The Census and Statistics Department has become the latest organisation to document nearly 15,000 children of school-going age are at home because of extreme poverty. Other studies done have put the number at more than double that and have called for wide-ranging policy changes to address the issue.
In Sri Lanka more than 51,000 children in the five to 17 years age group have never attended school, while 452,661 children were not attending school at the time, according to a Child Activity Survey (CAS) – 2016 Report.
Data collected related to children aged five to 17 years were in the areas of schooling, working conditions, child labour, health conditions and living conditions. The CAS revealed that, of the 4,571,442 children in the five to 17 years age group (4.6 % of the total population), 4,118,781 (90.1%) attended school, while the rest 452,661 (9.9%) presently, do not. Of that, 51,249 (1.12%) had never attended school.
As many as 40,394 children in the rural sector had never attended school, of which 2,329 were from the estate sector. Another 10,885 children in the urban sector too, had never attended school. The report stated that 87.07% of the children who had never attended school were in the five to 11 years age group.
Out-of-school children often face deep-rooted structural inequalities and disparities. In Sri Lanka these are most commonly to linked to income poverty, child labour, inadequacies in the supply of schools and teachers, deficiencies in the teaching-learning process, lack of facilities for children with disabilities, conflict and disasters caused by natural hazards, lack of political commitment and politicisation of the system, weak coordination and implementation of programs, problems with monitoring and data collection, and inadequate budget allocations and resource distribution.
UNICEF in a report published in 2013 divided the children out of school into four segments. They found in the first category pre-primary children in the estate sector could be vulnerable for being deprived of school. Even though there has been significant improvement of primary school attendance in the region with numbers matching national averages, there are still pockets of children that don’t attend school.
Primary schoolchildren could be out of class in urban as well as rural areas, in some instances because poorer families find it hard to get admission to schools. Sri Lanka’s complicated school administration system and its inherent corruption also limits opportunities for children who need to enter primary level. UNICEF has estimated that about 1.9% of primary age children are out of school.
Children who are already in school are also not immune to dropping out. Dropout rates are highest for lower-secondary-school-age children, which is about 3.3%. Boys more than girls are working while as students and run the risk of exiting from school. UNICEF estimates that dropout rates can climb to as high as 5.1% for children as they reach 13 years or higher.
By understanding the bigger picture through this systematic analysis, it is hoped that policies and strategies to address the problem of out-of-school children in Sri Lanka can be refined and strengthened to ensure the more equitable targeting of excluded groups of children, both by programs within the education sector and more widely through multi-sectoral social protection measures.