Continued trade union action: Adverse impact on school education 

  • Educationists urge immediate reform  
  • Warn of effects on an entire generation 
  • Electronic media lessons continue: State Minister 

By Sarah Hannan 

Education sector trade unions have announced the continuation of the strike action, as discussions with the Ministry of Education as well as the Prime Minister have failed to provide the expected solutions to the salary anomalies faced by teachers and principals for the past 24 years.

The trade union action has resulted in teachers boycotting online lesson deliveries and conducting the practical tests for aesthetic subjects for the upcoming GCE Advanced Level (A/L) examinations.   

The Sunday Morning spoke to renowned educationist and Education Forum Sri Lanka Co-founder Dr. Sujatha Gamage on how this would impact the student population of the country. 

“Teachers refraining from online lesson deliveries will only have a short-term impact. What we need to focus on is that, even at the time the online lessons were conducted, 60% of the students did not have access to their lessons. Even the students that were following the online lessons were not paying enough attention to the lessons. In that sense, we are losing a lot in education,” Dr. Gamage explained. 

She noted that she was glad that the trade union action that is currently in progress is finally bringing some attention to the issues that are faced by the teachers of this country, adding that the education sector had a struggle to increase funding for education since 2014, with the Yahapalana Government giving a good raise to university teachers. 

Entire generation affected 

She also pointed out that the teacher trade unions rallied with higher education and university trade unions in abolishing the establishment of private universities, which is an issue that only affects a very small percentage of the youth population. 

“However, what we need to understand is that if schoolchildren do not receive the full education that they require, that will affect an entire generation, not the small percentage that get to go to public universities. While the teacher trade unions have been making noise, what I feel is that they have been fighting other battles, such as abolishing private universities,” Dr. Gamage elaborated. 

She also noted that the Government’s first priority should be educating schoolchildren so that they are prepared for the world. 

“Everybody should have equal opportunity to access free education. What has happened in the past few years is that, because of the vociferous minority who gain admission to universities and maintain their position, it has become a political agenda. This has resulted in the country losing focus on school education and school teachers,” Dr. Gamage noted. 

According to Dr. Gamage, over the years, the teachers have had their backs broken, as they waited for instructions from the top to act, which has made them cynical.  

“Not all teachers are good teachers at school, as they give priority to their private tuition classes. The good thing about this teacher strike is that though there is a setback, it will not cause a serious setback in the country’s education.” 

She further noted that many other trade unions have more powerful voices when it comes to getting their trade union matters resolved and the present teacher trade union action does cause a setback in education in the short run. However, in the long run, if the teachers get better wages and recognition, it would be a step forward for the education sector. 

Elaborating on providing due recognition to teachers, Dr. Gamage referred to a media report where teachers were required to submit weekly progress reports of the students to the Education Department and then the teachers too were to be monitored on their progress in conducting lessons online. 

“Teachers are at present, struggling to reach out to children using online methods to conduct lessons. Even in regular times, teachers were only required to report the student progress at the end of each term. It is not fair to burden them with having to submit weekly progress reports on the children in their class and to be audited,” Dr. Gamage opined. 

Since 22 March 2020, teachers had neither been given any guidance nor had they received a word of appreciation on conducting lessons online, which Dr. Gamage finds to be shocking. 

Tuition effectively covers syllabus 

When asked about how the present situation would impact covering syllabi for grades that are facing national exams, she responded: “We need to really document that with data. A group in the US that has been supporting poor children for a long time were informed that one of the children that they were supporting had fallen sick due to malnutrition. The group had been allocating Rs. 10,000-15,000 per month per child for their wellbeing and nutrition. However, they had found out that the family was using that money to pay for private tuition classes of that child, which cost about Rs. 10,000.” 

Dr. Gamage noted that the reality is that the school performs a social function where children get a break from their homes and for parents get a break from children. 

Dr. Gamage points out that schools are not necessary to guide a child to sit for an exam, as private tuition is doing a better job in preparing children for examinations. She stated that there might even be a partnership with private tutors and the Examination Department, which is enabling the Department to believe they are doing a great job holding examinations while the private tutors know exactly how the exam papers would be structured. 

“When it comes to covering the syllabus, the truth is that the private tutors are doing a good job. The National Institute of Education did a study on the Advanced Level students and found that in some schools, in the second year (grade 13), 75% of the students did not attend school. There is no education happening in school, and even the schools cannot prepare students for examinations, as the private tutors are doing that. So, even the poorest of the poor, who get money for nutrition, would use that money to send their children to private tuition classes,” Dr. Gamage explained. 

