Interviews

Can’t afford to ‘limit’ school education once again: Dr. Tara de Mel

  • Online education a huge luxury for average school student
  • Govt. must not hold national examinations until 2023
  • Not the right time for conventional education reforms
  • Teachers are suffering as much as students
  • Learning losses haven’t been diagnosed or remedied
  • Sri Lanka must creatively ‘make’ jobs for young people

By Marianne David

 

With schools once again operating in ‘limited’ capacity and the ongoing fuel and food crises compounding Sri Lanka’s woes, the country’s students are being dealt blow upon blow, with no break in sight. Education authorities meanwhile seem to be flailing about, resorting to stopgap measures, yet to take the lessons of the Covid lockdown experience and plan a path to ensure Sri Lanka’s students are not left behind.

“I am alarmed that yet again school activities will be ‘limited’. After all, we’re just emerging from pandemic-led school closures since March 2020,” said Education Forum Sri Lanka Co-Founder and former Secretary to the Ministry of Education Dr. Tara de Mel, in an interview with The Sunday Morning, pointing out that during the Covid lockdowns, local schools had been closed for about 19-20 months.

Sri Lanka was one of the last countries in the world to reopen schools. No sooner they were reopened, local schools were closed once again in early 2022 due to the GCE Advanced Levels, and they are now operating in ‘limited’ capacity due to the ongoing crises. “Students would have had massive learning losses due to repeated closures. I really don’t think we can afford to ‘limit’ school education and co-curricular activities once again – even for a few days,” asserted Dr. de Mel.

While online education is being touted as the answer to the country’s education problems, the fact remains that even at the height of the pandemic, less than 40% of Sri Lankan students had access to high speed internet, and even less had access to good quality personal devices. “Let’s accept with humility that online education while at home is a huge luxury for the average school student in this country. Until and unless the Government enables families with school-age children to have access to internet-based education, online education will remain the privilege of a few,” pointed out Dr. de Mel.

In the course of the interview, Dr. de Mel also spoke on falling student attendance, discouraged the holding of national examinations amid the ongoing crisis, and decried the proposed education reforms, asserting that it was important to first remedy learning losses and fill academic gaps experienced during the pandemic.

“The pandemic exposed our digital divide, but let’s be thankful for that exposé and let’s speedily course-correct at least now,” she asserted, adding that the Government should convene an international Education Recovery Assistance Conference and ask for help from the international community with a systematic approach and thorough plan in hand.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

 

Speaking at a media briefing last Sunday (19), Education Minister Susil Premajayantha said school activities would be limited due to the prevailing fuel crisis and the school vacation would be reduced to cover lost school days. This is only a stopgap measure, given the worsening conditions in Sri Lanka and increasing shortages of essentials. How do you view this approach and what do you recommend?

I am alarmed that yet again school activities (academic and other) will be ‘limited’. After all, we’re just emerging from pandemic-led school closures since March 2020, where schools were closed for about 19-20 months. Sri Lanka was one of the last countries to reopen schools, globally. Then in early 2022 schools were closed again for one month, due to the GCE Advanced Levels. 

Students would have had massive learning losses due to repeated closures. If these learning losses have been quantified by the Ministry, they should be published, because other countries based their academic recovery plans and strategies for closing learning-gaps, on scientifically calculated learning losses. Considering all of this, I really don’t think we can afford to ‘limit’ school education and co-curricular activities once again – even for a few days. 

The Minister also urged that lessons be carried out online. In the backdrop of the near-total failure of online education during the height of the pandemic over the last two years, with many students being left behind, is this nothing more than an eyewash? Children are going without food, how will poor families be able to access online education? What are the feasible options to ensure continued education in person or online?

Even at the height of the pandemic, when several medium/low-income countries in the global South were conducting lessons online, less than 40% of Sri Lankan students had access to high speed internet, and even less had access to good quality personal devices. We have seen images of students scaling rooftops and trees to access a ‘signal’. Often using their parents’ feature phones, they accessed notes on WhatsApp or Viber. Actual face-to-face online learning was very scarce. And we now have power cuts! 

Let’s accept with humility that online education while at home is a huge luxury for the average school student in this country. Until and unless the Government enables families with school-age children to have access to internet-based education (either through fibre-optic connectivity or through methods like low-cost data packages, and suitable devices at affordable prices), online education will remain the privilege of a few. 

It will be useful for the Government to conduct a survey of a sample of students from all 99 education zones, to assess what percentage of students used online learning, face-to-face, while at home during the past two years. 

Schools in Sri Lanka are noticing a decrease in the attendance of students, particularly in schools located in areas that are severely impacted by the economic crisis. One of the main reasons attributed to this attendance decline is lack of availability of food, not just a lack of transport. What action is the State taking in this regard and is it sufficient?

Yes, student attendance in schools began to fall a few months ago when the economic crisis manifested in full. It came back-to-back with the education crisis due to the pandemic. The problem, first of all, is that no one in authority was prepared to accept that we had a crisis in education since March 2020, and that student learning was suffering together with significant mental health issues due to lockdowns, isolation, and anxiety. Some students had many emotional upheavals and they simply couldn’t cope. 

What’s unfortunate is that, despite all these crises, national examinations were scheduled and rescheduled. Uncertainty prevails on academic learning and students’ future. Today all of this is compounded by lack of food, lack of electricity, lack of school meals, challenges of transportation, and everything else! 

