By James Elder
GALLE, Sri Lanka, 28 May 2009- The school bell clangs loudly, announcing the start of another day at the Rathgama Siri Sumana School on the southern coast. Dressed in a white uniform, 11-year-old Ishwari Buddika eagerly makes her way to class – joining the 97 per cent of Sri Lanka’s children who are enrolled in primary school.
Education, a right that is most at risk in times of crisis, has been hit by recent conflict in the east and north of Sri Lanka as well as the ongoing after-effects of the 2004 tsunami. Although the national school enrolment statistic is promising, the figure obscures substantial challenges and regional disparities in both quality and completion. More than 1 in 6 children do not complete nine years of compulsory education. More than half of Grade 4 students do not achieve mastery in their first language, and barely 1 in 2 pass mathematics.
Glaring disparities between geographical areas further complicate the situation. In Eastern and Northern Provinces, for example, where long-term armed conflicts were resolved in the spring of 2009, just over 1 in 3 children achieve mastery in their first language; for children who attend schools in the western provinces, the language achievement rate is almost 2 in 3.
UNICEF has vigorously promoted the child-friendly school (CFS) concept in Sri Lanka as a ‘one-stop shop’ to address these issues. Child-friendly schools seek to boost rates of learning achievement, attendance and retention by adhering to the principles of child-centredness, child participation and inclusiveness.
Since 2002, UNICEF has supported Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education in implementing CFS, first piloted in 124 schools in North Western Province. National and international non-governmental organizations also participate in expanding CFS implementation. And, to date, more than 1,400 schools in Sri Lanka have joined the programme.
Within the CFS system, the rights of all children are safeguarded, and teaching and learning are based on the physical and mental needs and abilities of the children. From her view in the classroom, Ishwari’s comments reflect the success of this approach. “I love to come to school,” she says. “Unlike before, we now have very clean and attractive classrooms.”
Mr. Soysa Siriwardene, the Principal at Rathgama, where Ishwari attends, echoes her positive response. “Before we introduced the child-friendly concept into my school, children were herded into their classrooms and were virtually captives of the examinations systems,” he says. “Today, they have a more rounded education and our teachers are happier.”
UNICEF is working with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education to mainstream CFS as the national approach to primary education, a move that would benefit hundreds of thousands of children like Ishwari. This would include school development as well as training for principals, teachers, students and the community.
Both parents and members of the community are important participants in nurturing child-friendly schools. As a result, Principal Siriwardene says, the benefits of CFS extend well beyond the school grounds. “The landscape was barren earlier, with no greenery … now the students have developed an enthusiasm for flower and home gardening, which will surely instil a good tradition and a valuable practice that will last their lifetimes and benefit them as well as the country.”
The expansion of the CFS approach, which fosters acceptance, respect and support for each individual child, has become an even greater imperative in the context of the recent conflict in Sri Lanka because these schools can serve as a basis for renewal and a positive force for social transformation.
In the CFS initiative, UNICEF is placing particular emphasis on participation of children in the resettled areas. Over the next two years, US$5 million is needed to support the initiative as the Ministry of Education, UNICEF and other partners seek to further boost rates of learning achievement, attendance and retention – and to ensure that many more of Sri Lanka’s schools become child-friendly.