Therefore, Dr. Gamage questioned that before talking about covering the syllabus, one should talk about who is covering the syllabus and what elements of the lessons should be covered. 

“If we look at the placement in state universities, we have a very limited number of places to accommodate undergraduates. Although the successive governments have said that nobody should pay for education, the universities can only accommodate 7% of the students that pass the A/L examination in the country and in the past year, it has increased to 7.5%. They raise the barrier to fit the number of places available. Last year, they increased the intake by introducing more courses to the university curriculum. So, when it comes to covering the syllabus, we need to ask what we are covering.” 

Immediate reforms required 

She pointed out that an inordinate number of facts, even for grades one through five, which she calls the unholy link between tuition, rote learning, and exams, has to be broken. 

“We are covering an unnecessary amount of content, built over the years, to raise the bar for people pursuing higher education. This is the time we need to use to reduce the curriculum and to put an emergency curriculum. We have been actually urging the Ministry in the past year to do so, similar to a programme that was in place after the tsunami of 2004, known as the Accelerated Learning Programme, which is actually mentioned in the education reforms proposed for 2023. This will make it simpler to identify the children’s learning outcomes,” Dr. Gamage added. 

She also noted that students, teachers, and parents should be freed from having to download redundant content wasting their data, and reiterated that offline solutions should be considered in the meantime to deliver lessons to children, as there is no instruction on how to conduct offline lessons until schools commence. 

Dr. Gamage suggested that the teachers can align their lessons to the education programmes broadcast on the TV and radio. Maybe while following the TV/radio programme, they can ask students to get in touch with them over a phone call to clarify any areas that students find difficult to understand. 50% of the schools in the country have less than 200 children per school, and another 30% of the schools have less than 100 children per school. Teachers in these schools can easily interact with their children on a one-on-one basis, she added. 

“Online learning is not the only solution for distance learning, particularly for children from grades 1-9. A parent cannot just hand them a smartphone and let them freely use the device. Even if you take children in grades 10-13, they too need to be given guidance while they are using a smartphone, as it is a very dangerous thing to do. I find it very irresponsible even on the Education Ministry’s part, recommending online education for primary grades; we need to have different approaches for different age groups.” 

Increase in dropouts  

When asked whether this disruption in education would result in an increase in dropouts from schools, Dr. Gamage noted: “I think it is already happening, especially from the poorest of the poor families. Girls are being married off and the boys are involved in odd jobs, which has prevented them from pursuing higher studies. If we look at the content that is included in our education system, it is too boring. Teachers often say that they have to drag the children along through the 13 years of education. These children are in school because the teachers are making a great effort in ensuring that the children attend school to complete their studies.” 

Dr. Gamage also added that the education system should now pay attention to offline methods of distant learning, as over the past 16 months the main focus had been on online education. Since children are given textbooks, they can read through the lessons and the teachers could give them exercises to complete after reading the lessons. She also noted that nearby schools can be used to conduct lessons under a bio-bubble, should this pandemic continue for a longer period.  

Moreover, decision-making for the education sector should be decentralised, allowing divisional/zonal secretaries, education directors, and area medical officers to take a call on reopening the schools or conducting school in bio-bubbles. 

“I hope the challenges presented by Covid-19 and the trade union action carried out by the education sector trade unions would create an opportunity to look at the much-needed reforms in the country’s education,” Dr. Gamage concluded. 


TV and radio lessons continue 


Meanwhile, State Minister for Education Reforms, Open Universities, and Distance Learning Promotion Susil Premajayantha noted that TV and radio education programmes can be conveniently accessed by students these days to continue their learning. 

“Apart from the Gurugedara education programme that is telecast on Channel Eye and Nethra TV, and the Nenasa education programme that is telecast on cable TV, we are now also joined by several private media channels which are telecasting lessons,” Premajayantha noted. 

Premajayantha added that on weekdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., the private TV channels telecast mathematics, and from 8 a.m. to 1.30 p.m., they telecast other subjects for which the lessons were produced by the National Institute of Education. In addition to that, the TV channels also telecast their own education programmes covering subjects for students. 

In the coming two weeks, the State Ministry is also looking at adding six more channels to telecast education programmes for students in grades one and two. These are the two crucial grades where we need to improve literacy for children relating to letters and numbers. Apart from that, special education programmes are to be designed for grades 5, 10, 11, and 13 to assist students that are preparing for milestone and national examinations.