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Sri Lanka: ‘Teachers are the worst treated public sector officials’

Educationist Dr. Tara De Mel sheds light on much-needed educational policy reforms  

(TM) In the wake of many parties related to the education sector, including the Ministry of Education, working on introducing new educational reforms to the system, The Daily Morning spoke to education policy expert who served as the Secretary to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, steering the work of three Presidential Task Forces on General Education, University Education, and Tertiary and Vocational Education for almost a decade, Dr. Tara De Mel. She is currently serving as the Executive Director at the Bandaranaike Academy for Leadership and Public Policy. In conversation with The Daily Morning, Dr. De Mel came up with her insights, sharing her vast knowledge and experience of education policy reforms.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

What are the key areas that you believe should be given priority in bringing about educational reforms?

First of all, we need to democratise access to good quality education. Let’s accept that the large majority of students attending Government schools don’t have access to good quality education. I mean access to good schools with basic and advanced infrastructure, access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and technology like information technology (IT), artificial intelligence (AI) and similar disciplines that are accepted norms in developed and some developing countries. Let’s acknowledge serious issues in equity and affordability. Although 350,000 five-year-old children enter Grade One every year, and about 100,000 leave the system at Grade 11 (post-General Certificate of Education [GCE] Ordinary Level [O/L]). This is because only about 3,000 schools (out of 10,150) offer classes in the GCE Advanced Level (A/L) subjects, and even out of that number, only some 950 (i.e. 10%) offer STEM subjects and English. And, when 250,000 sit the A/L, less than 20,000 gain admission to State universities which are free. So, the bulk of school leavers have to pay for tertiary education. Until then, most parents have to find funds for supplementary tuition. So, we actually have a façade of free education. Teacher-centred, exam-driven, outdated curricula, which promote rote learning with minimal emphasis on critical thinking, creativity, analytical and problem solving skills have dampened intellectual growth and innovativeness in young, formative minds. Teachers are the backbone of every education system, and most of our teachers are very good. And, they are genuinely interested in imparting high quality education to students. But, they are demotivated, paid poorly, have minimum career prospects, and very few opportunities for professional development and self empowerment. Technology is an integral part of education today. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) released the latest Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) describing how countries in the global North and South, are speedily integrating technology into education, and we should accept the ‘good’ that technology brings while bearing in mind the ‘bad’, and build guardrails against the potential adverse effects. Sri Lanka still has less than 50% of schools with access to good quality internet connectivity and suitable devices. Fortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed our massive digital divide. But, this is a gap that needs to be bridged as soon as possible if we ever hope to integrate technology into education.

Against the backdrop of the Government focusing on making changes to the exam-oriented education system, introducing technology-related subjects, particularly AI and reducing the weight of the school curriculum, how do you see it? Would you have any concerns and suggestions in that regard?

I would be thrilled if all these policy-pledges are translated into action inside classrooms in all schools and not just in a few privileged schools. The three national exams (Grade Five Scholarship Exam, GCE O/L and A/L) are, in my opinion, the main reasons for the massive stress and anxiety that our students face. These exams are student-unfriendly. They primarily test rote learning, and they don’t test learning outcomes using innovative methods, and they are very outdated. If the authorities are serious about these curricula changes, we would like to see how teachers are educated in these disciplines, and how they will be empowered and trained, and how competent teachers are recruited to bridge the teacher cadre gaps that we have, particularly in these very subjects. Adequate numbers of trained teachers in every discipline is a mandatory requirement. Also, how do they plan to equip schools in all parts of the country with basic IT and digital infrastructure, without which tech subjects or AI cannot be efficiently taught?

Those who follow arts and humanities-related subjects are often not given more opportunities in the competitive job market. What measures would you suggest to make all subject streams more compliant with the job market?

