Education system under fire

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa and Tharumalee Silva

The education system in Sri Lanka has come under fire following the Easter Sunday terror attacks.

In Sri Lanka, most schools give priority to a particular religion and this system, now more than ever, is seen for only promoting divisions among religious communities.

Academics are of the view that children should be provided with a comprehensive understanding of different religions and non-religious world views and ethical systems, should be taught how to navigate the real world – which is diverse – and how to identify and be careful of extremist views of any kind.

Religious extremism can be a dangerous thing, no matter which way it is pointing, they claimed.

In Sri Lanka, religion and education have long had a close relationship and apart from their roles in creating educational infrastructure, religious groups were foundational in fostering societal attitudes toward education.

However, some academics alleged that the current education system has given birth to generations of intolerance and hatred, while claiming that the education system is outdated and should be reformed to make sure that the system would promote co-existence among each and every religion in the country.

Soon after the Easter Sunday attacks, attention was drawn to educational centres, schools, and universities established or to be established in the country.

Addressing the all-party conference chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena recently, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said there were certain Arabic and Madrasa schools that teach extremism in Sri Lanka. She further stated that she personally knows such institutes. “It is the responsibility of the Education Ministry to make inquiries into these educational institutes,” she added.

Meanwhile, an online petition has called for the Government to halt the construction of a Sharia University in the Eastern Province, being constructed with the funds from Saudi Arabia. The petition says the largest Islamic university in South Asia is being constructed at Punani, Batticaloa to promote Islamic religious ideology, based on the popularity of Sharia Law.

Tolerance and co-existence

University of Colombo Former Vice Chancellor Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama told The Sunday Morning that the schools based on religion should continue to exist, while adhering to the law which makes it mandatory to admit a percentage of students who don’t belong to the religion which the school is based on.

“There are certain schools in Colombo and outstation which do not admit students of all religions and races. We should not completely ban schools based on religion. However, we must develop skills of tolerance and co-existence,” she added.

Prof. Hirimburegama also noted that the schools should be divided according to the language the students wish to learn in – be it Sinhala, Tamil, or English.

Asked whether the present issues of extremism and religious intolerance resulted from the current education system, she said: “I do not believe our current education system has given birth to extremism or religious intolerance, because all schools should admit a mandatory percentage of students who do not belong to the religion which the school is based on.”

Giving his views on the issue, Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa said: “Even though it’s been nearly 70 years since Sri Lanka gained independence, almost every 10 years, there have been revolutions based on either race or religion taking place in the country.” According to Prof. Piyadasa, most of these revolutions were politically motivated.

Elaborating that the education system of the country should be freed from political interferences and influences, Prof. Piyadasa said: “It is the prime objective of all citizens to set up a country where nationalism was rooted as opposed to racism; where the people who are Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, and Burgher could live together in harmony.”

He also highlighted the importance of stepping away from colonial ideologies which glorified sexism and bigotry since the colonisers who introduced the system have since then moved on from such systems.
Monitoring private schools
Speaking about private schools, Prof. Piyadasa stressed that the private schools had now been established by private organisations under the Companies Act. Therefore, most of these schools had no standards as they were not monitored by the Education Ministry. Such schools have become the breeding sites of racism and extremism.
“Unless we change our entire education system and introduce a new curriculum where all schools in Sri Lanka are monitored and accounted for by the Ministry of Education, we may be unfortunate witnesses of things much worse than extremism,” he added.
Ceylon Teacher’s Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin said: “We must completely change our education system and the recent events should be an eye opener for the Government.”
“The curriculum which was introduced by Sri Lanka’s first Education Minister C.W.W. Kannangara did not include teaching religion as a subject in schools. Back then, religion was only taught in their respective Dhamma schools. However, this was changed when politicians introduced the system of learning religion in schools purely for political gain. They promoted schools which were based on religion purely for political gain,” Stalin added.
He also highlighted the importance of not creating a void between female and male students by having gender-based education institutions which again instil intolerance and sexist ideas in students. It has almost become a trend to establish private schools based on religion and race where they prefer to admit students who belong to a certain religion or race.
Ceylon Teacher’s Services Union (CTSU) General Secretary Mahinda Jayasinghe said: “Racially and religiously divided schools should not exist within Sri Lanka. A school is an institution which provides basic education. It should not be confused as a place where nationalism should be inculcated.”
He noted: “Pontificating nationalism is of no use. Executing nationalism has merely been limited to words in this country. Somehow, religion and race have become a factor of consideration when admitting children to school and obviously this has contributed to a national crisis.”
“The System produces adolescents who are intolerant of other religions and races by obstructing coalesce. We can solve this issue by introducing mixed schools where children are admitted irrespective of gender, race, or religion,” he stressed.
Jayasinghe also noted: “The Government should take immediate steps to re-introduce and update the current education system which has failed to fulfil its purpose of forming good citizens to the society, then further modify resources and create a standard of education within the island, and take all private and international schools under its wing and introduce one standard curriculum.”