05 January 2012

If schools are to make a difference, we need different kinds of schools

No nation needs all its citizens to hold doctorates.  Indeed, there cannot be a nation where every citizen aspires to have a doctorate.  Doctors earn a lot of money but this does not mean that everyone should or could become one. 

My friend Nilooka Dissanayake, while not exactly defending the confused and inadequate education policies of successive governments, alerted me to the following:

  • Everyone cannot pass O/Ls, even if all the schools have the facilities that Royal, Visakha, Devi Balika, Ananda etc enjoy.
  • Some time ago, there were some 50,000 vocational educational spots but the Government was hard pressed to recruit people (O/L results have not fluctuated significantly from then to now, a few percentage points; less than ten percent anyway).
  • All parents want their children to go to university.  Everyone pretends to want to as well, but some don’t even try (never mind the disadvantaged kids whose parents have no idea how well the kids are doing etc., the schools not being good and teachers useless and untrained)

Nilooka was making a point regarding the dignity of labour and a dire need for attitudinal change:

“The street cleaner in my opinion is more valuable than the mayor on a day to day basis. Otherwise the streets will stink. The Mayor's job anyone can do or delay... as you know. And the poor guy who lifts the loads at the Pettah market, or goes around plucking coconut, in my opinion, ought to be more respected than graduates who cannot hold a job and keep complaining of hard work.”
 
All this is true.  All the more reason for a comprehensive occupational classification and a more enlightened policy pertaining to provision of technical education at all levels, quite apart from changing the way we see ‘labour’ and how labour sees itself.  Nilooka pointed out that notwithstanding all this, ‘the fact that you are from a rural and disadvantaged area should not make you automatically a loser; everyone should have good schools’.

There is no disputing the fact that poverty and education are closely related and that high poverty is associated among other things with low quality human capital.  Just think: what kind of ‘human capital’ will the O/L drop-out have apart from physical strength?  Education is not just about improving chances of finding a job, furthering a career etc., but is an important element of overall empowerment of an individual, community or nation.  As the former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere once put it, ‘education is not a way to escape poverty; it is a way of fighting it’. 

No country can unshackled itself from the multi-pronged fetters of post-colonialism, inherited structures that foster inefficiency, poor governance and undemocratic practices and economic and political subjugation by the powerful if it does not educate its people.  And ‘education’, let us not forget is not coterminous with literacy.  At the most basic level there should be functional literacy and we just don’t have the numbers. 
We don’t need all our children to end up as doctors, but we need all of them to be able to read and write, to add, subtract, divide and multiply, to have basic analytical skills, to have a reasonable awareness of things and processes around them, and to acquire some minimal ability to appreciate things aesthetic.
One doesn’t have to labour the argument that lack of education, restricted access to basic educational facilities etc will result in low literacy, fewer life-skills and other negatives which inhibit the struggle to break through the cycles of poverty.  Poverty clearly blocks a child’s readiness for school through aspects of health, home life, schooling and neighbourhood conditions.  Children from low-income families do not receive the necessary stimulation and encouragement and start off handicapped compared to peers who come from families in higher income brackets.  Thus effective intervention in the sphere of education can unscramble this vicious equation.

The bottom line is that schools make a difference.  Where poor adults suffer from functional illiteracy thanks to poor educational attainment, they cannot help their children develop pre-literacy skills.  These children therefore are ‘poor starters’ and are more likely to dropout before the 5th grade.  They end up like their parents; functionally
illiterate. 

Only 52% have passed the GCE O/L.  This is nothing to be proud of. It is a national shame.  A district-wise or province-wise breakdown and indeed an even more detailed breakdown (i.e. at the Grama Niladhari levels) would clearly indicate regional disparities and help identify the dimensions of the problem. 

Consider this:  14 students sat for the O/L last year from a village school just 12km from Ratnapura town; two passed.  Is anyone complaining?  No. Why not?  Well, it is ‘normal’!  This has been the case in previous years as well. Parents take these results as being ‘ok’.   They don’t realize that their children are getting a passport to poverty or, to but it more bluntly, permanent residency in that unhappy land, a Green Card in fact.  

Sri Lanka has enough ministries of education at the national and regional levels, in addition to numerous organizations devoted to the subject pertaining to various levels of attainment.  No one seems to be bothered about the 12 children in that village school who failed.  Or the thousands of others in similar schools who fail. Every year.  They have to wait another 8 months to sit the exam again, if they so choose.   Some of these 17 year olds will engage in unsafe sex, some will have babies, some will experiment with alcohol or drugs, and some will get on the wrong side of the law.  In banking terms they could be described as non-performing loans or labeled as ‘non-recoverable’.

But they don’t disappear, do they?  Their numbers increase and they are a living indictment on inefficiency, callousness and incompetence.   People are elected to sort such problems out.  It is not just about allowing private parties to start universities.  The problem of education begins a long way before a student or a parent contemplates higher education. 

We are a nation that is struggling to get our children to pass the O/L.  In fact we must collectively hang our heads in shame at the fact that some of our children don’t make it to Grade 5.  We still haven’t sorted out the mess that is called ‘Grade One Admissions’. Maybe this is why parents just run out of steam by the time their children fail the O/L. No one protests about such failures.   The politicians abandon them. 