Today, we are in the 21st century and living in a world governed by the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions, where technology, AI bots and cyber threats are accelerating at a speed. Therefore, the value of humanities, the arts and similar disciplines become even more relevant. Indeed ‘humanising technologies’ should become the priority. No country can survive for long without its share of historians, philosophers, political scientists and allied disciplines. The bulk of Sri Lanka’s A/L students study arts and humanities and related subjects, sometimes for the lack of choice. Yet, the value addition to those subjects and to the teachers who teach them have been paltry. Modernising the curricula, newer pedagogy, language skills like English competency and access to globally relevant learning material, and integrating technological skills, have not been prioritised. In fact, arts and humanities related subjects have to be given priority for curricular reform, teacher development, upgrading facilities and material compatible with international standards. That would be an initial step in making the students who take up arts and humanities more sought after, and suited for newer job markets.

University teachers and other academics are leaving the country in large numbers at present. As a solution, the Government is considering penalising those who leave the country without due notice. What factors do you believe led to this situation? Will the Government’s approach address the issue?

Before taking draconian steps like ‘penalising’ academics who migrate, we should first investigate why they do so. If an academic is to flourish in his/her university ecosystem, there needs to be satisfaction in the teaching-learning processes, the freedom to innovate, the availability of facilities for research, the elimination of stifling bureaucracy, adequate pay, academic recognition and more. We need to study a few countries which have afforded genuine priority for education, and how they have treated their university academics and school teachers. We’d probably then understand what we need to do to stop this exodus.

A Parliamentary Sub Committee recently recommended the suspension of more than 80 tertiary education institutions for allegedly running substandard courses. How would you see it?

Again, let’s be introspective and analyse why such a suspension was required. Yes, I agree that institutions delivering suboptimal or substandard education need to wind up. But then, why did we allow it to come to this situation, and deprive students who would have benefited from these institutions? When the Government funds (either partially or totally) any education institution, it must necessarily build in quality assurance systems where periodic review is done, and the quality of the academic programmes is ensured. Inbuilt checks and balances should have been part of the system, where curricula and pedagogy are regularly evaluated and modernised, the recruitment criteria, the pay and quality of the teachers are assessed and infrastructure needs and facilities are provided annually. If such evaluations were regular, and corrective measures were taken early and if such forward thinking and proactive measures were in place, this situation could have been averted.

What action would you recommend to regulate private education institutions, particularly tuition?

‘Regulate’ seems like a harsh word, but I do agree that private education providers need to adhere to certain standards and quality. Criteria that private education providers have to abide by need to be developed after careful study and analysis. In order to assure educational quality, in terms of facilities, curricula, pedagogy and teacher competencies, and for the regular review of the same, the set of requirements need to be legislated so that these won’t change each time that a Minister or Government changes.

Education-based segregation and the classification of schools based on various criteria have been practiced in Sri Lanka for decades. When you were the Ministry Secretary, you made attempts to eradicate these practices through various legislation, which caused controversy. How would you relate those attempts to the present? What changes should be brought about in this regard?

Yes, there were many changes that we wished to implement in the school system two decades ago. But, when schools are still named after religions or ethnicity (eg. Sinhala Vidyalaya, Hindu College, etc.), we are using extremely primitive school naming systems. Not only do these names denote discriminatory practices but they also imply racism. Similarly, we have an archaic system of classifying schools as 1AB, 1C and so on, instead of simply saying primary, junior secondary, and senior secondary. When attempting to address such seemingly trivial issues, it sparks ‘controversy’, because people detest change even in its simplest form. This is where progressive and bold leadership (political and otherwise) is needed.

Many cases related to corporal punishment are reported from time to time. The lack of proper guidelines and support systems on how to deal with certain behaviours of children has made the situation more complex. What would you suggest in this regard?

