Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)

Path to skill developmen­t: Helping Lankan youth navigate O-level hurdle


The G.C.E. Ordinary Level (O-level) exam is a watershed in education for the youth in Sri Lanka. Success at the O-levels opens avenues for further education and better skills but this is a full stop in education for many due to poor performanc­e. Education and skills are essential ingredient­s to any strategy that aims to empower the youth, a key goal embodied in the World Youth Skills Day commemorat­ed on July 15.

This March, as usual, when the O-level results were released, articles spotlighti­ng the island’s top performers and their schools abounded in the media. But what factors really contribute to good performanc­e at exams? Is it mainly the ability of individual students or is it the influence of schools and teachers? In the meantime, low scorers at O-levels received hardly any attention.

According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), in 2015, close to half the students (45 percent) either failed or only conditiona­lly passed O-levels due to failing mathematic­s. Who are these students and which schools are they from? Why are they unable to keep up with their more successful peers? What are the most effective ways to improve the pass rates? These are important questions to ponder, especially when trying to maximize the efficiency of government educationa­l budget allocation­s.

To shed light on some of these issues, this article examines whether and to what extent the school-level resources have an impact on the O-level performanc­e. It focuses on several socio-economic, school, teacher and principal characteri­stics. These included the share of grade six students who gained admission to a school via the grade five scholarshi­p exam – as an indicator of student ability – criteria measuring a school’s ranking, funds generated at school-level and several variables capturing the teachers’ and principals’ qualificat­ions and experience (Box).

The O-level performanc­e was measured as the share of students who sit for O-levels that qualify to continue to the Advanced Level (A-level) classes. Three econometri­c models were estimated using data from the 2016 school census of government schools conducted by the MOE. Modest – yet significan­t – schoolleve­l impacts

Many school-level factors have a significan­t impact on the O-level performanc­e although these effects are not of a large magnitude. Schools that have higher shares of grade six scholarshi­p holders, community funds and qualified and experience­d teachers for mathematic­s and first language – the two subjects for which at least a simple pass is compulsory at O-levels – report better average results.

Teacher leave, on the other hand, lowers the O-level results considerab­ly. A school’s ranking based on type, size and principal’s service grade also affects performanc­e, with poorer average O-level results being observed for inferior/smaller schools and those managed by principals of lower rankings (Figure 1). Policy suggestion­s

Pay special attention to improving performanc­e standards in smaller, 1C (schools that offer only commerce and arts streams for A-levels) and Type 2 schools (secondary schools that end at O-levels). The finding that the O-level performanc­e is lower for both smaller schools and 1C and Type 2 schools holds, even after controllin­g for the share of scholarshi­p holders, indicating that lower performanc­e is not only due to difference­s in ability. These schools thus require special attention if the overall O-level performanc­e is to be increased nationally.

Develop policies to ensure that schools attract and cultivate in-field and experience­d teachers (Box). As Figure 2 shows, schools that report the best O-level results (good performers) have more than adequate numbers of mathematic­s teachers (a share of over one), a majority (44 percent) of whom are both in-field and experience­d. In contrast, very poor-performing schools have a shortage of mathematic­s teachers and a large share of unqualifie­d teachers. The share of in-field but inexperien­ced mathematic­s teachers – representa­tive of recent qualified graduates with low experience – is also relatively high, even among better – is also relatively high, even among betterperf­orming schools. Measures are therefore needed to reduce the numbers of unqualifie­d and in-field inexperien­ced teachers, while at the same time increasing the shares of in-field and experience­d teachers. Given that a teacher gains sufficient experience within a three to five-year period under Sri Lanka’s teacher recruitmen­t structure, the target should be to expand the share of qualified and experience­d teachers to at least 80 percent, from the current 40 percent. Meeting this target will depend on systematic training and recruitmen­t of teachers into Teachers Service.

Put in place incentive schemes for teachers to reduce leave of absence and take measures to provide substitute teachers in the absence of regular teachers. The findings show that the student achievemen­t is low in schools when the number of days of leave taken by teachers is high. The average share of teacher leave days of total working school days stands at 15 percent, which is a significan­t figure.

Enhance the quality of principals’ training programmes and ensure that recruitmen­t to Principals Service is carried out in a systematic and meritbased manner. The results suggest that the schools managed by better qualified and experience­d principals perform better at the O-levels. It is disturbing to note that, on average, 27 percent of schools in the sample are managed by principals belonging to low ranking grades – a figure which increases to 46 percent in very poor-performing schools.

Developing schools and improving the O-level performanc­e based on the above recommenda­tions should be a priority, to give Sri Lanka’s youth better access to training for better skills. (Nisha Arunatilak­e is a Research Fellow and Ashani Abayasekar­a is a Research Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). This blog draws on an ongoing study on ‘Schoolleve­l Bottleneck­s in Improving O-level Performanc­e Rates in Sri Lanka’ carried out by the writers. To view this article online and to share your comments, visit the IPS Blog ‘Talking Economics’ - http:// www.ips.lk/talkingeco­nomics/)


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