No future for our Oliver Twists

  • The unspoken plight of children dropping out of school

BY Sumudu Chamara

Even though the incidence of children dropping out of schools due to economic and social challenges has declined when compared with the situation in the past, this issue still persists, and the Covid-19 pandemic has become a new factor that contributes to worsening it. Although effective measures to address this situation have already been identified, the lack of resources the Government can provide calls for assistance from more stakeholders, especially those representing the private sector.

This situation was explained by two officials who represent the education sector and the child care sector, namely Probation and Child Care Services Department Assistant Commissioner Sandareka Liyanage and Southern Province Education Department Additional Director and Southlands College, Galle Principal Shanthi Seneviratne, who joined a webinar held on 10 October, which was also attended by Atlas Axillia Co. (Pvt.) Ltd. Managing Director Asitha Samaraweera.

The webinar titled “SipSavi Virtual Panel Discussion” focused on the plight of underprivileged children in Sri Lanka whose education has been hindered by the loss of parents and economic difficulties. 

It was stated during the webinar that even though the number of children attending schools in Sri Lanka has been estimated to be 4.1 million, whether that 4.1 million children have adequate food and a suitable place to live, and whether they have access to all other basic facilities, remains a question. 

The moderator of the webinar, Kaushalya Ranasinghe, further highlighted that some children quit education in lower grades such as Grades Six and Seven due to a number of different reasons; the main reasons being economic challenges and difficulties arising within families.

In a context where children dropping out of school continues as a challenge, she said that there is a pressing need for a discourse on whether stakeholders can assist those children to continue their education without being affected by the said difficulties.

Liyanage explained that even though everyone in a family unit, both adults and children, face issues, adults are more capable of overcoming those issues than children, and that how those issues affect children is different. She noted that as a result, children’s education may come to an abrupt halt temporarily or permanently.

“Sometimes, schoolchildren may have to look after their younger siblings, or they may have to leave school education to do a job. What is alarming is, it is not always children that make these decisions; sometimes, it is the adults that direct children to engage in such activities. Also, we have observed that parents also create a notion in the children’s mind that the parents are not in a position to facilitate the education of children and that children have to support their families. As a result, sometimes, the home environment makes children think that supporting their families is a greater task than studying.”

Liyanage also said that in 2016, the Census and Statistics Department conducted a survey on children’s activities, and that the said survey had revealed that every year, around 20,000 children drop out of schools. She added that even though no such survey was conducted after that, the Covid-19 context has worsened the situation. 

Speaking of international laws concerning children’s education, she said that according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), receiving an education is one of the fundamental rights of a child, and that every child below the age of 16 years should attend schools, which she said is a law and a practice in Sri Lanka. 

“Also, we are bound to provide every child with the necessary facilities to receive a proper education and to ensure that right,” she noted.

Adding that if children who are dealing with difficulties that hinder their education are quitting education, various public and private institutions should take the initiative to provide these children with the necessary guidance and the facilities, Liyanage said, however, that despite the existence of such support systems, sometimes children’s education comes to a halt. 

“Some children get institutionalised due to economic difficulties. Parents tend to remove children from the family and confine them in various institutions such as child care centres, and it deprives children of the things they receive in and from a family,” she said, adding that the best and most appropriate place for a child is the family.

She quoted Article 9 of the UNCRC, which discusses the State’s responsibility to ensure that a child is not separated from his/her parents against their will, except in accordance with the applicable laws and procedures and for the best interest of the child, and the responsibility to ensure a separated child’s right to maintain personal relationships and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis. 

The Probation and Child Care Services Department has prioritised keeping children in their families while also ensuring children’s rights in this process, according to Liyanage.

She added: “When it comes to education, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised the risk of the increased incidence of children dropping out of schools owing to the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic situation. This is a serious issue that must receive the attention of everyone. We all know that when a school-age child drops out of school, they do not always choose the right next step. They may be victims of various menaces such as drugs, and they may even choose to engage in unlawful deeds in order to earn money. In a context where sending a child to school is a solution to a number of social issues that may arise in the future, children tending to pick up such vices could become a huge social issue in the future. The Probation and Child Care Services Department provides services to children in all areas of the country, and we have started receiving various requests due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We have also started receiving requests for assistance to obtain internet-based data. However, the amount of resources the public sector can give is extremely limited, and due to that, we have started seeking assistance from external institutions as well.” 

