By Francis Mead
BATTICALOA DISTRICT, Sri Lanka, 5 November 2007 – Twelve-year-old Saranya’s school was close to the old front line between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lanka Government forces.
She remembers the day last February when she knew she had to flee her village. “We all dived under the tables and lay on the floor. Bits of the shell landed all over the school. We were really scared,” she says.
The fallout from the recent upsurge in fighting has undermined education in many communities across the country. School records and materials, as well as buildings, were lost and destroyed, and children were sometimes left in schools without teachers.
Their education badly disrupted through months of displacement, unpredictability and fear, Sri Lankan children are in urgent need of a way to effectively cover lost ground, and to reintegrate into the regular school curriculum.
Making up for lost schooling
To address these challenges, Sri Lanka’s education authorities have stepped in, with UNICEF support, to create a new consolidated syllabus specially designed for children who have been out of regular school for up to six months.
Educators in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province – one of the regions hardest-hit by civil conflict over the past 25 years – sifted through the existing school curricula to identify the key competencies children need to get during the academic year, and to successfully make a transition to the next grade level.
The result was a focused and pared-down syllabus specifically tailored for children who need to find their way again within the school system. However, redesigning the academic elements was not enough. The new school curriculum also needed to be sensitive to the emotional impact of conflict on children, their families and teachers.
Impact of prolonged stress
At Kanista Vidyalam School, located in the LTTE-controlled locality of Vallipunam, children frequently carry out drills to prepare for the very real possibility of aerial bombardment. Last year, scores of schoolchildren in the area were killed by bombs. Since the school cannot afford proper bunkers, the children run to open trenches and cower down inside them. The sound of fighter jets sparks enormous fear.
“The kids are not in a mindset for learning and listening, so it’s very hard to teach,” says a teacher. “Normally classes have no more than 40 students, but here we have classes of up to 120 kids.”
In order to address the psychological impact of prolonged periods of stress on children, a strong psychosocial component was added to the training for the new concise curriculum, which so far has been provided to teachers in Trincomalee and Batticaloa.
A holistic approach to education
In Sri Lanka and other countries in chronic conflict conditions, providing even the most basic educational services is an enormous challenge. Simply keeping students and teachers in the classroom is often a major achievement. But there is a need to move beyond that.
While Saranya says she is happy to be back at her school, she – like many thousands of other Sri Lankan children – still faces serious difficulties. The new combined training can bring a new understanding, and a more holistic approach, to providing education to children affected by conflict.