Sri Lanka’s education sector has received a lot of criticism for not keeping up with current demands and emerging global trends, setting Sri Lankan students back as they enter the job market. Although reforms have been introduced from time to time, the education sector has not made much progress.
There were many issues to deal with; curriculum reform, technological upgrading, teacher training, filling vacancies as well as attitudinal changes. Although some of these areas have been targeted from time to time, the reforms have not been carried out holistically so far.
The Sunday Observer spoke to Dr Upali Sedere, Secretary of the Department of State for Education Reforms, Open Universities and Distance Learning, about the latest reforms to be introduced, which he said were comprehensive and considered all aspects of the sector to prepare Sri Lankan students for global challenges. All planned reforms are in line with the President
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has commissioned Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor, and the ministry has identified key areas.
Preschool education is a priority area and the Ministry has developed a preschool policy in consultation with all stakeholders. Until now, Sri Lanka had no pre-school policy.
After approval by the National Education Commission and the Council of Ministers, the ministry prepared the implementation plan for pre-school education with the participation of provincial officials. All documents have now been handed over to the State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Preschool and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and Education Services. The ministry implements several programs in accordance with this strategic framework.
A preschool guide has also been prepared for teachers with the support of the Maharagama National Institute of Education.
The ministry has finalized school profiling to carry out government plans to establish more than 1,000 national schools. On International Women’s Day (8 March), 10 national schools were opened for girls in the nine provinces.
The 373 National Schools in the country are not equitably distributed nor developed in a particular logic. Of the 312 educational divisions, 125 divisions did not have a single national school. The ministry has already opened nine schools in the nine provinces out of the 125 divisions. This month, the ministry will open 16 more national schools in the nine provinces. Under this program, all districts in Sri Lanka will have at least one national school. The other 100 schools will be opened during the current term of the year.
Each national school principal must identify a catchment area from which students are expected to come. In the watersheds, the Ministry has identified other schools operating around the National Schools. Plans are underway to develop this cluster of schools together.
In addition, the Ministry of Sports and the State Ministry of Rural and School Sports Infrastructure Development will provide sports facilities for schools with minimal resources. A total of one thousand schools have been selected for this project. Additionally, the National Scout Council will establish Scouting, while Cadet Clubs and others will be established in all schools. The national schools profile will be all-inclusive and not just focus on academic work.
By 2025, the ministry plans to change the system in which schools are classified into types. The main objective is to establish equity – a good school for every child.
Currently, only 22 percent of children enter good schools in first grade. Once 1,204 schools are established, 60 to 70 percent of children will be able to find good schools. Consolidation for the whole country is nearing completion. The next step is for the ministry to work with provincial councils to form school councils that include two to three groups.
It is the equivalent of the current educational divisions, but they will have a greater role as an academic oversight body ensuring the equal allocation of resources. School boards will be streamlined to provide good A/L education within the school board. Gaps will be identified by boards, for example, by allocating resources to the technology component currently in demand.
Groups of schools will be based on grade level. The grouping for the primary level has already started to cover all primary schools. Junior high schools in grades 6-9 will also be targeted. For national schools, classes 10 – 11 and 12 – 13 will be targeted for national exams.
Eventually, the current school structure will be replaced by primary, junior high and senior high schools. Similarly, educational zones will be formed joining several school boards. The current 100 educational zones will therefore be increased to 120, by distributing resources fairly.
The ministry also needs to fill about 6,000 to 7,000 vacancies for principals, more than 600 vacancies in the Sri Lanka Education Administration Service and other positions.
A digital administrative system will also be put in place soon. Internet facilities will be provided to all schools with the support of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) and the Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA). Last year, 650 national schools received not only the fiber system but also the LAN system. Two hundred and forty three schools have received the learning management system which will also facilitate e-Thaksalawa. By May, the goal is to add 215 more schools with fiber optic connections and LAN systems as well as set up some classrooms with digital facilities. With a new curriculum being implemented in all schools by January 2023, internet facilities will be an essential.
All administrative work will be digitized and teachers will be trained in this regard. The 106 IT Resource Centers in each zone have been upgraded with the latest budget and they are currently being used to train teachers on the blended mode for teaching, moving away from teacher-centered learning.
The education sector aims to shift completely from content-based learning to activity-based learning. It will be converted to a competency-based curriculum, implemented in grades 1-6 and grades 8-10 in 2023 and the rest in 2024.
The first cohort of children under the new program will sit in GCE O/L in August 2024. The whole program is based on modules that an average child can complete in 10 hours of study. It is mostly integrated content where various learning areas such as math and science, vocational skills will be included.
Currently, the Grades 1-6 and Grades 8-10 modules are ready to be piloted in 215 schools, adding another 20 national schools to the curriculum. In January, all modules will be ready. Rating systems will have multiple measures, including support from outside panels. New assessment systems will be in place in each province. The tests will be performance-based rather than written.
With new programs, the ministry has identified the basic need for teacher training and has already launched the program. Teachers from 215 pilot schools will be trained in the mixed mode before May. All teachers will receive initial training before introducing the program in January 2023. The training will be supported by UNICEF and other organizations.
Awareness programs for teachers and school principals are ongoing. Six hundred and fifty directors of national schools received a four-day training at Meepe. Next week, 125 new directors of national schools will be trained. Previously, training was delivered on a cascade system where trainers trained others. The failure of this system has been identified and replaced with direct training using those deeply involved in the development of the program. The assessment of teachers’ skills is also in preparation. The aim is to take teachers out of the conventional approach to education.
Distance learning has received more attention due to the Covid pandemic. The national e-Thaksalawa platform and the “Gurugedara” channel enabled children to learn online. Both have made tremendous progress, although issues regarding missing equipment remain. However, the system covers all levels and has an updated learning management system. “Gurugedara” airs through Rupavahini, ITN and Nethra channels, although this has to be discontinued due to lack of funds.
However, Dialog has provided eight Nenasa channels broadcasting educational programs around the clock. It is configured to provide two additional channels. Dialog has provided connections to 2,000 schools as well as smart TVs. Eventually, all 10,000 schools will get connections from Dialog or whatever service is ready to support. TRC will pay the Treasury to provide free internet access to all schools.
A distance learning guide is already in place and the program plans to address the shortage of teachers.
The ministry also successfully combines vocational education with general education with the support of the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training. A new A/L stream will be created for vocational education. Courses are diversifying while introducing vocational guidance and counseling in all schools. The National Planning Commission will assign about 15,000 teachers and train them in career and vocational guidance and counselling. One teacher will be appointed for every 500 children in this regard and will be launched by 2023.
The ministry also focuses on inclusive education, covering children with special needs with a separate group working on this.