Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during a recent speech focused on the importance of education reform. However, this is massively challenging as the unwieldy sector covers public and private stakeholders as well as millions of students and parents around the country. It is also made more difficult by the fact that education reformers are forever running after a shifting target with rapid technological advances and new global trends eternally shifting the goal posts, usually in an unexpected direction.
In this environment the only thing most people are able to agree on is that Sri Lanka’s education system needs to be revamped but the how is a point of deep contention. Traditionally Sri Lanka’s students have been encouraged to learn by rote and this exceptional emphasis on an exam-based education system has resulted in many students being winnowed out of achieving their full potential.
Education institutions have taken this to such an extent that it is common to see billboards scattered around the country lauding specific students for doing well in one exam or the other. Private education institutions even use this as an advertising ploy to encourage more admissions. Local students get pigeonholed early into test-based education, usually by sitting for the Grade 5 scholarship exam.
Initially introduced to enable promising rural students from periphery schools with fewer resources to gain access to coveted schools in Colombo or other key urban cities, the Grade 5 scholarship has been criticised for pressuring children into exam mode far too early and runs the danger of tagging them as less intelligent. Students are often pushed by social circumstances that bolster the traditional mindsets of parents to consider narrow career options such as doctor, engineer or lawyer and disregard talents or interests that the child might display. Therefore, policymakers have the dual challenge of maintaining access to coveted schools but at the same time release children from the burden of the Grade 5 scholarship exam.
Sri Lanka does not have to look too far to find education systems that have managed this without forcing students to spend their childhood inside tuition classes. Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examination is quite similar to Sri Lanka’s Grade 5 exam but it uses a range of criteria including performance in sports, drama, dance, music and other extracurricular activities to evaluate students. Including sports and artistic talents in evaluating students allows for the education system to produce well-rounded youth who will perform better as citizens and professionals later in life.
This would also better meet the challenges of future jobs that will depend more on creativity, initiative, interpersonal skills and problem-solving capacity than rote learning. In a world where technology will demand reskilling and fast adaptation, teaching is more about equipping students to self-learn, usually throughout their lives. The era when one could depend on a standard education to see them through an entire career is coming to an end.
Singapore takes their policy a step further and releases national examination results without highlighting top scorers. Schools are still allowed to recognise good performers but this is more as a group rather than an individual and teachers are motivated to celebrate the achievements of students who also show noticeable improvement even though they may not have achieved top countrywide rankings. This considerate and practical way of using evaluation to promote capacity is an ideology that Sri Lanka would do well to consider and adopt.