Sri Lanka, an island with an average economic growth of 5 – 6% GDP, and a per capita income of US$ 1030 has handsome figures for human development. It is noteworthy that a life expectancy of 72 years, adult literacy of 92.5%, under five mortality of 15/1000, maternal mortality of 92/100,000, Primary Net Enrollment of 95% and primary retention of 97.6% (EFA Development Index 0.956), and zero gender disparity in primary, secondary and tertiary education, all contributed towards Sri Lanka’s rank of 93 in the Human Development Index. This places Sri Lanka in the medium human development category with the HDI of 0.751 for 2005.
In the case of the Gender Parity Index, GPI 0.995 for primary, Sri Lanka leads all the SAARC Nations and is out-performed by five East Asian Nations. In the case of Primary Net Enrolment, Sri Lanka leads all the SAARC Nations and is similarly out - performed by Five East Asian nations.
For a low income country having a budgetary allocation for education of a mere 3% of GDP (8-9% of total budgetary expenditure), Sri Lanka indeed has some notable achievements.
However, even with 95% primary enrolment across the nation, wide disparities exist between regions, provinces and districts. For example in the most wealthy district of the country, Colombo, located in the Western Province that has nearly half of the country’s GDP, 6-10% of six year olds are not enrolled in primary class rooms. These pockets of non-enrolment are found predominantly in the slum areas of Colombo, some of which are located in the heart of the metropolis. In the Jaffna district of the Northern Province, the non-enrolment is significantly high. In the deep south, about 8% of six year olds are out of school in Galle and Matara Districts while the figures for the hill country particularly in Nuwara Eliya District is about 15% and in the Putlam District of the coastal belt, non-enrolment is 11%.
The reasons for poor enrolment and the reasons for poor retention in primary class rooms vary. They vary from area to area, community to community, and the variations are also seasonal.
Out of the general reasons for non enrolment poverty stands out among the rest. Poor incomes, unemployment and under employment especially in the rural villages prevent parents from sending children to school. Despite free uniform material, free textbooks and sometimes free mid-day meals, poor income households have less children enrolling and completing primary school.
Access to school particularly in harsh and rural settings with poor infrastructure, lack of roads, make the daily trek to and from schools a treacherous one. We see this most conspicuously in the hill-country particularly in the estate sector, in the barren out-back of the deep south and in the north eastern parts of the country where the climate is rough and the environment is mostly unfriendly.
Lack of teachers, increased teacher absenteeism primarily for the reasons mentioned earlier, contribute to the poor retention rates.
The next reason that stands out is that schools have become less joyful places to go to, learn and study for 6 to 7 hours a day. Some basic amenities like water for drinking, sanitation and electricity are hard to find in these areas. School buildings are unattractive, ill equipped and in the conflict zone of Sri Lanka they resemble ruined cities. Correlations have been done between poor primary school enrolment and the economic profile of some areas of the country and inadequate infrastructure in and out of school stands out as a clear reason for children not wishing to remain in school.
Constant insecurity can be cited as the next most important issue connected to poor school enrolment. In the North East parts of Sri Lanka ( the areas that have been war ravaged in the past and those coping with a fragile peace process now), 278,000 primary school children are found in eight districts. Schools in these areas have rarely had continuous sessions with the constant fear of conflict, threats from terrorism leading to a great degree of insecurity and reluctance on the part of parents to enroll and retain children in school.
The spill-over of the conflict to the “border” villages, those that are constantly under threat, particularly within the districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa suffer the same fate.
A phenomenon peculiar to the coastal belt of the country where fishing families migrate from time to time during different phases of the year, has also led to children not continuously attending the same school during a particular academic year.
The same phenomenon has been observed with farming populations where elder siblings are used on the farms during harvest season or as “nannies” for the babies in the household while the parents are on the field.
Successive governments of Sri Lanka have used series of initiatives to address these issues.
The most significant of these has been the enactment of special legislation i.e. the Compulsory Education Act. This was introduced in 1998 with a package of new programs under the Education Reforms of the then Government.
