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Monday, September 26, 2022

Plight of primary education: Education reform on a loop

Image: On line education during the lock down.

By Sarah Hannan.

It has become an almost surreal experience to see schoolchildren on the road at present. With schools operating according to the discretion of the zonal and provincial education offices, which have been empowered to decide which grades will be called into school or follow a hybrid learning schedule, students have been placed in limbo.

When the pandemic hit and the entire country was placed under quarantine lockdown, schools underwent closure first. Then, when health authorities decided that the country could return to a semblance of normalcy, schools were the last to reopen.

As our previous articles on the plight of Sri Lanka’s school education have noted, the ongoing political turmoil and economic instability are now directly affecting children studying at primary/junior school level.

Take, for instance, children who were admitted to Grade 1 in 2020. They were only able to spend the first two months of the term in school and were robbed of the opportunity to familiarise themselves with school timetables and activities that help children develop social and practical skills.

According to a survey conducted by LIRNEasia (Learning Initiatives on Reforms for Network Economies Asia) in 2021, students in Grade 1 for the academic year of 2020 had only received education during the lockdown at a 40% rate of their total learning time.

Any eight-year-old who should technically be in Grade 3 this year will not be able to sit through regular school hours or will struggle to listen attentively to what the teacher says during each learning period. They are now used to online schooling, which typically took place one or two days per week for around one hour.

Following these two years of postponed studies with no student assessments conducted, these children even struggle to complete homework on their own. This only means that an adult will have to sit with them and remind them of the lesson that the teacher delivered online.

Device dependency

“Not attending school and the child not being accustomed to the school as well as classroom environment is affecting their attention span. They get easily distracted by things going on at home and at times throw tantrums when we say that they have had enough screen time for the day. We are now experiencing the side effects of giving kids devices to study, as they have figured out how to browse the web and find what they like to watch on apps like YouTube,” N. Shamila, a parent, noted.

In LIRNEasia’s 2021 survey, the results indicated that 58% of households were not satisfied with the education services available to provide quality education to children through online classes.

“It was a learning experience for the parents as well because we had to become the teacher/assistant to help educate the child. Initially, it was a little challenging since we too started to run out of patience with our children. Everyone was homebound and although I am a stay-at-home mom, it was difficult to sit with my daughter and coach her through the lessons.

“When online class took place, I had to halt all housework and take down notes for my child. Their writing speed has not improved at all even after three years,” Shamila observed, adding that the dysfunctional manner in which schools were conducted also affected the critical thinking abilities of children.

Parents remain concerned since the first school term for the academic year 2022 is yet to commence with a full timetable. Moreover, the children who are meant to be in Grade 3 are as yet unable to grasp the fundamentals of education including basic maths, language use, and critical thinking.

Shamila too questioned how prepared the children would be able to deal with subjects such as mother language – Sinhalese, maths, environment-related activities, second language – Tamil, and religion by the beginning of the second school term for Grade 3 in 2022.

According to LIRNEasia, the quality of the education conferred is defined by the frequency at which the teacher contacted the student when online learning was in place. The survey records reveal that in distance learning, teachers contacted students at least once a week during the school week, while access to distance education during the pandemic, either offline or online, was lower than 85%.

According to UNICEF, learning poverty increased to 63% globally during the pandemic, with children unable to read by the age of 10. Prior to the pandemic, Sri Lanka recorded learning poverty at 15%. However, unfortunately, the country lacks statistics on the pandemic for the period from 2020-2021.

Some positives

Meanwhile, speaking to The Sunday Morning, educationist and Education Forum Sri Lanka Co-Founder Dr. Sujata Gamage noted that despite the learning losses, hybrid learning had also had positive outcomes.

“The new hybrid learning method has in fact enabled the child to expand their learning through interacting with day-to-day objects in their households. Although learning losses were incurred, we need to focus on the positives that came about.

“Many of the education reforms we have been discussing and suggesting were implemented through the needs arising when adapting to distance and online learning. Today, we see a generation of students learning the fundamentals of education through activity-based learning. Moreover, they are also developing their presentation skills at a young age,” Dr. Gamage shared.

Dr. Gamage further noted that with schools switching to online education, the demand for education in the English medium had risen in rural areas, although the lack of teachers capable of teaching subjects in English in these areas had hampered students from pursuing their secondary education in the English medium.

“Students have discovered that there is a sea of information and learning resources accessible online in English. Even parents have realised that they do not have to move their children to a school in the city for them to be educated in the English medium, because they can access the learning resources online should they decide to face their national examinations in English,” Dr. Gamage added.

Students adapt to new learning mode

An Education Forum Sri Lanka survey published in March dealing with experiences at the grassroots level observed how the students adapted to the new mode of learning although the education system remained unchanged.

Similarly, Ampara Zonal Education Director S.R. Hasanthi noted that amid the challenges of completing the curriculum during the pandemic, students, parents, and teachers, as well as local education authorities, had built a pool of resources to prepare students who had to face the three national exams.

“During the past two years, as zonal education authorities, we saw that access to education services was prioritised for students sitting for the Grade 5 Scholarship examination, GCE O/L examination, and GCE A/L examination. This does not constitute equal access to education for all schoolchildren. Even for this year, it appears that students preparing to sit for exams in November are being prioritised while other examinations will be pushed to the following year to ensure that the curriculum is covered,” Hasanthi stated.

Writing practice before recovery plan

The National Institute of Education (NIE) recovery plan developed for Grade 3 English language for the first term of the 2022 academic year was designed for circumstances where schools were operating three days per week, with the assumption that the children had already completed the ‘Writing Practice’ book that was issued.

The NIE indicates the most essential competency levels that should be included in the recovery plan, considering the minimum learning levels identified for each grade. Thus, essential competency levels are included in the recovery plan as ‘focused competency levels’ and the desired competency levels were included as ‘incorporated competency levels’.

In addition, when implementing this recovery plan in classrooms, teachers of English are expected to follow the best possible methods to assist the students to master all the clustered competency levels to make this effort successful. In the event the activities in the ‘Writing Practice’ book are not completed, the teacher is to complete the activities by paying attention to the child’s needs and guiding them with practical alternative methods to ensure that they familiarise themselves with the learning contents.

(Infographics extracted from ‘Digital Sri Lanka during Covid-19 lockdown’ published by LIRNEasia on 8 December 2021)

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