Meanwhile, Seneviratne said that when looking at the state of the education system in Sri Lanka, children dropping out of schools has become a major issue, and that there are serious concerns as to what happens to the children’s future once they drop out. 

She added that when we compare with the recent past, a certain reduction in the number of children dropping out of schools can be observed, and that this decline could be a result of public and private institutions having assisted children to a great extent. 

She claimed: “Sri Lanka is a country where a lot of low-income families live, and this economic situation affects children’s education significantly. When it comes to economic reasons that hinder children’s education, one of the most common issues we see in Sri Lanka is mothers going abroad for employment. Most of the time, losing their mother in that way places children in an unsafe environment. 

“It can lead to the collapse of not only the children’s education, but also of the entire family unit. If the father goes abroad instead of the mother, perhaps, this would not have been such a big issue, because, sometimes, we see that when the mother goes abroad, the father does not take care of the children in the same way that the mother would have. 

“We have learnt from children that when children are left with relatives (in the event, parents go abroad seeking employment), these relatives try to use the children to get their personal work done instead of sending them to school. When it comes to economic challenges, we have seen that by the time children enter higher grades such as Grade 11, they start understanding the challenges their families are facing, including economic issues. 

“As a result, they start doing small jobs after school hours. Therefore, it is difficult for teachers to keep them after normal school hours when a need arises to give them extra education.”

Seneviratne explained that in addition to economic reasons, the lack of understanding among parents about the importance of education, which leads parents to not pay adequate attention to children’s education, is also a notable factor in the Sri Lankan context.

“It is true that they send children to schools, but these parents do not guide children to choose the right path,” she further noted.

“When we discussed with parents during various programmes targeting children and/or children’s education, parents showed such ignorance. They said that they were not aware of the need to pay attention to the children’s education, and that they were under the impression that merely sending children to schools meant that children would be in a position to do everything that needs to be done as far as education is concerned. Even though there is a need to do something more than sending children to schools, due to economic hardships and ignorance, those responsibilities have not been fulfilled adequately,” she added.

Adding further that it is difficult for the education authorities to estimate how many schoolchildren have not resumed attending schools as usual in the present Covid-19 context, Seneviratne said that during a discussion held recently, however, it had been revealed that children of parents engaged in the fisheries industry tend to be a part of that industry along with their parents. 

“Once these children start making some money, they tend to think that it is better to continue to be in that profession instead of going back to school. This situation existed even before the Covid-19 pandemic, but, owing to the present pandemic situation, getting children to come back to school might be somewhat difficult. This affects children’s performance greatly,” she explained.

She further said that several programmes have been launched with the aim of ensuring that children can continue their education despite economic difficulties, noting that teachers are playing an extremely important role in this process. She also said that at times, teachers have come forward to help children at a more personal level than at a professional level.

During the discussion, Samaraweera explained the nature of the assistance Atlas Axillia has provided to uplift the children’s ability to continue educational activities. He added that one of the main purposes of these programmes is to help unleash the potential of the future generation of Sri Lanka. According to Samaraweera, there is an ongoing year-long programme for the same purpose.

He further noted that the said programmes were conducted in collaboration with the Probation and Child Care Services Department because of mutual values. Raising awareness as a part of these programmes with the aim of encouraging other stakeholders also to initiate and engage in similar projects, is another priority. 

Sri Lanka’s education system faced a number of challenges in the recent past, i.e. after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, and the country just reopened schools for children. Even though the risks and challenges posed by the pandemic are seen as the major reasons hindering children’s education, according to those who spoke at the webinar, related economic and social factors have been worsened by the pandemic, and there is, therefore, an increased need to assist children to resume and continue educational activities.

Moreover, this responsibility lies not only with the Government and the public sector, but also with the private sector, who can extend considerable support in this regard. At the end of the day, protecting and shaping the future of the country’s next generation is everyone’s duty, and everyone can do something depending on the resources available to them.