Reclaiming Education | Daily News

Reclaiming Education

Northern schoolchildren

A common refrain today among many in Jaffna town is about its youth “perpetuating social evils.”

Offering a ready analysis of post-war Jaffna society, they are often quick to point to the “rowdy behaviour of youngsters who simply loiter on the roads and harass people”, or are “forever speaking on their mobile phones.” This moral judgment is problematic in its generalisation. It not only fails to appreciate the complex reality faced by a generation that was born during a war, but also ignores the nature of transformation that our society has undergone.

Handy Perinbanayagam, a leading educationist, in his seminal article on Language in Education, published in 1955 has the following to say:

“In the commerce between the school and the community there is a two way traffic. The child takes something from its home to the school and takes back something to the home. When epidemics break out schools are closed for we know what an admirable medium a school is for spreading measles and mumps. But we forget that it can also be an equally effective medium for spreading other things besides mumps and measles. Social and political ideals, rules of health, civic virtue also can be spread through schools. If the child absorbs these at school, he must spread them in the home.”

Can this so-called “epidemic” with families be addressed through the “admirable medium” of the school? Can education be a social force with far reaching effects on the community?

Travails of education in the country

The education sector in Sri Lanka as a whole is faced with many challenges, including problems with the curriculum, a uniform centralised structure and the process of education policy development. Regions remain passive as they implement education policies formulated by the Centre.

The same standards are applied across regions that are varied; to schools with children living in socio-economic depravity and to urban schools attended by upper-middle class children. Such a structure seldom allows a process for providing bottom-up feedback or meaningful participation from the regions in the development of education policies.

The success of education itself is measured in terms of pass-rates and higher result achievements. Pressure of achieving pass rates is so high that the current school system virtually ejects students who are likely to perform poorly in exams out of its system altogether.

Formation of National schools and cluster schools have further deepened the disparities in the allocation of resources. The model of developing cluster schools contributes to school drop-out levels as many fail to transition from feeder schools into secondary schools.

With Sri Lanka’s education policy lying in international agencies and actors’ hands, there is further distancing of schools and teachers from policy decisions. Schools have failed to become agents of change in the communities.

Education policy clearly seeks to serve the middle-class. Those who are socially excluded and marginalised suffer within a system that does not serve their needs.

Crisis of education in Jaffna

Jaffna is historically acclaimed as a leading centre for Education. Jaffna middle-classes in particular gained social mobility through professional jobs due to the presence of a select popular schools. Disruption of schools due to war and displacement and the brain-drain of an educated middle-class population, has had a toll. These are challenges mainly within the confines of Jaffna town.

It is only when we speak to teachers and educationists working in marginalised schools that we realise the extent of the crisis. Like with the impact of the war on marginalised sections in the North, the crisis of education is multiplied in marginalised schools. The problems encountered in marginalised schools is reflective of the prevalent casteism, regional biases and economic oppression in Jaffna society.

Schools in rural locations, the out-lying islands, of oppressed caste communities, from working class families and slum dwellers in urban settings are marginalised. Students of such schools are from low-income earning families. Economic challenges are a major deterrent to their continuing education. Children from such marginalised schools suffer from malnutrition, low self-esteem and a lack of enthusiasm in education. The problems are further deepened when their marginality is reinforced by the neglect and disregard shown by teachers. Although many schools were provided with buildings and facilities under reconstruction programmes, it is the economic and social depravity of the marginalised communities which is posing challenges for the children’s education.

The post-war years have seen the ascendancy of caste-based discrimination in the Jaffna society. Schools are locations of caste-based oppressions. Children are often discriminated based on their caste backgrounds in the classrooms and in appointments to leadership positions. They are discouraged in their efforts to furthering their education by reminding them of their social status. The appointment of teachers and principals in schools are also subject to caste politics. Those from the dominant caste protest against the appointment of teachers and administrators who belong to oppressed castes.

Communities that were displaced for longer periods of time face challenges in rebuilding their schools. Reclaiming land and buildings belonging to schools is one such challenge. Some schools have been turned into refugee camps. For the Jaffna Muslims, rebuilding their schools after twenty-five years of displacement hinges on a proper resettlement policy that can ensure their permanent return. Furthermore, the vast destruction to property and livelihoods and the large-scale displacements pose serious challenges to reviving education in the Vanni region. Schools in the Vanni do not have enough teachers. School drop-outs in Mannar District is the highest in the North and necessitates a separate study. In this way, disparities and challenges in education are varied within the Northern Province.

While all these challenges remain, tuition centres are the most obvious signs of the malaise of education in Jaffna. There seems to be a strong belief that what could not be taught to children in a class of 30 can be effectively taught to 2,000 students crammed up in a tuition centre. However, there is no evidence by way of a substantial increase in pass rates to vouch of the effectiveness of tuitions. Parents spend a lot and teachers may get additional incomes, but this doesn’t translate to meaningful learning for students. Instead the tuition syndrome undermines the public education system that is supposed to provide free and quality education.

Rebuilding society

The historical trajectory of education in Jaffna itself is complex. For some, education was merely about maintaining their social status by becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers. It was a means for gaining class mobility. Progressive educationists in Jaffna, however, put forward broader agendas for education. The historical mobilisations against caste oppression centred on reclaiming education, with demands for equal treatment in the classrooms and development of schools for the oppressed people. Such progressive struggles for education contributed to the emergence of writers and thinkers from marginalised communities.

Education was not limited to formal learning in classrooms alone. On the contrary, spaces for promoting a culture of debate and dissent were nurtured outside of formal schools. Sanasamuga Nilaiyam (Community Centres) became sites of vibrant debates, mobilisations and political education. It was only when militarisation and violence engulfed Jaffna that this approach to education came to a halt.

The challenges of an education system that is imposed from above and the socio-economic problems in the Jaffna society persist. However, in this context can education be revived? Can schools become that “admirable medium” for the rebuilding of society? It is only with a broader agenda for education and the awareness of its social force, can we forge plans for rebuilding society.

(The writer is grateful for the insights by teachers and educationists participating in the Anandarajan Memorial Seminar Series on Education)

Courtesy: Samakalam Magazine 


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