Village level, district level and provincial level Committees were established to ensure successful implementation of the Compulsory Education Act. Public awareness campaigns were launched and house to house advocacy was introduced to improve school attendance. A great service was also done by several UN Agencies notably UNICEF, the GTZ and other NGOs and a variety of civil society organizations. The non-formal Education programs led by the Ministry of Education Non-formal Education Unit spearheaded many initiative programs through special literacy centers established in vulnerable pockets of the country, and through specially designed programs to address non -enrolment of street children.
In addition to the Compulsory Education Act the Education Reforms of 1998 also led efforts to improve facilities in rural schools through the Navodya School, Project where at least 1 school of excellence was to be set up in every Administrative Division of the country. Through the Primary Education Reforms, the aim was to modernize class rooms giving them a child friendly environment in keeping with the new competency-based, child-centered, activity-oriented curriculum. In addition, increased funds were pumped into rural schools for provision of basic infrastructure development, Computer/IT Labs, Multi-Media Centers, Libraries, Science Labs and Reading Rooms.
Special incentives, financial and other, were introduced to attract teachers to difficult and very difficult areas of the country to address the lack of teachers and increased teacher absenteeism. Better teacher deployment and transfer methods were also introduced periodically. Mid-day meals were provided to primary children in about half the primary schools in the country.
As a centrally operated facility a special EFA/MDG Monitoring Unit at the Ministry of Education was established so that the Government’s special effort to speedily reach the MDG/EFA targets would be closely monitored and supervised. Special attention to reach 100% primary enrolment, to substantially improve the quality of education in the primary and secondary schools, to ensure that zero gender disparity remains and to enhance the use of technology, including ICTs to implement Education Reforms, was a strong focus of the Government.
Achieving what Sri Lanka has achieved in reaching the MDG targets is creditable considering that using technology, ICTs and modernized infrastructure have been minimal in the process.
What can Sri Lanka do further to accelerate progress?
Paying special attention to using ICTs such as village level computer/IT terminals to train teachers, through the distance mode, educating principals and parents on using ICT for education, and expanding the existing network of village level IT kiosks should be emphasized. Using school based Computer Learning Centers after school hours by the community and charging nominal user fees, will enable school leavers and other young people to get familiar with ICT based programmes. They will also get the opportunity of accessing the rest of world through the internet. Expanding the out reach of education through radio and television, using satellite connections and mobile phones for distance teaching and a wider usage of solar power as an energy source, will help us in achieving our targets faster. It is encouraging that more recently ICTs are being used for overall education finance management such as through Public Expenditure Tracking Systems and Financial Management Information Systems.
In addition to empowering and motivating school Heads to reach 100% primary enrolment by giving authority and autonomy for using flexible time tables (which can accommodate migratory families’ and farming families’ children) they must be encouraged to use their creative thinking and innovation to retain children in the primary and secondary schools. Principals together with parents must build community partnerships and such schools having shown successful enrolment could be rewarded adequately.
At the level of Government, it must be realized that the State alone can never reach the full potential of qualitative education development. Leadership should be provided to invite and involve non-governmental organizations and civil societies to work alongside the State Sector to achieve UPE. The commitment for corporate social responsibility of the private sector should be harnessed to make them an important stake holder in this exercise.
When historians look back at Sri Lanka’s performance in human development, notably that of education, they will view these years as a turning point – a cross road where much needs to be done for reviving up the pace considerably, for not just achievement of the EFA and MDG targets, but mostly for substantially improving the quality of education to suit the globalized world. Harnessing resources locally and internationally, maximizing the usage of ICTs, accessing global markets and truly internationalizing education will un-doubtedly spur the economic growth and help us break the cycle of poverty we are in now.
Sources of Statistical Information
EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2005 UNESCO
Human Development Report, 2005 – UNDP
The State of The World’s Children, 2005 – UNICEF
EFA & MDG Monitoring Unit, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka
Annual Report, 2004 – Central Bank of Sri Lanka