Rural empowerment

| by Victor Cherubim
( December 5, 2012, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) While rural electrification is bringing electrical power and the internet to remove villages and newly carpeted roads are opening up these settlements, secondary education implementation, is somewhat lagging behind. Secondary education for the rural community is thus a priority.
A legacy of our colonial past has been that good secondary education has continued to remain the privilege of the elite middle classes in Sri Lanka. Though understandable, it cannot and should not continue as an acceptable situation, if we want a rural upliftment.
Consecutive governments since independence have produced plans and policies. Free education, State language and other planned positive discrimination in education, according to educational critics has achieved some success, at least in rousing patriotism, but have failed in practical implementation of policies.
Rural schools including “privenas” have benefitted with free education and teaching only in one medium of national language, either Sinhala or Tamil. The apparent dividend of the free education system was a basic literacy rate of 91.2% of the population and a 1:20 teacher/pupil ratio, which Sri Lanka claimed as an excellent educational standard compared to most South Asian and other developing countries. Surprisingly, these claims concealed the reality of rural education and rural schools where unequal distribution of modern learning resources, has led to a noticeable imbalance.
Improving the quality of education in rural areas everywhere in the country is most important for youth and for future generations. What is termed as rural space with the problem of access to education and training, food security, health and among other concerns capacity building, known as poverty alleviation, is the platform of the present government. But the implementation of this worthy scheme has been thwarted in more ways.
Fault line in implementation
Implementation of rural education projects has been beset with utilisation of resources, award of contracts, lack of rural consultation process. What was once considered an educational bonus for rural state-aided schools with Sinhala language as the basis of advancement for the rural masses has now faced a barrier in plan implementation. Similarly in rural Tamil areas, a lack of teaching and proficiency in English language is a major disadvantage. Both rural communities are in a rut.  
One of the disturbing aspects of educational policy and its implementation is the widening gap in provision of educational facilities for urban and rural children. The depressed state of rural education is aggravated by other contradictions between the rich and the poor, between rural and urban, those wielding political power and influence and those without, but paradoxically the conflict of interest between the policymakers and those on the ground in implementing this policy.
Strict guidelines and close monitoring of policies are necessary at rural levels. A culture of impunity by too much meddling, and too little proper control prevails.
For over half a century, fee levying schools in urban areas have benefitted with funding by wealthy parents. These schools are better controlled, better equipped with diversified extracurricular activities, better able to attract, competent teachers, with state of the art computers, internet facilities, learning of English and other foreign languages and science based education, to face the global challenges of the marketplace. However, the strategies of focussing policies of education for rural development at primary and secondary levels are now viewed as largely obsolete.

 The Divineguma bill before Parliament, is of essence not just a policy approach to enhance rural masses out of poverty alleviation, but as a forthright and practical way at tackling the challenge of the development of human capital and the vast untapped rural education. 

Rural migration to towns and cities
In the face of this milieu, the motivation of some affordable rural parents is to migrate their children not only to State schools in urban areas, also to fee levying and international schools in urban areas. A vacuum has thus been artificially created in rural education with this exodus to urban schools. But more alarming is the rural dropout rate of education. UNICEF maintains that as much as 85% of rural children between 5 and 14 years of age in Sri Lanka are drop outs of secondary education. These figures may accelerate in the foreseeable future with rural schools having to close down or having to maintain class sizes, with adequate modern facilities.
The children left in rural schools are at present only taught in the national language. They are at a definite disadvantage of being unable to enter the medical faculty in universities where most of the courses are conducted in English. What was considered as a boon to correct an imbalance and to help the rural communities, over 40 years of swabasha education, has become a burden.
But now the emphasis is placed on the tri-lingual policy. This is too little, too late.
Further, rural schools use outdated colonial style text-book learning techniques, which has its limitations to survive and face local and global realities. The knowledge that the rural children gain from rural schools is more or less practically unhelpful to meet the career demands within the country. Many students in rural areas are at a disadvantage to find employment opportunities other than only as agricultural labour. Many are unemployed or under-employed and less productive with female rural students voting with their feet and opting to foreign shores. The plan to fund computers for all rural schools is commendable, but monitoring is lacking.
 Development of human capital in rural areas
The Government is concerned with the scale of the problem of rural education. Teacher training is not available in numbers for proper advancement of rural education. Trans-generational educational gap is becoming apparent as parents in rural areas are unable to meet the demands of their children in the Internet Age, where little or nothing is hardly in Sinhala or Tamil. Besides, the fact that Provincial Councils in rural areas, the providers of most of the funding for rural state education, find themselves unable to provide adequate finance to rural schools to compete with incomparable offers of private education as well as at state aided schools in urban areas.
The Divineguma bill before Parliament, is of essence not just a policy approach to enhance rural masses out of poverty alleviation, but as a forthright and practical way at tackling the challenge of the development of human capital and the vast untapped rural education. Teaching of English as a second language is a sine qua non for rural development. Creating centres of excellence in rural areas will reverse the trend of the late 20th century for the village to move into the town. This is an important transitional time as the educational input of any government action is a long term challenge, with a new educational focus in rural education.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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