This is with reference to the PTF Draft Report on General Education and EFSL’s (draft) paper on “Assessment and Testing in Primary Education: Theory, Practice, and Lessons for Sri Lanka”
EFSL’s draft paper (Lessons for Sri Lanka, page 14) , recommends to replace the G5SE, with a secondary school admission test, with some changes to what is being assessed, including removal of the EQ testing proposed in the PTF draft. However, the proposed recommendations alone isn’t going to provide a sustainable solution for the long term, and will continue to be plagued with much of the difficulties of access and quality education.
The PTF refers to two different tests – one for the economically disadvantaged and the other for anyone (most certainly the economically advantaged group) to send their child to an even better school.
A simple test using emotional intelligence, general ability/ aptitude paper, and a paper to assess Essential Learning Competencies be conducted. The examination should be less stressful for children. Only those children from families below the designated income level should apply for the examination. (The test should strictly be aimed at identifying outperforming students of low-income cohorts given that all ethical aspects be secured, and their dignity is assured (PTF, page 13)
A separate simple test may be conducted by the educational authorities to select children for admission to secondary schools. It is essential to develop 1000 secondary schools with all required physical and human resources. This should reduce the parent’s competition to admit their children to so-called “popular schools.” Replace the Grade 5 scholarship examination with a suitable admission test to be administered by educational authorities for admitting children to secondary schools.(PTF, page 13)
It is not very clear that the proposal by EFSL, is asking to replace both of these above tests with SSAT or only the first one. It will be good if this is clearer. we must not forget the purpose and intent of the G5SE, (and therefore the implication that makes it difficult from a socio-political point of view) is educational mobility to a better school for the economically disadvantaged. Recommendation to remove the EQ component of a new test is a good one, however, the fact remains that we still require a test at all.
PTF is recommending that there be only two types of schools as Primary and Secondary (instead of the current multi-level classification) ;
Revise the current classification of schools as follows:
- Classify all existing schools as either primary or secondary schools.
- Develop schools in clusters that feed into each other as depicted in the diagram below:
EF- SL further recommends that these secondary schools be ranked by school and/or by cluster. It is not clear whether either of these mean that the current K-12 schools (schools that has Year 1- through to Year 13) are then going to be de-coupled.
EFSL (page 15) further proposes to improve the above recommendation of the PTF with an introduction of a Ranking of secondary schools in the proposed clusters against national benchmarks.
It is not clear whether either of the above proposal/improvement on proposal mean that the current K-12 schools (schools that has Year 1- through to Year 13) are going to be de-coupled. (For example: Does it mean Royal college -Primary will be decoupled from Royal college- Secondary and therefore by gaining admission at the Primary will not automatically move in to the secondary?); Because unless this decoupling is done when implementing the cluster and possible ranking, the severe competition and resulting complications of the prevalent system will continue to exist.
The 8 proposals set forth in the EFSL are commendable in order to nudge for changes in a complex system in a manageable manner. However, they and specifically the recommendations in the PTF report around G5SE and Primary school entry will still be scratching at the surface, of radical change that is required, and will not result in much gain by themselves.
They still have many weaknesses that will not be adequately addressed, and prolong the journey towards the radical shifts that are both identified by EFSSL on G5SE as well as PTF for General Education as necessary for human capital development of Sri Lanka.
Our position is that the G5SE/SSAT must be eliminated from the Sri Lankan education system, and to do so gradually, by a series of steps dismantling the structural and systemic barriers currently prevalent.
Replacing one exam with another and/or clustering and ranking along with cross-cluster mobility nor facilitating mobility of high performing students to higher ranking schools are neither going to resolve the mental stress, nor take us to the egalitarian goal of providing equitable access to quality education for all, by themselves.
In order to complement both intentions and proposals of EF-SL and PTF, the following are recommended with a view to improve the policy proposals on the premise that education should be made more accessible and equitable to all citizens and not only the few who are either better resourced or academically gifted. Raising the standards of many is what Sri Lanka need. not raising the standards of a few.
