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.