06 January 2012

Education: big issues, small interventions and sticking-plasters

There have been howls of protest about the decision of ban tuition classes on Sundays.  The objections have come from those who claim to be defending general freedoms and religious freedom in particular.  The arguments are pretty simple. For example, it is held that the choice should be up to the parents.  If they prefer to send their children to tuition classes instead of Sunday Schools, that’s their business and the state had better keep its dirty fingers out.  It’s a free-market, others point out. Let the market decide, they say.

As a parent, if I was asked whether I would prefer Sunday mornings to be tuition-free, chess-free, dance-free, theatre-free and anything-else-free just so my children have the option of attending the daham pasala, I would say ‘yes’.  I strongly suspect that the vast majority of parents would vote with me.  That is not a question that will be asked, though.  Survey-makers play politics. They put questions that will not compromise political project. 

I believe, nevertheless, that the Sunday tuition issue is indicative of an issue far more serious than religious freedom and freedom of choice.  In a sense it is an issue about whether or not society and parents are amenable to the idea of inculcating in their children the values that religions teach.  The proposition, however, is patently false and misleading. It is not an either-or matter.  You can have both. Tuition has a purpose and the purpose is not at odds with the desire of parents to bring up their children as good citizens.  They want both, but (may) opt for tuition over Sunday School if there’s a schedule-clash.  This is why certain un-Christian Christian evangelical groups offer ‘free English classes’ on Sundays to children in areas where there are no Christians (Sundays were to be days of rest, one thought).

The problem is easily identified if the following question is asked: ‘why are there tuition classes?’  We all know the answer is, ‘because schools/teachers don’t deliver!’ If schools/teachers delivered, the ‘need’ to ban tuition classes on Sundays would not arise. Indeed, the ‘free market’ would quickly do away with tuition classes altogether.  Of course, we do know that tuition teachers also draw salaries for ‘teaching’ in schools and that the trick is to fudge at the job and draw students into ‘tuitories’.  Makes economic sense.  It won’t if there is proper assessment, hiring and firing, a policy that says deliver-or-buzz-off and the shirkers and unskilled unceremoniously kicked out and the kicking out appropriately publicized.  We haven’t got there yet and that’s part of the problem.  So let’s consider the dimensions of the issue at hand.    

Education Minister Bandula Gunawardane recently promised to hold talks with university professors and educationists about the teachers’ lamentation that national examinations were too advanced for students, especially for those in the A/L classes.  Teachers have pointed out that there is a tendency for students outside the urban areas not to select subjects such as Combined Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Biology. 

The degree of difficulty is clearly a product of under-preparation which comes from lack of quality teachers and related facilities.  It’s simple math, actually.  How many teachers do we have for Combined Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Biology?  Consider also the number of adequately equipped laboratories and libraries.  It is not hard to obtain thereafter the number of functional science streams in the country. There are 260 Divisional Secretary (DS) areas in the country.  Now figure out the number of functional science streams in each DS area and the problem will surface. EQUITY! Well, the lack of it.

Isn’t this what the entire public service transfer scheme is about?  Isn’t it about parents trying to find a school with a functional science stream which, the majority would think, is the pathway to the proverbial greener pasture?  Isn’t this what the Grade I admission rush is about?  Isn’t this what whole drama of faking IDs, birth certificates and residences about?  Isn’t this what the child-mauling scholarship examination is all about, isn’t it?  It is not that all parents are fixated about their children becoming doctors or engineers but they are legitimately keen on doing their best to ensure that their children are not defaulted out of such professions. 

The spoils system, nepotism, favouritism, politicisation, leaking and cheating in examinations, impersonations and all the vices that the education system reeks of largely flows from this single issue of a functional science stream (or lack thereof). 

My friend Mohammed Rila, commenting on something I had written recently on teachers pointed out that few remember the father of free education, C.W.W. Kannangara.  He observes that there are days for fathers and mothers (lovers too, I could add) but none to remember what we owe this man.   Free education is a noble idea.  One can say it is unsustainable, but there are elements in Kannangara’s vision that have stood the test of time and the compromising of which are actually the cause of the problems described above.  I am thinking of the Central Schools System.
Kannangra created ‘central’ schools in all parts of the country. They were boarding schools and equipped with labs and libraries.  There were staffed with teachers so that children would not have to go to Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Jaffna or Kurunegala if they wanted to study in the science streams.  The idea bore fruit.  The tree, however, was not taken care of.  The roots were damaged. The earth poisoned. We are reaping the results as I write. 

It is heartening in this context that the Government has articulated an education policy that takes Kannangara’s system as starting point and seeks enhancement.  The target is to set up 1000 schools that are fully equipped with labs, libraries, gymnasiums and staffed with top quality teachers from Grade 1 to A/L.  I am not sure how much it will cost, but if one takes into account the amount of money that parents spend on buses, tuition classes and boarding houses, an expansion of the Central School system can be paid for in part by the parents themselves.  It is not difficult to apply the principle of differential pricing to make quality education accessible to all.  Another way is to take serious note of what people like Udul Premaratne of the Inter University Student Federation proposes: CUT WASTAGE!  There’s enough money to do all this and more if wastage and corruption are dealt with.  Fat hope, did I hear someone say? 

Perhaps, but this is the 21st Century.  Even inefficient, corrupt and wasteful politicians can do little things to improve matters.   Take something that is ‘small’ but still costs the parents of students preparing for A/Ls millions of rupees: past papers.  What does it cost for the Education Department to post all past papers of all subjects on a website?  Most schools have computers now.  Many do not, but then again there are some 600 state-run cyber-cafes spread throughout the country. These are complemented by thousands of other such internet cafes.  Why should children have to purchase these from third parties?

Why can’t the syllabi for all subjects be made available online?  There are thousands of children who play chess in this country.  Chess books are expensive.  Software is expensive.  And yet, the top players are not literature-starved. They download e-books and relevant software from the internet.  It is not difficult to post tutorials on the internet. It is not difficult to post model answers to questions.  It is not too expensive to establish call centers to answer questions that students pose. 

Close to 50% of all children who enter Grade I fail to make it to the A/L. This is 130,000 children a year.  They are the structurally ignored.  Then there are the 100,000 who fail the A/Ls. The University Grants Commission has proudly announced that this year 22,000 will enter university.  The relevant authorities in the Education Ministry are silent about the 100,000 who qualify but are stopped at the gate with the dismissive ‘No room, sorry!’

Let’s catch these numbers again.  We have 130,000 who fail the O/L.  We have 100,000 who fail the A/L.  We have another 100,000 who qualify to enter university but for whom there is no room.  We have to keep in mind that we are talking of children on whom the state has invested at least 13 years by way of free education, free books, free school uniforms, free meals etc.  That’s colossal. 

The little things have to be done. The big things are said to be getting done.  It might take time, but we need the policy and the implementation.  If not, we are not going to get to aashcharya, we won’t be a ‘Asian Wonder’ or a ‘Miracle of Asia’.  We will remain ‘Sri Lanka: Ok, sort of’.  The tragedy is that we don’t have to be!

The Sunday School Vs Tuition Class is therefore a digression and this too on a peripheral manifestation of a core social problem.  It is not the starting point.  Bandula Gunawardena, Minister of Education and tuition master, can’t be ignorant of the issues.  The policy has been articulated clearly in Mahinda Chinthana – Idiri Dekam.  There’s been enough talk.  Let’s see something solid now.  Yes, the ‘small things’ as well as the ‘big things’.  Let’s keep sticking plaster out for now. 

[First published in the 'Daily Mirror', June 12, 2010]