‘Nearest School is the Best School’

Posers on education

Daily News Editorial

Sri Lanka is known all over the world for having one of the best free education systems and a very high literacy rate. All Sri Lankan Governments have been committed to the concept of universal free education.

However, statistics revealed recently by the Department of Census and Statistics reveals that 452,661 children in the 5-17 age group are not attending school and 51,249 children among them have never attended school. This is indeed a very disturbing revelation, because the general consensus in society is that nearly all children of school going age are attending school.

The “Child Activity Survey 2016” reveals that the main reasons for children not to attend school are disinterest in education, non consideration of the value of education, too young (not eligible to enter school), disability, financial difficulties and leaving school before completion of studies to support families. Note that the study included children who had completed the G.C.E. Ordinary Level examination and were waiting at home before the commencement of Advanced Level classes. Leaving a margin of 100,000 for such students, it means nearly 350,000 other students are still out of the education system.

The statistics go further: Around 89 percent of children currently not attending school had previously attended school. Around 11 percent of children are either not attending school or have never attended school. The percentage of children who have never attended school is higher in the 5-11 age group due to them being “too young to enter school”.

The survey collected information considering about 16 different reasons for not attending school. Curiously, in sharp contrast to most other South Asian countries, boys in Sri Lanka were more likely to skip schooling than girls. The silver lining in the last statistic is that Sri Lankan parents seem to be very keen to send their girls to school. Indeed, Sri Lanka is one of the few developing countries where discrimination of girls in terms of education is almost non-existent.

The authorities have to tackle the problem of students not attending school due to lack of interest even if the parents are willing to send them to school. Since the survey has revealed that about 17% of children who do not attend school reported that they are “not interested in education or education is not considered valuable”, educationists and education authorities must explore how the school system could be made more attractive to children. The focus should especially on the estate sector, where this is reported to be a major problem.

Poverty has always been a hindrance to education, but successive Sri Lankan Governments have begun programmes to distribute free textbooks and uniforms and provide a meal. These can potentially take some burden away from the parents, but the Government should probe further on how these children can be enrolled in schools. After all, education is often the best answer to poverty. Disability in some form is another factor, but some of the best results in recent examinations have been obtained by such students. We need more specialist teachers who can teach these students.

The recent floods and landslides affected a large number of students and schools, with some students losing virtually everything. Apart from the physical trauma, most students are likely to experience some form of mental trauma, especially those who have lost their relatives. The authorities must ensure that none of these students drop out of school due to their changed circumstances.

The Government must accelerate the ‘Nearest School is the Best School’ project so that all children enjoy an equal chance of attending a good school. Now there is a mad scramble for the big schools in Colombo and Kandy because the schools in these cities are perceived to be the “best”. If all schools are equal, there will be no need to attend a so-called “best” school.

Sri Lanka has successfully emerged from two problems that affect the education of children – child soldiers and child labour. The LTTE forcibly recruited thousands of children, depriving them of any formal education in their formative years. The Government is rehabilitating a whole generation of such ex-child combatants. The use of children for combat is one form of child labour, but it can take many forms including domestic labour and sexual exploitation.

A significant proportion of the 168 million children engaged in child labour round the world live in areas affected by conflict and disaster. The 2017 World Day Against Child Labour which falls on June 12 (Monday) focuses on the impact of conflicts and disasters on child labour. As the UN notes “Children are often the first to suffer as schools are destroyed and basic services are disrupted. Many children are internally displaced or become refugees in other countries, and are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and child labour. Ultimately, millions of children are pushed into child labour by conflicts and disasters.”

Education is a fundamental right. Education is the key to a brighter future and any lacuna in this sector does not augur well. The authorities should take immediate action to ensure that every child attends school, without exception.