poor in mathematics where only 81.8 per cent (nationally) scored over 50 per cent with a disparity of 16.9 points, and 58.4 per cent students in English with a disparity of 32.2 points[5]. Learning gaps in terms of average scores achieved exist between the Sinhala and Tamil medium schools. The 2009 national assessment highlighted that Sinhala medium schools achieved comparatively higher marks than Tamil medium schools, with a gap of 15 percentage points in Mathematics, 12.1 percentage points in first language and 9.6 percentage points in English[6]. Further disaggregated data and research is required to pinpoint the reasons for low learning outcomes and high disparities.


Compounding issues of quality, is the insufficient number of qualified primary education teachers.  Additionally, it is hard for schools in former conflict affected and rural areas to attract qualified teachers on a long term basis.  The problem is especially acute in subject areas such as English, mathematics and the sciences.


Education inequities and disparities is a major issue. Provincial disparities are striking in Grade 4 achievement, with students from poorer or disadvantaged provinces not doing as well in language or math (17 points percentage points lower in mathematics and 32 percentage points lower in English).[7] Wide learning gaps also exist in terms of average scores between Sinhala- and Tamil-medium schools, while an average person in the plantation sector is half as likely to complete the compulsory level of secondary education and one-tenth as likely to reach post-secondary education.[8]


Hundreds of schools in the North and East still need repair and improved facilities following Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil conflict, which ended in 2009. Some of these schools continue to operate with minimum infrastructure facilities. In addition, many of schools in the plantation sector are housed in old buildings in disrepair, often holding classes in temporary locations or outdoors.


Providing education for children with disabilities also remains a challenge, despite efforts such as a National Policy on Disability. “Disability/illness” was the second highest reason given for absence from school. Furthermore, even when children with disabilities can receive some form of education, factors such as family poverty and negative attitudes of principals and teachers, prevent them from attending.


Lack of early childhood standards also puts children at risk, as a quality early childhood experience lays the foundation for all future learning and development. While 96 per cent of Sri Lankan children entering grade one have attended some type of early childhood programme, the quality and content of preschool education varies due to the lack of preschool standards and limited technical guidance.[9] Access is also an issue: four year olds from the lowest wealth quintile and those in the plantation sector remain least likely to attend any early education services.

[1] Source: Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). 2010. MDG country report: 2008/09. Colombo: Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka.

[2] Source: Based on School Census Data, 2009, Ministry of Education (unpublished).

[3] Source: Based on DHS 2006/07 and UNPD population estimates for 2007.

[4] Source: ibid

[5] Source: primary data from: NEREC (2009).

[6] Source: ibid.

[7] NEREC 2009, op.cit.

[8] Compiled from the publications of the Report on Consumer and Finances and Socio Economic Survey 1973, 1978/79, 1981/82, 2003/04, Statistical Department, Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

[9] 2011 School Census, Ministry of Education.

© UNICEF / Naoko Imoto

UNICEF’s Learning Years programme aims to assist Sri Lanka’s education system in achieving universal access to basic education for all children and to improving the quality of education in disadvantaged communities, primarily through its Child Friendly Schools (CFS) initiative.



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