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Transforming education in Sri Lanka

Sep 26, 2011 2:30:53 PM - www.ft.lk

By Cheranka Mendis
Sri Lanka’s general education system needs to up their game before long if the country is to achieve the status of knowledge hub in the economic development plans to be laid out by the Government by 2015.
The system, which runs on low investment and infrastructure, questionable quality teaching and varied issues raised by parents on how the education system will support the transforming economy of the country, coverage of ‘soft skills’ and importance of bilingual studies, must get its issues sorted out and muster the cooperation of the public in order to reap benefits of the development as well as to support it.

The country’s investment towards the sector must increase from its current position of 1.9% of the GDP which amounts to 7.3% of the Government budget to reach at least the average rate of 4.6% as a middle income country. The low public investment, especially relative to other countries hurts society, more so in the long run when the demand for skilled workers would expand world over and the country would be looking for capable man power for development.
“Education is at the heart of transformation. It plays an important role in shaping a country’s social, cultural and economical development,” Education Specialist Dr. Harsha Aturupane said.
Speaking at a discussion on education organised by World Bank, Aturupane stated that with the composition of the economy changing from an agri based to a more commercial and industrial base, Sri Lanka has a wide array of demand side policies to attract and supply side policies to attend to, to enable participation in the education system.
Sri Lanka known in development policy circles as a country with good education attainment levels in basic indicators such as primary school enrolment and completion and adult literacy performs well, but not exceptionally so, and not to the higher calibre as Sri Lanka used to be before.
Parental concern
Aturupane listed out key issues raised by parents on the sector. “How can education play a role in Sri Lanka’s transformation process, and does the current education system encourage creativity and innovation which is a key need in the labour market are some of the main concerns,” he said.
Parents have also gone onto question whether the current level of investment is sufficient for the development of the industry. “They are also talking about the shortage of high quality teachers and the solution to rectify the matter along with the need for bilingual education.”
Investment
Riding low on investment, particularly from the state sector, the country must explore ways and means of moving ahead, he said. With a total of 9,714 schools (as listed in the 2007 statistics) with some 3,836,514 students, it is reported that about 1,700 schools (18% of all schools) do not have basic facilities such as drinking water whereas another 1,200 (12% of the entire network) does not have proper sanitation facilities. Most schools do not have adequate equipment for technology which is fast becoming a‘must have’ learning.
The publication quotes that middle income countries with economies more advanced than Sri Lanka in East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe invest considerably more in education. And for students to acquire the skills and competencies needed for modern knowledge intensive economic process, the country must start investing in larger numbers than at present.
“The Government need to over time increase public investment in education.” Facilitating PPP in education and balancing the allocation of resources between high-order asset spaces and processes and basic learning needs must be looked into.
Transformations
“With the country developing, it is vital to remember that more groups of people will migrate into the country as opposed to more emigrating as was the usual case.” Aturupane stated that more from low income countries will come in to reap benefits from the now developing middle income Sri Lanka.
“There will be a demographic transformation by the year 2020-2050. People from poorer countries will come in and there will be more demand for labour,” he said.
On another level, the human capital skills required for development are undergoing a worldwide change from the routine manual tasks to routine cognitive tasks. With complex automation and technology intensive machines available in large scale the need for what is defined as ‘soft skills’ are now on top of the ‘wanted’ list for employers.
Habits of discipline, creativity, good communication, collaboration in teams, problem solving, decision making and punctuality are sought after more so than paper qualifications, Aturupane said.  
Key dimensions
With that in place, the country must focus on five key dimensions in human capital, Aturupane stressed. The need to increase learning of the English language must take precedence.
“English is the principal language in the global knowledge economy. This must be enhanced further so that in the future, the generations will be able to communicate and develop faster.”
The publication, which acted as the main factor behind the discussion, outlines several strategic policy initiatives that can assist the Government to develop and improve the teaching and learning of the language. A multi-pronged strategy, containing a variety of initiatives and covering the school environment, curriculum related activities, and co-curricular activities would be optimal, it says.
A recent innovation, bilingual education is becoming a necessity almost, especially when thinking ahead. Under the bilingual policy students are offered the option of learning some subjects in English from Grade 6-13. The objective of the policy is to improve economic opportunities of students when they complete their education. The importance is increasing as Sri Lanka prepares for a demographic transformation in the long run. It is stated that over 55,000 students from 601 schools are participating in the programme.
High quality science and mathematic education is essential for everyday life and work place in the modern market. Aturupane stated that importance to math is given only after O/L, at the science stream A/L classes. “But it is important, the numbers are important. It is important for the economy, especially as economist and development analysts.”
A multiethnic group society will be created in the future and more integration in all levels must be explored. School based management processes and programmes for school improvement and school health and nutritional programmes must be conducted as well, he said.
Pix by Upul Abayasekara

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