Opportunities and Challenges for education reform in Sri Lanka.

Jan 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Management

“The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting” – Plutarch

In conjunction with the current level of accelerated infrastructure development, there is also a need to consider a process of education reform to meet future challenges by our new generation.

Sri Lankans usually blame the education system for all ills in the country. Periodically, governments plan on carrying out education reforms and end up just tinkering with the system to satisfy various interest groups. What is however totally ignored is the ultimate need for the benefit of the child’s education. I observe that the current reforms proposed are just a matter of tinkering with subject matter and curricula.

“Education has for its object the formation of character” – Herbert Spence

The primary focus and objective of any education system must be “the formation of Character”.

A point to start such reforms would be to look at the country with the most successful education system in the world, Finland, where school children are considered the cleverest and happiest in the world.(Ref https://www.nea.org/home/40991.htm)

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellant of the country’s economic recovery plan, although its real successful results were not seen until year 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Besides, Finnish language, math and science, the first graders take music, art, sports, religion and textile handcrafts. English begins in third grade, Swedish in fourth. By fifth grade the children have added biology, geography, history, physics and chemistry.

The gap between the weaker and the high performers is small compared to that in other countries. There are more graduates than any other country and its 15-year-olds are the best at solving maths problems, according to the latest education survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In an international standardized measurement in 2001, Finnish children came top or very close to the top for science, reading and mathematics.

So what are the key factors that makes Finland’s Education reforms successful?

1. Finnish children don’t start school until they are age 7years. 97 percent of Finnish children attend preschool, which starts at age five, and emphasizes playing and socializing.

2. Compared with other systems, they rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens. Finnish children get 75 minutes of recess a day, receiving a 15-minute break after every lesson. Outdoor physical activity is highly encouraged and some lessons are taught outside—even in winter!

3. Never burdened with more than half an hour of homework per night, Finnish kids attend school fewer days than 85% of other developed nations. There are few, if any, mandatory tests in Finland until a single exam at the end of high school. There’s also little homework. (Teachers get to know much more about the children than these tests can tell).

4. Finnish language education begins on the first day of school. By age nine, students begin Swedish (Finland’s second official language), and at 11, they start learning a third language, usually English. Many students even take on a fourth language around age 13. Students are tested on their first two languages in a matriculation exam for university placement.

5. Teachers only spend 4 hours a day in the classroom, and take 2 hours a week for “professional development and student progress assessments “. They work an average of only 570 hours a year.

6. 66 percent of students go to college, the highest rate in Europe. At the age of 16, students can decide if they want to attend the Finnish equivalent of high school to prepare them for university or enter vocational training. Students who attend vocational school can attend a university provided they score high enough on the matriculation exam.

7. The school system is 100% state funded.

8. All teachers in Finland must have a masters degree, which is fully subsidized. Teachers are selected from the top 10% of graduates. Teachers are effectively given the same status as doctors and lawyers.

9. The national curriculum is only broad guidelines. Teachers are given guidelines for what they have to teach, but they are not given prescriptions for how to teach it. This allows the highly trained teachers to develop a curriculum geared toward teaching their unique group of students.

10. School meals are one indicator of the Finnish society’s level of development. In Finland, each child and young person attending pre-primary, basic and upper secondary education can enjoy a free school meal.

11. Teachers work extremely hard with weaker students. However there is no stress on competition, as they will be the losers and the gap will widen.

In comparison, school age children in Sri Lanka suffer from stress due to examination parental pressure. They do not get their mid day meal till 2.30 or 3.00 PM each day which puts them at very high risk of acquiring non communicable deceases such as diabetes and heart disease. They do not have adequate play time or time to read books of other interests. The school dropout rates are high, as well as a very high rate of suicides amongst youth. There is a mismatch between job opportunities and available skills and very low productivity, measured in terms of per capita income. Sri Lanka also has one of the highest rates of abortions amongst young adult women.