Issue 1: Capacity
The good/prestigious schools are already nearly full at Grade 1
- Decouple all existing schools including the prestigious schools as primary and secondary; where entry at the primary is not a guarantee for continuation at same school. The current infrastructure and human resource of the larger/prestigious schools then becomes clustered resources that can be accessed by all in that cluster in an equitable manner, as decoupling will reduce the admission overspill both at primary and secondary stages as a result of spreading the accessible schools through the 1000 secondary schools intervention. For example, in this proposal Royal College Primary student will not automatically qualify to enter Royal college Secondary.
2.Increase or reclassify enough schools as primary only schools to compensate for loss of capacity, reduced intake at the handful of very large prestigious schools.
Implication of above proposals:
This can eliminate the problem of capacity, as secondary school each year will start from a 0 enrollment resulting in more places on offer ; Along with the proposed ranking of secondary schools, this can reduce the stress on the system and also indirectly support the development of more good quality secondary schools supported by a public that are now dispersed through different schools (Refer implication 6)
Issue 2: Admission process
The competition for admission to the “few good schools” have multiple complications. The mindset/attitude towards these schools will take long to subside, even when more schools of lesser names are upgraded and ranked up.
The prestigious/good school admissions are heavily influenced by , OGA/OBA imposed criteria, resulting in privilege and nepotistic practice of school admissions. Proof of residence criteria is heavily forged and has long become counterproductive.
The interview of the applicant family does not serve any useful purpose and is a cover for solicitation of funds for schools, manipulation of parents and where undue influence is used by the privileged, undermining the basis for fair and equitable treatment of all. The calibre of parents livelihood or how much money can be paid for the School Development fund should not be criteria, in a free education system.
It is common knowledge that proof of residence is rampant with forgery, resulting sometimes in genuine residents losing out, adds to mental stress to parents, results in unproductive administrative stress to the admission teams of schools.
3. Remove the decentralized admission process and centralise it at the Ministry of Education or (similar central authority)
Implication of above proposal
Admission process becomes more equitable, efficient, cost effective, transparent and facilitates educational mobility for those who really need it, as more of a chance to get in to a school if they fulfill other criteria.
The proposal is broken down to 3 components as explained below.
3.a . Remove multiple touch points in the admission process and introduce a single application through the Grama Niladari (GN) that is channeled to the central processing authority. Each family has to have registered their usual residence, (this maybe different from the electoral register);the unique ID for the application to be the parent’s to be the NIC, and school admission , through a technology supported admission system. All temporary residents are expected to register temporary residence at the Police division and GN division, although this is overlooked other than at times of public security incidents/threats
Implication of proposal
A single application, at the temporary residence of the GN division that gets channeled to a centralised processing service will remove touch points and significantly reduce manipulation, while guaranteeing fair treatment for all applications., based on defined, fair and publicised criteria. Removing multiple applications that are handled manually, resulting in a multitude of potentially forged documentation (and the best forgery may require more money, once again removing access to the not so well off
3.b Remove the proof of residence criteria . Instead of this, ensure one single point of registration at the GN division of the families residence at the time window of the application.
Implication of the proposal
More often than not this criteria cannot be proven straightforward, resulting in cases of excellently forged documents and system manipulation gaining admission than a genuine candidate who lives in the catchment area of the school despite lack of the perfect document set. This is also a stress on the admission board to manage, a waste of man-hours, and leaves much room for children as young as 4 years old, learn to lie and cheat. Removing this criteria leaves room for the toxic competition resultant from the present system.
3.c Remove the interview stage of the school admission process
The interview by the school board does not serve any useful purpose, other than solicit funds for the school development fund. In a truly free education setting, this need not be linked with school admission. If a parent is able to and wants to support the development of any school, that can remain so, but independent from the admission process. Furthermore, in a centralised admission process, the interview will not be viable or practical in terms of man-hours required, in a redundant step in the admission.
Issue 3: Facilitating equitable access in a limited system
There are limited places in prestigious/good schools and there is severe competition to get into them. How can even a centralized system be fair to all in this system, given the scarcity of good schools?
How do you make the process more equitable and not a competition?
PTF refers to establishing a 1000 secondary schools that are of equal standards across the country.EF-SL further improves this by proposing a ranking system of such secondary schools with incentives in place to improve the ranking of schools over the years. How do we transition from the now to the future of the 1000 secondary schools that are on par across the island? (The 1000 secondary schools is not a new concept and has had several failed attempts since the 1990s)
4. Admissions through a lottery system
Managing admissions to school at any level (Primary, secondary or mid-point due to transfers requested) should run on a lottery system. Illustration of a possible Lottery system administered centrally by the Ministry of Education, where application is received as one unique application for a child, through the Grama Niladari, of the current resident locality.
