By P.K. Balachandran/Sunday Observer
Colombo, June 18: As a result of the free education policy adopted in 1947, Sri Lanka achieved universal primary education in 1964. The adoption of Swabhasha education (in Sinhala and Tamil) also helped bring about universal literacy. However, due to a variety of factors, school education is wanting in several respects.
Though there are centres of excellence, the system as a whole shows infrastructural gaps, inadequate funds, poor teaching quality and misfit of the curricula with present-day needs.
A local daily recently ran a story on the closure of Government schools and the opening of private schools, a trend that ill-fits the Government’s policy of universal free education.
Between 2017 and 2023, 56 Government schools were shut while 34 private schools were opened. The number of students in Government schools fell from 4.12 million in 2015 to 4.02 million in 2022.
During the 2015-2022 period, the number of private schools went up from 103 to 125. The number of students in private institutions went up from 136,228 to 141,500.
The decline of Government schools is a reflection of their diminished importance in Government policymaking circles and also a decline in the acceptance of Government schools among the upwardly mobile sections of Sri Lankan society. Government schools will have to improve to attract students from economically and socially advancing families. In this regard, there may be lessons to be learnt from the Aam Admi Party’s Government in Delhi which has, to some extent, made Government schools acceptable.
The second worrying aspect is the increase in the dropout rate. This is largely due to the current economic crisis. It is particularly visible in the Estate Sector, the poorest in the country.
Himani Vithanage of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) wrote in her blog on November 17, 2022, that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary, and 26 percent of collegiate students in the estate Sector had dropped out. In contrast, the corresponding rates in urban and rural sectors were much lower, reflecting the economic disparity across sectors.
“Around 13 percent of all school dropouts in the estate sector are from primary grades, suggesting that a considerable proportion of dropouts in the region may not even have completed their primary level of education, which is an issue of concern,” Vithanage said.
Many schools in the estates are Type 3 schools with only primary grades, which discourages estate children from advancing to lower secondary grades as they have to enroll in schools far away from the estates and travel is expensive.
For instance, in the Nuwara Eliya district, 50.2 percent of schools are Type 3, which influences many children to drop out after completing their primary education due to the lack of schools with higher grades in the region, Vithanage said.
She found that children from debt-ridden households, low-income households, where the fathers are uneducated and where the mothers live away from home (abroad or outstation), tend to drop out as they need to earn for the family.
The prevalence of child labour is linked to the dropout rate. Around 58 percent of estate sector school dropouts engage in or seek to engage in economic activities.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that followed have dealt a heavy blow to the Government’s plan to eliminate child labour by 2025, which is just two years away. One teacher told the IPS surveyor that there were 56 “O-Level” students in his school, but when the school reopened after the pandemic, only 36 students returned. The remaining 20 students were found to be doing various jobs. The teachers had to go from house to house to meet their parents. But only six students could be coaxed to return. “There were similar cases in grades 6-10 as well,” the teacher added. More boys than girls dropped out, mainly because they were doing various odd jobs to make a living.
Poverty, inequality and Governmental neglect of the estate workers over the decades are also reasons for the poor state of education in the Estate sector. Mano Ganesan, leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), recently highlighted this aspect. “Food insecurity in Sri Lanka is highest in the estate sector at 51 percent, while it is 43 percent in the urban sector and 34 percent in the rural sector. The World Bank has reported that the country’s poverty rate has climbed to 26 percent, but this is at 53 percent in the estates,” he said.
Ganesan had drawn on World Bank (WB) and World Food Program (WFP) statistics. According to Verite Research, the WB estimated that the poverty rate had increased to 25.6 percent in 2022 from 13.1 percent in 2021. Disaggregated estimates put the poverty rate in the estate sector at 53.7 percent.
According to the WFP’s Sri Lanka Food Security Monitoring Face-to-Face Food Security Survey Briefs, there are two categories of food insecurity: 1) moderately food insecure, and 2) severely food insecure. The WFP survey data for August 2022, estimated the level of total food insecurity at 50.6 percent for estates, 43 percent for the urban population and 34.3 percent for the Rural population. The President’s Media Division (PMD) quoted the 2023 WFP survey to say that people in moderate/acute food insecurity showed a 40 percent decrease from June-July 2022. But the Estate Sector still shows food insecurity.
Vithanage suggests the continuation of the school noon meal program by prioritising the highly deprived children in the plantation communities to mitigate poverty and minimise dropping out.
Many estate children who struggle to afford a meal are influenced to engage in economic activities to earn an income. They can be kept in schools by giving them a meal.
A Centre for Poverty Analysis study conducted by Neranjana Gunetilleke, Sanjana Kuruppu and Susrutha Goonasekera entitled “The Estate Workers’ Dilemma: Tensions and Changes in the Tea and Rubber Plantations in Sri Lanka” says that estate workers expressed little or no satisfaction with estate managements. They attributed this to a lack of competence in agriculture and production and poor Human Resource Management (HRM).
There was also “heavy criticism” of the “self-serving nature of the unions and leaders and the lack of true representation.”
Estate workers felt that they had a right to better houses and greater access to land, which are now denied to them. Leaders such as R. Yogarajan have been suggesting that the Estates lease out unused land to the workers for them to do some cultivation including tea. But his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Yogarajan has also been pointing out that Estate managements, while insisting that wages must be linked to productivity norms, do not improve the productivity of the land by replanting periodically. Planters are reluctant to spend money on replanting, Yogarajan said.
Personal factors also contributed to poverty, the CPA study reveals. Group discussions with the workers identified negative personal attributes such as laziness and lack of initiative as causing households to remain in poverty. Alcoholism was seen as a hindering factor, affecting household income and expenditure, obstructing the educational attainment of children, creating familial conflict, and disrupting community life.
The CPA recommends that the plantation economy will have to change radically for the workers to perform better and earn more. The “enclave” system that makes an estate a separate community with the workers totally dependent on the management, should be replaced by a system in which the workers are part of the island’s mainstream economy, working on the basis of a conventional employer/employee relationship.
This would give the workers choices for employment and earning and an ability to negotiate better wages and conditions of work. It will also lead to estate children going to better schools to get a better education.
Although almost every estate family earns money from work not related to the estate, these additional sources of income have not lifted them from poverty. Therefore, the situation calls for an overhaul of the estate system to unleash the full potential of estate workers’ families.