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Solving the STEM problem


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The Budget 2019 proposal to retrain Arts graduates into different Science and Technology streams by bearing the cost during their retraining period is a positive step by the Government. But resolving the overdependence on the Arts stream requires policies that run deeper. 

The majority of unemployed graduates in Sri Lanka are from the Arts stream. Among the reasons for this is the fact that Arts absorbs more students both at both Advanced Level and university, with few deviating away from it to gain skills that would improve their employability.   

According to research carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2017, the lack of qualified and experienced teachers is particularly prevalent in the areas of Science and Mathematics. Though Sri Lanka has a surplus of teachers at the national level, IPS points out in its findings that there is a dearth in qualified and experienced teachers at both the national and sub national levels, especially for the subjects of Mathematics, Science and English (in that order), in schools across the country.

Considering the Government is focused on improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education at the university level, it goes without saying that schoolchildren, particularly at the all-important O/L juncture, ought to receive a sound foundation in these field-relevant subjects if those students are to pursue higher studies in the STEM fields. 

The IPS has correctly called for urgent attention on improving Science and Mathematics education at the school level with this goal in mind. Any education reforms that may be on the cards then must prioritise advanced teacher training, particularly for these highly-technical subjects, if the Government is serious about its goal of improving STEM education at the tertiary level.

The study also revealed that in 2015, 45% of students who sat for the O/Ls failed or only conditionally passed the exam due to failing Mathematics. This is especially alarming given that passing O/Ls remains a prerequisite for most further education courses currently available in Sri Lanka, including the GCE Advanced Level.

Tertiary level teacher training in Sri Lanka, experts point out, does not cater to the needs of the country’s education system, what with only two out of the 17 State universities housing Faculties of Education and only three with their own Departments of Education. This is an area the Ministry of Education needs to look into when formulating plans for reform. Another problem that has plagued the public school system for decades is the disparity between ‘big’ schools and ‘small’ schools. Unsurprisingly, the study has shown that the lack of qualified teachers is particularly prevalent in the latter. The number of teachers in privileged schools, according to IPS, exceeds the number of recommended teachers, while underprivileged and low-achieving schools did not have enough teachers, leading to an inequitable allocation of teachers. O/L performance is significantly lower in schools that don’t offer Science subjects for the Advanced Level and schools that terminate at Grade 5 or Grade 8.

There is also a large shortage of qualified teachers (both novice and experienced) for Mathematics and Science that is apparent in all provincial schools. According to IPS, shortages of English teachers exist in the Northern, Eastern, North Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Without fixing these teacher disparities, encouraging more students to do STEM will be an uphill battle.


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