Education in middle childhood

Ensuring quality learning for all girls and boys in the country.

UNICEF/SriLanka/S Noorani

The Challenge

As school life begins, it is essential that all children have equal access to a quality education that teaches them the right skills in the right way. Most importantly, education should prepare students for the job market and help them blossom into active, responsible and peace-loving citizens of the country.

One of the most striking issues in primary education is the unequal distribution of quality education services which, in turn, has led to significant disparities in learning outcomes. A literacy focused survey based on the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) tool conducted by Save the Children in 2013 showed large differences in student reading and comprehension skills within the same schools and even classrooms, with household wealth levels being a strong predictor of learning outcomes. Learning outcome assessments by the National Education Research and Evaluation Center (NEREC) show stark disparities in levels of learning across gender, economic background, language and subject area.

While literacy rates in Sri Lanka are generally high, low levels of literacy are concentrated in less affluent geographies such as the estate sector and the former conflict-affected areas in the North and East.  In addition, slow learners are not afforded the special care they need and do not usually enjoy the benefits of remedial help.  Put simply, more work needs to be done in achieving the goal of ‘education for all’.

In schools across the country, child-centred approaches need to be more fully integrated into education policies, sector plans and teaching. At present, teachers feel pressured to prepare students exclusively for exams and therefore ‘teach to the test’ rather than apply child-centred teaching methods that focus on deeper learning accompanied by activities and play; approaches that would serve children better in the long run.  There is also a lack of focus on the skills required for success in work and life. A greater emphasis is needed on developing skills such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, decision-making, empathy, self-awareness, resilience and more. In addition, digital skills are now crucial. While national curriculums often reflect these needs, curriculums and learning materials lack alignment. Many teachers do not have basic training in child-centered methods and the lack of school-based teacher development training, supplementary teaching materials and instructional leadership has slowed progress in this area.

Primary education needs more support in human resource development and financial investment.   The primary education branch of the Ministry calculated that in 2010, 35 per cent of teachers teaching at the primary stage of education did not hold qualifications in primary education.  The lack of a separate financial allocation for primary education in all schools, not just national schools, naturally leads to unequal learning outcomes. Overall, primary education needs to be better recognized as a separate and crucial stage in the educational trajectory of the child.

Education also has an important role to play in building social cohesion and promoting peace. Schools must integrate peace building into curricula and school activities so that children grow up to embrace diversity, empathy, cooperation and active citizenship.  Social cohesion within and amongst communities is still weak as evidenced by disputes and outbreaks of violence between different ethnicities. It is easy to see how a lack of empathy and tolerance can stem from a system where 92 per cent of schools are segregated along ethnic and religious lines and the language of instruction is likely to serve only the ethnic group that speak that language (Sinhala or Tamil). Children are also failing to learn English, with less than 20 per cent of Grade 4 (8-9 year old’s) students mastering the language; a skill that could have served to bridge this communication gap. This diminished interaction between segregated schools undermines understanding and long-term trust between groups. It also serves to exclude members of minority groups from mainstream social and economic opportunities leading to higher levels of dissent and social unrest. 

The Solution

UNICEF is working with national partners to promote skills-based education and ensure that teacher allocations and financial allocations are equitable across the country. This will help to integrate a child-centered approach in primary classrooms and will include efforts to develop and draft differentiated curriculums, provide additional learning materials, introduce group and activity-based learning, strengthen formative assessments and tools, and bolster teacher training and teaching. An increased focus on broad skills and social cohesion skills will be emphasized, while ensuring that innovative teaching methods in support of these learning outcomes are incorporated equally nationwide. Special efforts will be made to include strategies and resources that cater to slow learners.

Teacher capacities in terms of attitude, knowledge and skills need to be strengthened. UNICEF is working with its partners to develop teacher training curricula which integrate activity and project based-learning and train these teachers on adapting appropriate methodologies. This also applies to the adoption of teaching methodologies that suit the needs of children with learning difficulties. School principals will be engaged to provide instructional leadership and promote teacher development, and support mechanisms in the form of school community members, In-Service Advisors (ISAs) and Zonal Education Officials will be developed.

UNICEF will also work with the Ministry of Education (MoE) as well as zonal, provincial and school-level officials to strengthen their capacities to plan, implement and monitor these interventions.   

UNICEF will continue to provide guidance to communities on aspects such as the utilization of school grant allocations for quality interventions in primary education, promotion of norms for social cohesion, corporal punishment, reading and so on.  UNICEF will also continue to assist the communities in better identifying barriers in the implementation of these plans and find solutions.  A common platform for the communities to interact, share ideas and thoughts will be developed so that key themes and messages are consistent at school and at home.  

UNICEF will continue to work to increase collaboration and contact between children of different ethnicities. Programs that bring students together, within and across schools, to engage on issues of peace and social cohesion with the goal of building trust and resilience in local communities will continue to be prioritized


Everything we do at UNICEF, from planning to execution, is grounded in empirical data, independent evaluation, rigorous research and thoughtful analysis. This information is gathered with the help of our own staff and the help of our network of partners in communities around the country.

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