The modern school system of Sri-Lanka has its beginnings during the British colonial administration. Schools were started by the denominational bodies for the purpose of proselytization. Later the government also established schools for the education of the children. The government schools provided instruction in the national languages and there were also bi-lingual schools (vernacular school) where English was also used. This created a dual system of schools, government schools and denominational schools. There was also another kind of duality in that some of the denominational schools imparted English medium education charging fees from students which created an elitist group of schools as against the vernacular schools providing free education. As a result of the government, denominational bodies, private organizations and individuals establishing schools there was no planning in the location of schools.
The grant of free education with the implementation of Special Committee recommendations under the stewardship of Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara in 1945 and the take over of schools in 1960 reduced some of the inequities that existed in the school system. During the last 50 years some degree of rationalization has been achieved. But still there are wide differences and lack of uniformity in the school system.
School Types and Service Delivery
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At present Sri- Lanka has a 13 year span of schooling. Schools are classified on the basis of the educational stages available in the school and also taking into consideration the course streams offered at senior secondary level. The schools are classified by type as follows:
Type 111 Schools :- Primary schools having classes from Grade 1 to Grade 5
Type 11 Schools :- Junior schools having classes from Grade 1 to Grade 11
1C Schools :- Senior Secondary schools having classes from Grade 1 to Grade 13
or Grade 6 to 13 with only Arts and Commerce streams at G.C.E. A.L
1AB Schools :- Senior Secondary schools having classes from Grade 1 to Grade 13
or Grade 6 to Grade 13 with all 4 streams at G.C.E.A.L
In determining the structure of the school system, one has to consider the economics of educational provision. With the demographic transition, migration to urban areas and the growth of private schools, the enrolment of students in government schools is declining and the number of small schools has increased. The following table gives the distribution of government schools by size.
Table - Government Schools by Type and Size of Student Population
101 - 200
201 - 500
501 - 1000
1501 - 2000
Source: School Census 2007
Nearly one third of the schools have an enrolment of less than 100 pupils on roll while there are 292 schools with over 2000 pupils. The small schools are disadvantaged in many aspects. Dearth of physical and human resources, poor home background of pupils, lack of community support, inaccessibility to modern influences such as the media are factors which compromise the principle of equity enshrined in the Constitution.
Equity in education starts with equitable access to schooling. The Education Sector Development Framework and Programme of the Ministry of Education emphasizes, ensuring equity by enabling all children to have access, to participate in and complete basic and secondary education. In order to ensure equitable access to primary education, the government has established a widely scattered network of schools throughout to country.
Number of Government Schools by Functional Grade Span, 2006
Source : Annual School Census, Ministry of Education
The policy of the government is to provide a primary school within 2 km to every child of the age range 5 to 9 years and a secondary school within 4 km to every child of 10 to 16 age range. Because of this policy a number of schools with small classes are seen especially in remote areas.
Number of Government Schools by Size of Student Population, 2006
Number / Percentage of School with
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
Source : Annual School Census, Ministry of Education
The definition of a small school at present is based on the sole criterion of enrolment of students. According to this criterion a school having less than 100 students is considered to be a small school.
Under the programme "Rationalization of School Network", in 1996, 356 small schools were reported to have been closed, as they were presumed to be uneconomical. The two main criteria for closing schools were:
Minimum enrolment; and
Availability of alternative educational facilities within a prescribed distance.
Low student enrolment was a feature of around 80% of the schools that were closed. The research studies have discovered some major reasons for the decline in student enrolment in these schools. They are:
The availability of 'better' schools in the local environment and the aspirations of parents to send their children to these schools, if their family resources permitted it
(a) the poor management of these small schools by Principals and the poor quality teaching
(b) the indifference of education officials, Principals and community leaders towards the welfare and advancement of the children in small schools and the consequent deterioration of the quality of education provided in them
The small schools are found tucked away in remote rural pockets, among the hills in the plantations, in new settlement areas along the coast and in the midst of overcrowded urban dwellings, sometimes in the shadow of popular schools. These schools add up to about 3000 which is nearly one third of the total number of schools catering to primary school children.
These schools cater mainly to children of the poorest of the poor. They have been neglected and forgotten and the parents of these schools are less demanding and prone to accept their lot. Inadequate resources portray the neglect and lack of concern.
The isolated nature of the small schools, inadequate appreciation of any good work done and lack of supervisory and advisory help are issues in developing these schools.
Small schools have to be reviewed in the context of their settings and totality of the problem. The multifaceted nature of the problem calls for a multifaceted approach.