Corporal punishment is one of the worst forms of so-called ‘disciplinary measures’ that we inflict on children. It traumatises the child physically and emotionally. The latter can leave deep and penetrative scars which can be impossible to remove. Corporal punishment is banned in schools and at home, in most developed and some developing countries. Sri Lanka is also a signatory to several international agreements where we have promised to abide by the ‘zero tolerance to corporal punishment policy’. Some 23 years ago, the Ministry issued a circular to schools which prohibited teachers and principals from resorting to it. But, in subsequent years, this circular was watered down or withdrawn, due to pressures brought from influential principals and others. There are several articles published by experts in the field on what measures schools can adopt to minimise the breach of discipline, without resorting to corporal punishment. Again, we only need to look at what other countries which genuinely prioritise education have done in this regard. That is if we sincerely want to eradicate the scourge of corporal punishment.

In comparison to university teachers, school teachers and principals lack opportunities for career development. The same has resulted in frequent trade union struggles, which in turn disrupt the children’s education. What measures would you suggest to overcome this deadlock?

Trade union action surfaces when there’s injustice and a lack of empathy in relation to certain fundamental needs. Teachers are perhaps the worst treated public sector officials. They are paid poorly and are not valued for the yeoman service that they deliver. Apart from salaries and allowances, they need professional development and education in keeping with the standards of developed nations. Most teachers are women, and we still have schools where water on tap is not available, and usable toilets are scarce. Can we even begin to understand what those lady teachers go through when they get their monthly period? Since even some of these fundamental issues are not prioritised, teachers remain disgruntled and frustrated and yes, trade union actions follow. The victims are then the students.

Sri Lankan students are still lacking proper sex education, while it is one of the primary needs of everyone. How important is it to introduce quick reforms in this regard? What are your suggestions?

Let’s call it reproductive health education. This is imperative for the junior secondary (pre-adolescent) and senior secondary (adolescent) students. Pre-teenage and teenage years are crucial, since sexual maturity is going on pace, with hormonal surges taking place in boys and girls. These are extremely natural and physiological happenings. This is also when students form relationships with either those from the same or opposite gender. Therefore, this is when students need to be taught in class, through interesting and innovative learning methods, on how to cope with sexual maturation and how to accept the changes that are happening in their body and in their mind. I believe that there was an excellent book published by some experts a few years ago, on how to introduce these teachings in class. But, the book had been termed ‘controversial’ and subsequently banned!

At a time when the country is seeing a serious economic crisis, is the focus placed on the education sector sufficient?

My candid opinion is that the attention paid to education in these post-pandemic years is woefully inadequate. The Ministry published a document in March 2023, where learning outcomes of Grade Three students showed that less than 7% students achieved all learning outcomes in literacy and less than 8% did the same in numeracy. No country can expect to emerge from a crippling economic crisis without sufficient investment (i.e. financial, human resource, infrastructure) in education. Sri Lanka is very unique in that after 20 months of school closure due to the pandemic, the students transitioned into further school closures due to the economic and food crises in January 2022. Today, we still have nearly 50% of students malnutrition, as per the data released by the Government. There’s no way that a student with undernutrition can learn effectively. And, the implementation of ‘reforms’ as we have heard over and over again in the past few years have been very tardy or non-existent. Most countries, during and post-pandemic, periodically assessed the learning losses of students, and implemented strategies to catch up with learning early. They thus managed to mitigate learning losses and bring students up to speed, in this challenging education catastrophe. Sri Lanka was one of the last countries to reopen schools post-pandemic. This is despite the global understanding that schools were closed in March 2020, based on a presumption that schools were a hub in transmitting the Coronavirus, from students to teachers. Soon, this theory was debunked by evidence-based scientific publications. Sri Lanka and a few other countries, suffered the most from these policy mistakes, and consequently, many young people who are under-educated and under-skilled enter society and remain frustrated and disappointed at their inability to fulfil their aspirations and potential.

What is the role that private institutions like think tanks and higher educational institutes should play in this climate of change? Do you see any progress in this area?  

Leadership and public policy academies aim to provide education and training to students at the tertiary level, in impactful and strategic leadership suited to address modern day challenges in Sri Lanka, but within a global context.

BY Sahan Tennekoon and Buddhika Samaraweera/ The morning/10/08.23

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