[Disclaimer: Opinions/experiences gathered from people who’ve been to/are familiar with all types of schools in our system. Acknowledge that; several schools might not fit into this problematic criteria and that there are several that are in fact worse; this pressure continues on to university too; not all parents or teachers place the same crippling pressure on children.]

Every teacher you’ll have in Grades 10 and 11 will begin their first lesson of the year by saying that ‘the O Levels are the most important exam of your life’. This will subsequently become the opener of the first lesson of every term and in some cases, the first lesson of every week. Not discounting the fact that this could very well happen on the daily.
Replace O Levels with A Levels and repeat this process over Grades 12, 13 and 14 [if you choose to go to school that year].
Five years of your life are reduced to the [collective, approximately] two months across which you will sit these two examinations.
Your whole life determined by your results at the end of this run.

This is not how it should be.

You go through school preparing for those dreaded two weeks at the end of the term where you have to remember everything you learned over the three months and repeat it under timed conditions. While most schools don’t hold you back for bad term test performance, they won’t cease to remind you of the weight of the two huge public exams waiting for you at the tail-end of your schooling career.

Fast-forward to O/A Level days, where you are reminded on the daily that failure is not an excuse. When banners go up at some schools purporting the importance of these grades on your life’s journey. Where it’s seen as the norm to give up on extra-curricular activities in your last term of school to focus on studying. Where ‘he/she is doing O/A Levels’ is a legitimate excuse for the person missing out on fun things/the outdoors/life.

We need to acknowledge that this boxed thinking of results = indicators of success in life is not just in exams but ingrained in our education systems. Working with Building Bridges, I’ve met young kids from a few schools in different parts of the island. We’re dealing in a field as subjective as art yet the binaries that they have been taught to adhere to is exhausting to try and convince them around. Class projects and exhibitions do exist but these are outweighed by the pressure placed on kids to pass exams. The lack of expression and free creativity allowed in even ‘art classes’, according to these kids’ stories, is mirrored in the whole education setup around them.

It’s either right/beautiful or wrong/not beautiful – there is nothing inbetween or around this. Trying to encourage free thinking, outrageous ideas and literally colouring out of the box are things that take time, and from our observations these previously learned ideas of perfection are hard to shake in some kids.

What does this leave us with?

This is one of many such incidents. English mainstream media reported cases in 2012, 2013, 2015, 20162017 and 2017 again. And this is just the lot that get into the news.

We have come to a place where days after results for these exams come out, we hear of a spate of suicide attempts and in some cases, deaths. Visiting someone in hospital, a nurse pointed out to me a young girl in a bed down the ward who had attempted to end her life rather than tell her parents that she hadn’t received stellar grades on her A Levels.

[Top that off with the fact that the media doesn’t know how to report suicides in a sensitive and ethical manner, instead accompanying the article with clip arts of nooses and knives. And the Police spokesperson saying ‘you need to try many times to pass an exam – kids don’t know how to manage failure.]’

You are your parents’ prize trophy, something they want to show off and often to top their friends and others in terms of your successes. In addition, most parents have bought into the notion that these public exam grades are the be all and end all of educational achievements. For some, the pressure starts as young as age 8, before the Scholarship exam. Tuition till odd hours at night and little to no room to be yourself. All parents aren’t as harsh but we do need to acknowledge that some are, that they push their kids to unrealistic limits to achieve good grades.

Teachers themselves add to this pressure instead of taking on a nurturing role to dispel it. Some teachers in some schools take their students’ results as indicators of their own capabilities and of the school’s merit, driving them to ridiculous extents to ensure that kids achieve straight A’s. A week after A Level results came out, I overheard some teachers talking on the bus, “yes results are good, but aiyo two failed no, now see, the whole school’s ranking will drop.” Priorities, right?

After all this, we’re at a place where children think their results are worth more than their lives, where they would rather die than live with the repercussions of a bad grade. Why? Because their parents and immediate social and educational environment has told them that this is their worth – that their entire lives hang on this letter or number.

Even aside from the ungodly pressure on students, this method is riddled with flaws. Practical knowledge and the application of lessons learned is an alien concept in an exam system that basically requires you to memorise and then vomit the contents of your textbook onto the exam paper. When they go into universities that are of the same methodology, this thinking is only furthered. If they go to universities that encourage self-study, critical thinking and analysis, most are left completely floored finding themselves have to ‘learn’ it all again. Competing in the job market, the textbook-driven system gives us no upper hand because you can’t think on your feet.