While recognizing the need to continue with small schools where there is a real need and assuming that rationalization may lead to the dropout of pupils, at least in areas where schooling facilities are available within a reasonable distance, some degree of rationalization can be accomplished. Education Sector Development Framework and Programme (MOE, 2006) analyses the wastage incurred by small schools. According to School Census, there are 258 schools with less than 15 pupils with a teacher pupil ratio of 1: 04, 717 schools with less than 25 pupils with a ratio of 1: 07 and 1525 schools with less than 50 pupils with a ratio of 1: 11. It has to be noted that when the number of pupils is less, the quality of education imparted in such schools is also poor. In order to meet this situation a scheme of grouping schools in a geographical area as a school family should be explored.
There is also the issue of National Schools which are managed by the Central Ministry of Education. There are no accepted criteria for upgrading a school to a level of a National School. Of the 329 national schools at present, very few conform to the standards laid down originally for identifying national schools. The criteria that would justify a school to be a National School should be the fact that children from all over the country are admitted to that school, that it is an all island school. Admission to such schools should solely be on merit. There cannot be a primary section in a National School as admissions to primary classes are done on the basis of the proximity of the parent's residence to the school. An additional criterion would be the multiethnic composition of the school where children of all communities are admitted and all three media are available which would promote national cohesion.
Considering the need for promoting national unity in the present context and the role education can play in promoting national harmony, much thought should be given for the possibility of organizing multi-ethnic schools in areas where the communities are multi-ethnic. In such schools all three languages can be used as media of instruction and children will grow up together as Sri -Lankans, while understanding their heritage and respecting the culture of other communities.
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Another issue is whether the government should have a monopoly of education or in addition to State provision of education whether private-public partnerships should be encouraged. When the schools were taken over in 1960 only a few grade 1 schools remained as private and non fee-levying schools. There was a category of schools that were fee-levying and private, i.e. those who opted to keep away from the free education scheme in 1951.
Since 1980s, another category of private schools have sprung up and are known as "International Schools." These schools are registered as business organizations with the Registrar of Companies and contravenes the provisions of the Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Supplementary Provisions) Act No. 8 of 1961 which stipulates that no person other than the Director of Education can establish a school for children between the ages of five and fourteen years. Further, there is a violation of the Education Amendment Act of 1945 which stipulates that the primary education of children should be provided in the mother tongue (Sinhala or Tamil). To get over these problems, these schools have been registered as business organizations with the Registrar of Companies. Earlier these schools prepared children for foreign examinations and instruction was provided in the English medium. Now some of these schools are providing courses based on the local curricula and the students sit the local GCE (O/L) and (A/L) examinations as private candidates.
Some International Schools appear to provide education commencing from Early Childhood Care and Development Stage (ECCD) up to Advanced Level and Degree level examinations. From the Primary Level the medium of instruction is in English.
The demand for popular schools is ever increasing and the parents with moderate levels of income, who fail to admit their children to such schools are compelled to admit their children to International Schools considering the advantage of learning English as well.
One of the main objectives of education is to produce a Sri Lankan citizen with a common set of values. The NEC has proposed Common National Objectives for General Education. The schools established by private organizations with profit making objectives cannot be expected to fulfill the common objectives proposed by the National Education Commission. Further, the lack of encouragement to learn history and national cultures in the curriculum lead to the production of individuals who do not value and respect national heritage and culture.
These schools appear to be popular among certain segments of society as indicated from the rapid growth of the number of schools. Accurate statistics of this category of schools are not available but approximate number may be around 300. The main attraction to these schools is the teaching in English medium.
However, most of these schools do not have even the basic facilities required for a school. Most classes are housed in residential premises and there is in sufficient space for children in the classrooms and adequate ventilation. Other facilities for sports and extra curricular activities are minimal. Hence, there is a growing demand that these schools be regulated by the government.
Another category of schools functioning with government assistance are the schools providing education for children with special needs. There are 25 Assisted Schools run for children with special needs. The prevalent philosophy of special education is inclusion. As these children have to be integrated to normal society, MOE has started integrating students with special needs in normal classes. In order to orient these children to the normal school special education units have been established in nearly 1000 schools. However, special schools are necessary for children with severe handicaps.
The duality of schools at the time of independence was reduced by free education, shift to national languages as the medium of instruction and the central school system, but the blatant disparity continues making the policy of equal education opportunity a travesty.
The location of schools, particularly the secondary schools is not well distributed as it has been done in an unplanned way and almost all non government schools were located in urban areas.
The overlapping of the nomenclature of the 'types' of schools and the resultant confusion in implementation of policies and programmes.
The marginalization and the neglect of small schools which are the main avenues of educational opportunity to children of disadvantaged families, to fulfill their right to education.