System would offer a good chance (e.g. 70%) of getting a school within a small radius (e.g. 5 km), with all schools in that radius having equal probability, and then a lesser chance (e.g. 30%) of getting a school in a larger radius (e.g. within 5 and 10 km) and that the 1000 secondary schools dispersed equitably through the country. Transfers will be treated in the same manner.Transfers (because of a change of residence, or because the school doesn’t offer classes beyond a certain grade) would also be based on lottery. After O/L everyone who passes goes into a lottery to get their A/L school, and the algorithm would guarantee (even at a greater distance) entrance to desired stream (for as long as A/Ls are organized as streams) if the entrance requirements are met .
Implication of the proposal
Fair, transparent, efficient system.The lottery system has no human intervention and is chance. There is likelihood that the economically disadvantaged may have a greater chance, statistically as they denote the larger group. This happening at a centralized ICT enabled, transparent system will remove the following inequitable criteria
- Corruption and manipulation through the application and selection process
- Remove past pupil advantage in the point system which only perpetuates and widens the inequal access to the school gap
- Eradicate room for solicitation of admission donations
5. Road map of all the proposed interventions to phase in the Lottery admission process
Introduce the lottery system progressively, along with the phasing out of SSAT/G5SE and phasing in of the 1000 secondary schools, and goals of improving ranking (proposed by EF-SL) of schools to have equitable standards across clusters, with a clear roadmap that any government in power would be bound to implement. (e.g. 10% of 2022 admissions in this scheme, 20% of 2023, 30% of 2024)
Implication of the proposal
This method would incentivize and accelerate the reallocation of resources to develop the under privileged schools while removing the intense pressure and need to have a primary grade high stakes exam, that all educationists agree as inappropriate, but see as compelling due to the egalitarian goal of providing social mobility to the underprivileged.
The dispersion of the higher SEC families through a range of schools across the island, who otherwise concentrated on a few prestigious schools, then have the opportunity and the personal interest to support and develop many more schools through School Development Societies/funds, and by removing decentralization and thereby OGA/OBA influence over admissions, no parent is compelled to contribute unless inspired by egalitarian goals of “Pay-it-back” or “Pay-it-forward” .
Issue 4: Poverty and access to education
This has been acknowledged as an issue and remedies proposed both in EFL and PTF.
EF-SL proposes (Recommendation 8) a review of the value of the bursary commensurate with the current costs of relocation etc; The PTF proposes to maintain the statusquo of the bursary for those who qualify to attend prestigious schools/and eventually the 1000 secondary schools to the same qualifying group. PTF further proposes financial assistance from Grade 1 onwards.
“…A learning support grant can be provided to the children in low-income families from grade 1 onwards, may be combining with family-based subsidy grant .” (Section 2.3 Primary Education, proposals, page 12)
We propose to move away from financial assistance be tied to academic performance (scholarship) in the long run, and should be another one that is phased out along with the above changes proposed. The financial assistance proposed from grade 1 (In the PTF) onwards is a more progressive one, and should be substantial to support the child to remain in school. This may seem as a cost that the state cannot afford, however, when considering the socio-economical costs associated with children dropping out of school (that results in costs to the state of increased crime, prisons, rehabilitation and economic loss of human capital removed from productive work) , such an investment is worth resourcing for. A public system must seek to elevate the socio-economic status of the many and not a few. As raising the socio-economy status of the many is counter-productive even if one views it in a purely economic point of view.
Issue 5: Carry through - Police Implementation
Finally, all of these proposals must be inter-linked and roadmapped over a period of time (i.e 10 years) , and as these are radical shifts, positive and sustained communication and engagement with the public is crucial, to avoid backlash (change resistance) at each stage. Such implementation and communication must also have a sustained mechanism that can withstand government changes. Many a good reform fails to follow through due to very poor communication and public engagement, where the reforms are hijacked and politicised, resulting in heavy compromises, and/or complete withdrawal, and much reinventing of the wheel.