Furthermore, the current reforms underway where rural schools are being reformed to limit to grade 1 to 5 while children of grade 6 and upwards are sent to secondary schools in town centres  has resulted in a higher dropout rate and poor character development due to:
1. Due to a lack of forward planning, where secondary schools do not have places to accommodate more children from village schools that are closing grade 6 and upwards.

2. Many poorer villagers are unable to bear the added expenses incurred in sending their children to schools further away.

3. Children are more tired after traveling greater distances from village to town with more time spent on travelling and homework.

4. Children from village schools face increased competition in the new secondary schools and tend to drop out. Children have to then rebuild new friendships and lose local friends and networks.

Therefore the current reform process introducing a British style Schooling system needs to be urgently reviewed before much damaged is done to a large section of our youth. Such a review must be carried out by a body independent of the reform process.

Therefore if Sri Lanka is to consider genuine reform to prepare our children for the future, then the following points should be considered with the focus on child’s health and well being at its centre. Parental ambitions and competition should not be a factor in any reform process.

The vision would be focused on – “happy childhood leading to valuable and contended citizens with good character. living with dignity

Therefore the key reforms should include:

1. Formal schooling from Grade 1 should not start before the age of 6 years. Play school or preschool should be based on child centered creativity.

2. School students to attend a maximum of 4 (four) hours of school time per day. ( Start at 8.00 or 8.30 and finish at 12.00 or 12.30). In order ensure a healthy future generation (devoid of diabetes caused by such factors such as stress and irregular meal times)a play break of ½ hr and a balanced mid day meal to be made available for all.

3. All competitive examinations up to grade 5 including grade 5 scholarship test to be abolished.

4. O’levels and A’levels should be more assessment based. Child’s education should be focused on character building and preparation for contribution to a prosperous life in Sri Lanka.

5. Tertiary and vocational education must be built for skills acquisition. University education based on research and innovation on science and technology should be emphasized.

6. Children must be allowed and encouraged to spend a minimum of 1 hr play time and 3 hrs of reading, hobbies or experimental awareness on science and environment each day. (Parents should limit TV and internet access to a maximum of 1/2 hr per day for children).

7. All Teachers should undergo training for child centered education and made responsible for each child’s progress.

8. All children should be encouraged to learn two foreign languages such as English, German, French, Chinese or Japanese. Tuition classes should be limited to a maximum of 2 hrs per week for language learning only. Teaching standards of tuition classes monitored and approved.

9. The school curricula would consist of three core subjects – Science, Mathematics and communication (mother tongue and link language English). Optional subjects to include foreign languages, History, Biology and Natural sciences etc.

10. Religious knowledge must be provided by local religious institutions (temples, churches etc on Saturdays or Sundays.)

11. All schools to be provided with good library facilities and children encouraged to read and learn. (Most libraries in local schools are nothing more than locked cupboards filled with old text books)

12. Plan to have a target of 80% of school leavers going into further education or training, with 20% of school children entering University, 30% vocational or tertiary education studies and 30% attending job oriented skills training.

13. Plan to have (1) one prestigious University with 5000 places in each district by 2016. University entry should be based on SAT (Standard aptitude Test) based examinations only.

14. Identify, recruit and train the number of required Teachers, lecturers, instructors and professors to meet the above demands. All new teaching professionals to be proficient in the three languages –Singhalese, Tamil and English)

15. Qualified teaching professionals to have high professional recognition, respect.

16. All schools (National and Private) to follow a new reformed system.

17. Reform progress should be regularly monitored. (OECD could assess pre and post reform results with international standards for comparison.)

18. A study of the Finland’s Education reforms could be undertaken in preparation.

The above maybe considered by some as a tall order. However, if we as a people have the desire to succeed, the faith in our own capabilities and take action, I believe we can achieve it.

Indeed such changes can be achieved through effective communication and serious commitment. However, failure to carry out required reforms will lead to creating an unhealthy future population that our health service would not be able to cope with. The choice is to invest now in proper education or spend later on medication for a sick generation.

We cannot build a future for our youth. So Let us build a youth for a future.

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