UNLOCKED Blog 1: 4 Lesser Known Stats about Sri Lanka’s System of Education

10 Feb 2015

Often, when we are questioned about the standard of Sri Lanka’s system of education, we pride ourselves in citing the island’s impressive literacy rate, which stands close to 92%. The numbers are even higher among the 15-24 age cohort, where the figure stands at 98%. This is a remarkable achievement and is particularly conspicuous when compared with where some of the island’s neighbors stand (Afghanistan 32%, Bangladesh 59%, Nepal 57%).

Adult Literacy Rate is the percentage of the population, aged 15 & above who can, with understanding, read & write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.

But the sense that something is clearly wrong in Sri Lankan education is also spreading. Is the literacy rate a reasonable measure of a country’s system of education? Does Sri Lanka’s adult literacy rate reflect the reality of the standards of education in Sri Lanka?

Here are 4 lesser known, yet extremely critical, statistics furnished in the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report 2014 on ‘Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future’ (NHDR) about structural inequalities that are plaguing the Sri Lankan education system.

1) Only 3% of all schools are ‘National Schools’

97% of all state schools in Sri Lanka (there are 9,905 of them) are administered by provincial councils. The remaining 3% are ‘national schools’ administered by the central government. It is a fact that, while there may be a handful of exceptions, ‘national schools’ have the most qualified teachers and administrators, the best equipped laboratories, libraries and computer labs, swimming pools and gymnasia (the list goes on).

This display of favoritism to a select few schools is not only unfair, but also diabolical as, for many a student, education is their only shot at living a comfortable life and social mobility.

Furthermore, some analysts have pointed out that the Ministry of Education invests a substantial portion of its funds and resources on administering these ‘National Schools’— time and resources it could otherwise be spending on improving the general standards of education in Sri Lanka.

2) Only 1.72% of the GDP was invested on education from 2005 until 2014

Even though government spending on education has been increasing as a figure, it has kept decreasing as a percentage of Sri Lankan GDP. Investing in education is investing in our future. A smarter Sri Lanka is a brighter Sri Lanka. We are simply not investing enough. In fact, this was one of the recommendations in the Colombo Declaration on Youth, which came out of the World Conference on Youth as well.

The current government has promised to increase spending on education ‘gradually to a more desirable level in order to reach the expected 6% of GDP’. However, the total budgetary allocation still remains under 2% of the GDP. While the commitment made by the new government is welcome, it is also important that students, teachers & the public hold our policymakers accountable to their word.

3) Only 8% of schools offer A/L in all streams

The NHDR reveals that 92% of schools in Sri Lanka either don’t have classes up to Advanced Levels or only offer Arts and Commerce streams for A/Ls.

This is why thousands of students have been left with no alternative but to pursue Arts subjects for Advanced Levels, not because they genuinely want to study subjects offered in the Arts stream, but because schools in their neighborhoods only offer the Arts stream for A/Ls.  Predictably, 41% of all graduates are Arts graduates. Thus, inevitably, a large portion of unemployed graduates are from the Arts stream.  

It is clear that we have an unfair hierarchy in our system of education, where the Arts and the Humanities are often placed right at the very bottom, both in terms of prestige and employability. Every child should study what he or she really wants to study & every child should have a shot at living his/her dream and an opportunity to live a comfortable life doing what they love.

4) Less than 4% of youth are in University

Only 2% of respondents to the National Youth Survey 2013 (NYS) reported being engaged in higher education. Even according to national data that is available, less than 4% of 20-24 year olds are enrolled in a university. This low enrolment rate is due to the limited capacity of the state university system, where only 17% of those who qualify for university education get admission to state universities.

This has made Advanced Levels the be-all and end-all, and your A/L results the litmus test for your future. However, as Danny Dorling once said ‘the more exam-obsessed we become, the less qualifications show about what a person is truly able to do: they show only that, at a particular point in the past, they were found to have been successfully taught to do well at a particular test awarded by a particular institution’. With all the odds that are stacked against us, our examinations are designed to make us fail.

While Sri Lanka has been rightly recognized globally for its achievements in ensuring access to education, it is clear that Sri Lanka’s education system is facing challenges in adapting to vast transformations taking place around the world and here at home.

We live in a highly unequal world. One where those at the top will use all the skills and advantages they have to remain there. Education should act as a leveler in an unequal society, and not further reinforce existing disparities. However, the structural disparities inbuilt in our education system only perpetuate inequality, divergences in wealth and abject poverty, robbing kids of what is perhaps their only opportunity for social mobility.

A greater budgetary allocation for education alone is insufficient unless coupled with the necessary reforms and equal distribution. It is, however, a much needed start.


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