The present classification of schools lacks clarity as a consequence of ad-hoc changes over the years, selecting few schools and resourcing them while the poor schools were further neglected compelling the students rush to urban schools, making the poor schools poorer and small schools smaller.
The increasing pressure on large popular schools in urban centres which are undergoing uncontrolled expansion to meet the demand resulting in overcrowded classes where learning and teaching may not be effective.
Schools that have started with ethnic or religious background wish to maintain the same status and identity without changing to a multiethnic and multi religious schools.
International schools which are not legal and run as business organizations do not conform to the educational law and do not fulfill the common objectives determined by the National Education Commission.
The school should be an institution that fulfils the right of every child to quality education that aims at developing a common set of values that identifies him/her as a Sri Lankan with dedication to Motherland while respecting one's own identity.
The government should establish a structure with two types of schools, namely, primary schools having Grades 1 to 5 and secondary schools with Grades 6 to 11 or 6 to 13.
Management, facilitation and evaluation of all public schools should be the responsibility of the Provincial Department of Education. Categorization of schools by different names (National, Navodya etc.,) should be discontinued.
Education Division should be the unit to organize the network of primary and secondary schools. Each secondary school should have at least 5 primary feeder schools. The number of schools in a division should be determined by the number of school going age children in the Division.
In areas where schools are far apart and student numbers are low, primary schools may conduct classes up to Grade 9 for a fixed period of time.
In order to ensure continuity of education, a child who is completing the primary level should be assured of a secondary school.
Small Schools, which serve the village community needs, should be encouraged to continue by providing them with necessary support to develop as educationally viable institutions.
All very difficult and difficult schools should be upgraded with both human and physical resources to provide a quality education to reach the target of educating all children alike.
Mechanisms should be developed to supervise and monitor small schools in order to ensure standards and to take prompt remedial actions when necessary.
Primary section (Grades 1-5) of all existing 1AB and 1C schools should be delinked by 2015 and function as primary schools.
State should make available a primary school within a radius of 2km and a secondary school within a radius of 5km. All primary and secondary schools should provide adequate resources to ensure parity and equality of the quality of education provided by them.
All unregistered Private schools including International schools should be registered with the Provincial Departments of Education. They should be regulated with norms for appropriate physical environment, necessary qualifications of teachers, medium of instruction and a curriculum component related to National Heritage and child's religion issued by the Central Ministry of Education.
All Private and International Schools should be subject to supervision by the Ministry of Education and Provincial Ministries of Education.
All Private and International Schools should run as non-profit organizations and all profits obtained should be ploughed back to the development of the school.
All schools should follow a process of inclusive education for children with special education needs. However 'Special Schools' may continue for severely handicapped children who require special treatment.
Section 25 of the Assisted Schools and Training Colleges Act No. 8 of 1961 should be amended to allow the registration of private and international schools.
School Calendar and School Hours
The school calendar for the year is determined by the MOE and is uniform for all schools. This is necessary because of the national holidays and the need to coincide school holidays with the examinations calendar. Suggestions have made that schools should have vacations taking into consideration the farming patterns of the area as older school children take part in agricultural activities of the household. The provincial authorities may be given the discretion to amend the school calendar to suit local needs without disturbing the school holidays and public examinations.
The number of school days at present is around 200 a year. School hours are 5 hours for the primary and 6 hours for the secondary. In the past secondary schools had two sessions morning and afternoon with a lunch break. This is desirable as students can take part in extra-curricular activities without taking time from academic sessions. However due to problems in transport, providing a mid day meal and long distance that children have to travel double sessions are not feasible.
The minimum number of school days must be 200 days a year. The provinces should be given the discretion to decide on school terms taking into consideration the local requirements.
Classroom teaching time per day should be 5 hours for the primary and 6 hours for the secondary.
Admission of Children to Schools
Admission of children to schools is an issue that has been the subject of debate at national level. The problem is that a certain category of parents resort to all kinds of ruses to get their children admitted to the so called prestigious schools. According to the current scheme of admissions proximity of the residence of the parents play a major part in the selection process and parents resort to fraudulent practices to prove their residence. Children are trained to utter lies and addresses close to these schools fetch very high prices in the property transactions some of which are bogus transactions. Even after such intense competition the majority of the parents fail to get their children admitted to the school of their choice. As a result of influence peddling the number of children in the classes has increased to unmanageable numbers even going beyond 50 in certain instances. It is impossible to implement activity based, child centred curricula in such large classes. It is not desirable to adopt any assessment criteria at this level for selection of students. In higher classes merit as found through an assessment process can be used for selection of students.
Committees appointed to look in to this problem have come out with various recommendations. Some of these are doing away with primary sections of prestigious schools or using random selection processes. However, the very influential past pupil lobbies have vitiated all these moves.