Promises to Keep

by Anne Henry; Daily Mirror, Colombo, November 18, 2003

School Children in front of Mined area in Vettilakerni, Jaffna 2003 (Photo credit UNHCR)

A report released by UNICEF last week on catch-up education for children in the North and East makes for uncomfortable reading. While the Board of Investment trumpets Sri Lanka’s achievements in “lead[ing] the South Asian region… with its high literacy rate of 91% placing it way ahead of other South Asian nations & on a par with those of south east Asia”, in some areas of the Vanni only 75% of school-age children are actually attending school at all.

Twenty years of conflict has created a chasm dividing Sri Lanka’s literate masses from a significant minority whose access to basic education is radically limited. The North & East Provincial Ministry of Education estimates that there are nearly 94,000 children in the area not enrolled in school, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the physical destruction of schools has made it impossible for education to continue as normal. Nearly a quarter of the schools in these areas have been damaged or destroyed by bombing, or as a result of being commandeered by the military. In Mannar, over 85% of schools were damaged in the conflict, and in Jaffna two-thirds of the schools have had to move to different locations. With children trying to learn in the rubble, surrounded by bullet holes, not sure if classes will be held from one day to the next, it is not surprising that low morale is one of the factors blamed for the high drop-out rate.

Muslim school UNHCR will rehabilitate in Jaffna 2003 (Photo: UNHCR) 

This lack of morale has also spread to the teachers. The government’s push to recruit 50,000 new teachers between 1989 and 1994 was initially successful, but large class sizes, isolation and lack of training have led to high levels of teacher absenteeism. Their places are filled by volunteer teachers who may only have had a few days’ training.

The school census of 2000 reported that only 27% of teachers, island-wide had passed their GCE O-levels, and only 28% had been to university. Where poorly trained teachers are also taking on the burden of addressing the psychological issues of the children, the problem of teacher shortage becomes even more acute. A recent survey estimated that as many as a quarter of children in the Vanni Region suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders.

Despite the cease-fire, many children are still living their daily lives in a kind of permanent emergency situation.

Tens of thousands of families have been displaced as a result of the conflict, and many have yet to find a permanent home. There are still 8,000 people living in government welfare centres in Vavuniya alone, and conditions are primitive. With a tarpaulin for a roof and a wood fire for cooking, for many of these families the priority is getting enough food for their children to eat, rather than getting them to school. And poverty is still a problem for families with homes of their own. Children who have lost one or both parents in the conflict work in garment factories, sell fruit, or collect bottles or iron in order to bring in money following the loss of a bread-winning parent.

School in Vettilakerni, Jaffna 2003 (Photo: UNHCR)

However, as Suranimal Rajapaksa, Minister of School Education, remarked in a message to the UNICEF symposium, Sri Lanka as a country has always prized education, and the government “accepts it is vital”. Historically, catch-up education (CUE) has been implemented by a number of agencies working independently of each other – including UNICEF, GTZ, Save the Children and the International Labour Organization – providing evening classes, weekend classes, temporary schools and non-formal education. Unsurprisingly, the key recommendation of the report is that the state should co-ordinate the activity of all these disparate agencies, in order to ensure resources are used to maximum effect. State intervention would also ensure that there is adequate, standardised teacher training.

The report also revealed that there was no clear interpretation of the purpose of catch-up education. Pupils in CUE classes have included low achievers, children without schools near their homes, even children requiring coaches for their GCE O-levels. The risk is that CUE classes become a catch-all, although they are provided solely as a temporary measure and are reliant on the support of international aid agencies – UNICEF envisages phasing out CUE in 2006. Sustainability can only be ensured by reintegrating children back into normal schools.

The damage done to their schools and homes, as well as to the children’s psyches, is immense, and last week’s report is just the first step in the massive efforts needed to restore normality to these areas. Ms Kamala Peiris, a consultant author of the report, summed it up best. Describing the huge responsibility we all have towards the children affected by the conflict, she concluded her remarks by quoting Robert Frost:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Daily Mirror, Colombo
November 18, 2003

originally published November 18, 2003

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