To the extent that these issues remain unresolved, they feed discontent. They feed poverty and make endemic poverty a seemingly immovable and ghastly feature of our national landscape.   I wouldn’t say that this situation is ideal breeding ground for future terrorists, but it is nevertheless a situation that needs to be arrested.

We are struggling at the wrong knot and at the wrong time.  What we tend to do is to grapple with the outcome when all that needs to be done is to consider the conditions that generate these results and resolve for the same. 

We can shoot the desperate rural youth who has lost all reasons to hope and recognizes that this losing is a structural flaw that could have been corrected.  We could also keep him in school, not on threat of punishment but putting in policies that help provide the basics which in turn encourage students to dig their heels and acquire the fundamentals that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.  We seem to be opting for the first. It might seem easy, but it will cost us.  Heavily.  History bears witness to this ‘truth’.   

It is simple: sort it out at the basic level or watch it grow into a monster that’s too big to handle.


[First published in the Daily Mirror, May 10, 2010]
Reactions:

3 comments:

NoEalamInSL said...

Very interesting post and I felt I must drop a comment for this post. Hope you dont mind for a long comment :)
"No nation needs all its citizens to hold doctorates"
- but a nation with all citizens having a doctorate will be ideal.

"..confused and inadequate education policies of successive governments"
- Recently Minister of Higher Education SB Dissanayake said that "External Degrees are worthless" (link: http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/15856-external-degrees-are-worthless-says-minister-sb-dissanayke.html ). If a degree is worthless then it is not the degree holder to be blamed but blame must go to confused and inadequate education policies and education structure which falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education. Because quality of degree is poor then it is an issue of poor standards and poor quality inspection. Quality of education and standards across entire education including vocational and external universities must properly be maintained. So the demand for passing out students guaranteed.
"Everyone cannot pass O/Ls,"
- rest of the 50% must be given alternative paths: loan facilities for further studies, subsidized vocational training institutes and universities so the fee will be low.

"some 50,000 vocational educational spots but the Government was hard pressed to recruit people"
- upgrade, update and optimize those institutes. Conductmarket oriented training programs- so students get opportunities. get industry involved, link them. Provide training for industry people for periodical appraisal tests or exchange knowledge. Give vocational institutes opportunities to train employees and employers are given tax reduction for employee trainings
"All parents want their children to go to university."
-give every parent/child opportunity to invest in their future by giving facility to invest in education and govt can come up with study financing system or tax reduction.
"a point regarding the dignity of labour and a dire need for attitudinal change"
- people need to change their discriminative attitude towards people. People need to be respected equally despite their rank, position, social status, ethnicity, race etc. When people recognized and respected by each other as human beings despite their background then they feel belonged in society even if they are laborers.
"poverty and education are closely related and that high poverty is associated with low quality human capital."
- when everyone has a education, a job, social security and financial independence the dignity of people is protected.
"Education is not just about improving chances of finding a job, furthering a career etc., but is an important element of overall empowerment of an individual, community or nation."
- people will find jobs when they use and succeed in alternative paths after failing o/l and earn a decent income (govt assure decent minimum salary)
"multi-pronged fetters of post-colonialism, inherited structures that foster inefficiency, poor governance and undemocratic practices and economic and political subjugation by the powerful if it does not educate its people."
-increase (life long) learning opportunities for people.
- Make people aware of their rights and eradicate poor governance
"One doesn’t have to labour the argument that lack of education, restricted access to basic educational facilities"
- ensure enough educational opportunities are available at affordable prices (loans, tax cuts)
"14 students sat for the O/L ..two passed"
- ensure quality of teaching meets national standards. If it does not meet, provide training to teachers and research on alternative teaching methods in particular community. Motivate teachers by incentives in rural teaching

pami said...

having been educated in 2 countries, from personal experience i say it is not the school that needs to change but the preconceived definition of 'education' that everyone is so hung up on - education is not just regurgitating - and we don't all learn in the same manner - so assessment of what we have learnt should not be limited to measuring how well we have memorised the text book - without understanding in most cases

Bloom's Taxonomy [ http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html ], Gardener's multiple intelligence theory [ http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm ] and pathways of training otherwise should change the curriculum structure of every institution starting from primary school - that would be the way to build 'education capital' of the soceity

establish one single curriculum with specific outcomes to be achieved that every school around the country should follow - it will eliminate the need to have different cut off marks in different regions - size of the bank account would not matter with this approach


finally, train the teachers well and get rid of the thugs who are in charge of 'education' in sri lanka

Walter Rajaratne said...

Indeed, there cannot be a nation where every citizen aspires to have a doctorate.

Doctorate, a sanctified title which a majority of holders are brandishing to silence and hoodwink the school dropout politico bandits. Rather, strumming the doctorate when singing for supper. Need no mentioning any particular individual because they are around dime a dozen yet can’t miss a couple like GL/DJ. If in doubt ask Pearl Thevanayagam. In the same token a good number of them with this three letter piece earn the respect and regard in silence while contributing immensely to make the society a better place to live.

You are wrong mate when you mentioned the piece at the top when every tom/dick/harry/Mervin/ Sarvodaya rogue are called Doctor who, even Thotalnaga Martiya is qualified to with his Kassippu den .. ………..