If the Government can take a firm decision to not have national examinations until 2023 and encourage and incentivise teachers to use simple diagnostic tests (through formative testing in class), which will give them some indication on learning losses, teachers themselves can arrange catch-up learning appropriately. Promotion of students into higher grades can be made on these. 

While the Government keeps talking about online teaching like it’s the answer to all education-related problems, teachers have labelled it a failure. They have also urged education reforms if online education is to have some level of success. What are the immediate education reforms that this country needs to implement to ensure the system does not completely fail students?

I personally don’t feel this is the right time to introduce conventional education reforms. We are struggling to grapple with the issues mentioned earlier and teachers are suffering as much as students. 

Learning losses haven’t been diagnosed or remedied. Academic gaps experienced during Covid haven’t been filled. Education delivery during the pandemic is described as the worst pedagogical nightmare. That needs to be addressed first. So how can we introduce brand new education reforms in this environment?

You recently stated that, despite your extensive experience in the education sector, you had never seen this kind of crisis before. How will this ongoing crisis, which is at catastrophic levels, affect the future generation, especially given the impact that inadequate nutrition has on school children?

Yes, I have had experience in working in this sector during the war and during the tsunami. Even then, schools affected by those serious and life-threatening challenges didn’t suffer as much as they are suffering now.

School closures were patchy and short-lived, access to food was not a major issue, and teacher training and teacher welfare were top priority in our minds. We ensured that funding for education was never compromised. I think this is because we had placed education at the centre of the national development agenda and we worked tirelessly to prevent it from falling through the cracks. 

If power cuts and fuel shortages worsen, what is the contingency plan for education? Does Sri Lanka have an education emergency preparedness plan? Have the authorities learnt anything from the Covid experience? 

Sri Lanka does not have an education emergency plan, to my understanding. Countries like Singapore had such plans which they swiftly rolled out in March 2020. This is what we should have done. For starters, enable all students (rural, urban, rich, poor, all) to access education online, from home. This means that connectivity and devices must be made available to all families. 

In the Budget 2022 I think about Rs. 12 billion was allocated for fibre optic connectivity in schools. That’s yet to happen. But what’s needed speedily is for school-age children to have facilities for online learning from home. 

Technology became a driver of education in most countries globally when emerging from the pandemic. Digital learning and other tech-based innovations created sector-wide change and helped in rapid recovery. Many low-income countries sought help from UN agencies and other development partners and they prepared plans and managed to secure assistance. 

Yes, the pandemic exposed our digital divide, but let’s be thankful for that exposé and let’s speedily course-correct at least now. 

In my opinion, the Government should convene an international Education Recovery Assistance Conference, just like the Financial Aid Consortium that the PM is planning to convene, I think. 

If that happens, Sri Lanka must be well-prepared on all fronts to accurately and unashamedly lay out our problems before the international community and ask for help with a systematic approach and thorough plan in hand.

Given the ongoing crises, do you believe that the school syllabi should be changed? What are the subjects we need to prioritise and how should curricula change to keep up? What are the steps that need to be implemented starting now in order to ensure we do not fail children?

At this moment in time, let’s first understand our setbacks and address those. Ensure that kids get to school, arrange creative methods for regular transportation using van-pooling, bus-pooling, and similar methods for urban and semi-urban children. Rural and village students often walk to school. Provide nutritious school meals. The Ministry should invite well-wishers, community-based organisations, NGOs, and developmental partners to help with mid-day meal programmes. 

Start looking at problems of teachers, and assist teachers to overcome these multiple crises. They are suffering as much as children.

After a few months when/if things settle, let’s then introduce the new reforms that are supposedly being prepared. But I urge the authorities to publish those reforms on Ministry and NIE websites and engage multiple stakeholders in rigorous analysis and discussion, prior to rolling them out. 

Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara in a meeting with students at a Japanese language training centre on Tuesday (21) urged the youth to go overseas for employment. The President also recently spoke of seizing foreign employment opportunities by producing skilled workers. How can we do this when we can barely provide a basic education?

Yes, I read that news item with much disappointment! Here we are experiencing an exodus of young people – skilled and unskilled – leaving our shores for ‘greener pastures’. With Covid-led learning losses amongst school children, soon we’ll have a sizeable group of young people who are under-educated entering a society which is very harsh, economically and otherwise, thus adding to a less educated and less knowledgeable society. Is this the time to chase away the remaining few ‘brains’ as well? 

We need to creatively ‘make’ jobs for young people. India capitalised on the digital revolution which was already in force to accelerate start-ups during the pandemic. ‘Unicorns’ bloomed in that country during the past two years. One in every four start-ups was in FinTech (financial technology). India too faced the pandemic, just like we did. 

If ‘emergency level’ plans are made for approximately 250,000 students in Advanced Level classes to be offered facilities to study STEM subjects with ICT and English, within two to three years we’d have a group of English competent, basic tech-savvy young people. Our National Colleges of Education (NCOEs), State and non-State universities, and higher education institutes can all help in getting suitable resource persons and trainers for in-person or remote teaching of these students. 

The Government should invite overseas partners, tech industries, and similar companies to create opportunities for tech-based manufacturing or assembly plants here in Sri Lanka. Create avenues for tech-related production for exports, so that these young people can enter technology-related employment markets while working in Sri Lanka. If students have substantial proficiency in English, maths, and ICT, many overseas employment opportunities can open up while living in Sri Lanka and earning in dollars!

These are doable and not pipe dreams. So let’s not chase away our young, bright, talented, human resource pool. They are the biggest asset our country still has.