For example, English and other languages [aside from Sinhala and Tamil] are taught to their theoretical core but unless the students are from English-speaking backgrounds or communities, they might catch on how to effectively communicate in the language, despite having excellent writing skills. The things you study for your school exams barely prepare you for university exams, let alone the [global] job market. But no, classes-study-revise-exams-A’s, that is what counts.

While the world is competitive and a degree is an individual’s most basic bargaining chip [that on occasion doesn’t even offer a leg up], there are also more options available for individuals who fall outside the standard spectrum of interests and educational qualifications.

Then again, such alternative fields are usually considered lesser than the lauded lineup of medicine, engineering, law, accounting. Artist, entertainer, social worker, designer – but why? These fields aren’t encouraged widely in schools and seen as viable fields of employment to earn an income from. We barely have schools that entertain the interests of all kid in terms of teaching styles or subjects. Kids have big dreams – astronauts, cricketers, scientists – that are cut down to size by their principals and teachers on the daily, primarily because they don’t have the capacity to feed these dreams and ultimately because they don’t feel they are worthwhile pursuing.

There are options available, for those who don’t do or don’t do very well in exams, to continue pursuing their field of interest and at least spend a few years learning to do something they love, maybe even getting work in the said field. However these education institutes are accessible by students from certain geographical areas and a certain financial bracket. The rest will resort to working in a trade that’s widespread in their areas or simply any job to earn a living. Getting an internship and hoping that this will lead to a job placement or starting small and hoping to grow do work on occasion but we do need to realise that these methods won’t work for everyone in all parts of the country.

For the first time in what I think is a very long time [or might be ever], the Education Minister has fleetingly referred to looking into psychological well-being of students. Whether he’ll follow through on this is obviously unsure but this is where the commitment ideally needs to come from, from the very top.

Attention to the psychological well-being and holistic success of the child are something that needs to be addressed right throughout the school career. Not introducing psychology as a subject but reducing the pressure on children to succeed at exams as we do now. They should be learning, not memorising – learning from people, from the world around them, from new technology and experiences. Lessons that books alone cannot teach and marks alone cannot measure.

Stress needs to be identified as a legitimate cause of breakdown and not an indicator of how capable the child is of dealing with academics. If a kid is feeling the strain – from school, parents, teachers – they should be encouraged to open up and helped to manage it, not shut down and told to try harder. Sri Lanka is notoriously wary with conditions or handicaps for which there aren’t physical causes or symptoms so we shrug stress and pressure off with a casual ‘it’s all in your head’ [as we do with mental illnesses] and demand better of the individual. Despite our appallingly high suicide rate – over exam results and otherwise – we have an absolutely callous way of talking about the subject.

While an active, approachable school counsellor would be ideal, the least would be to have some sort of psychology training for teachers across the board would be immensely useful, to mitigate and manage stress before it mounts to an extent that the child just cannot cope. It is a known fact that teachers – in government or private schools – aren’t paid enough. But schools need to invest in their children and in the long run, this has to come through the teachers. A focus on wholesome education that goes beyond marks and grades is what kids need, both to safeguard their childhood and their emotional health.

This would require an overhaul of attitudes in everyone involved.
The teachers themselves, a shift of focus from the credentials to the children.
The parents, raising good children and not pushing them to be book-smart if their interests are elsewhere.
The education sectors, recognising that children need options and space to be themselves.
Hopefully generations from this point forward will be taught – and reminded by everyone who loves them – that they matter in spite of bad grades and that their worth exceeds the good ones.


Add yours →

  1. This is a great post summarising the nasty aspects of Sri Lanka’s “education” system.

    At the root is the act that this “education” system is from the 1800s. It’s purpose was to service the colonial process of looting of the island’s resources. By creating 1. A small native elite to manage things on the ground.
    2. A second tier of skilled labour, able to read write and perform non manual tasks

    At it’s core, the Sri Lankan “education” system has not shifted from this purpose. It serves the political class to keep such a system in operation.

    Yet another facet of tragedy in paradise.


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