HEALTH, EDUCATION AND YAHAPALANA Part 2
Posted on April 16th, 2019

KAMALIKA  PIERIS

SMART EDUCATION”

In April 2017 65 schools in the Western Province  were converted into ‘Smart Schools’ capable of deploying digital learning protocols. The project was  led by Guru.lk, Sri Lanka’s leading eLearning portal. The company collaborated with Commercial Bank of Ceylon, Microsoft Sri Lanka and the Western Province Education Ministry over a six month period to complete the project.

The objective of the project was to expose traditional classroom based teachers and students to the latest digital based learning technology and systems. This would enable students to make the best use of    the tablet computers which the Ministry planned to introduced to the government schools system.

The project involved providing the schools with content to use on computers, a learning management system, Microsoft Office 365 licenses and technical support. It included training more than 1,000 teachers in the use of the necessary hardware and software. Many of the teachers trained for this smart schools program became capable of creating digital content themselves for the purpose of teaching their students.

The Commercial Bank of Ceylon supported the project by funding the creation of the ‘Sipnena’ website registered under the .lk and .com domains, and hosted free on guru.lk servers.
.The website offers students free access to content carefully selected to support their educational needs in line with local curricula, via more than 170 IT labs donated by the Commercial Bank to schools around the country.

The Commercial Bank made substantial investments to develop lessons for all subjects in the GCE Advanced Level Mathematics and Bio Science streams and for Grade 10 Mathematics, Science and English. The Bank also made investments to create an online Maths Lab, Mathematics Revision lessons and even a section dedicated to vocational training.

Microsoft Sri Lanka provided its world class software free of charge and also invested in teacher training for the project. Guru.lk and its owning company Headstart Ltd. provided the student Learning Management System free of charge provided content, conducted teacher training and coordinated the implementation of the project. The company was also responsible for monitoring progress and activation at ground level in the 65 schools in the Western Province.

Headstart Ltd the company that owns Guru.lk was a tech start-up with a project named ‘Vidunena’ under which the GCE A/L Science curriculum was provided to schools in an E Learning format, through an ICTA grant. It had been developing content for the ICTA/Ministry of Education on school curricula since 2009. The company  owned the largest E Learning content portal www.guru.lk in Sri Lanka with more than 235,000 learners and 1,000 plus lessons to choose from. The content knowledge pool included university academics, teachers, business leaders, corporate trainers and soft skills trainers, and is the largest such education-related talent pool in Sri Lanka. 

In  July 2017.Microsoft invited Guru.lk, to present a case study  on the project to Microsoft country representatives from the Asia Pacific region, Microsoft education partners and officials from Microsoft’s head office in USA. Hasitha Dela, CEO of Headstart Ltd said in his presentation, that the project was completed in record time despite Sri Lanka’s digital literacy rate being just 26% .The project include schools of varying sizes, standards and locations. Teacher competitions were held and each teacher achievement was rewarded with Microsoft badges which enabled them to compete with regional countries. Sri Lankan teachers have earned more than 12,000 Microsoft badges, one of highest figures for countries in the Asia Pacific region.

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Sri Lanka’s first cloud-based Smart Classroom was set up in January 2017, at the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte Maha Vidyalaya. Seventeen students  participated in the pilot project. Lessons were conducted in the English medium and the students  used tablet computers instead of textbooks for interactive learning. The individual tabs will mirror lessons from a large screen computer that replaces the blackboard as a teaching guide.

The first grade-wide deployment of Smart Classrooms    was thereafter  set up at the same school, Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte Boys School on February 2019.  These are not just classrooms with Smart Boards. They use an intuitive learning platform connecting teachers and students. These Smart Classrooms are powered by XOLO Smart Classroom platform developed and managed by CodeGen .

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The Ministry of Education  then embarked on a plan to establish Smart Classrooms for 342 schools. The progamme was first launched with 42 schools in 2016, 150 in stage II and 150 schools in the last phase in 2018. Altogether, 50,000 students  benefited, at a cost of Rs 1,000 million, for the purchase of tabs, laptops and infrastructure facilities. Schools needed access to basic facilities such as electricity and Internet. As facilities to other schools improved, the Ministry would provide  Smart Classroom facilities to other schools as well.

The Ministry embarked on a pilot project to  give free tablets to Advanced Level students and teachers in government schools. Yahapalana earlier planned to lease laptops from the private sector, which would be responsible for maintenance and repairs. Then they found that it was cheaper for the Ministry to purchase and supply Laptops.

Laptops would be purchase under a 3-year guarantee and the total project cost was estimated at Rs 12 billion, with which they could purchase around 160,000 Laptops, while repairs and maintenance were estimated at Rs 400 million. An estimated Rs 597.6 million  was  allocated for the project, under which 628 schools were to be provided with 14,230 Laptops. The Ministry will    provide laptops to selected schools in difficult areas as well. Schools that do not have electricity will have to get the laptops charged elsewhere. 

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 In 2018,  Yahapalana  approved a proposal to raise a US$ 56.9 million loan for the establishment of a National Centre for Creating E-Learning Resources, for teaching through Computers. Under the plan the Ministry of Education would formalize applying Information Technology  in Schools. The proposal is to provide Computers and Accessories to all Regional Computer Resources Centers, construct 2 Provincial IT Educational Centers associated with Addalachchena and Nilwala National Colleges of Education, and establish a National Level Software & Computer Application Design Center at Narangallawaththa, Kurunegala. The money  will be raised from the Economic Development Cooperative Fund and the Abu Dhabi Fund, through the Korean Import Export Bank.

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The Ministry has given instructions to weed the school libraries. The Ministry of Education  said that, in order to introduce digital and electronic Libraries into schools, weeding/discarding was necessary. Books printed over 20 years ago, highly academic material not suitable for schoolchildren, books that undermines national unity, containing outdated and misleading information, old annual reports and newspapers, books not used by students, are instructed to be removed immediately from school Libraries,

A circular has been issued including weeding instructions to all provincial and Zonal Directors of Education, school Principals, Principals of Teacher Training Colleges and National Education Colleges.. The Principal must appoint a 5-11-member committee to work with the school librarian/library committee. The committee will prepare a weeding list, make submissions/recommendations, indicating items for weeding, and finally decide on the removal.

Materials to be removed should be exhibited within the school premises, followed by an open negotiation with representatives from teaching staff, parent’s committee and students. Among those to be considered before weeding are dictionaries and encyclopedias, if the existing version is more than 20 years old, Central Bank annual reports and Budget proposals, subject books for Mathematics, Science and Technology, readers demand and preference, cost effectiveness of rebinding, availability of substitute material and conserving books with a historical or cultural value.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS

When JR Jayewardene was President,  government decided to assist certain  Christian  schools which, having decided to   become private schools in 1960,  were now in financial difficulties.  A category called Government-approved Private Schools was created.  The government provided school uniforms and textbooks to the 80 Government-approved Private schools. 36 schools were given money to pay teachers’ salaries. The UNP government of the time was restoring ‘assisted school system’ which was eliminated in the 1960  ‘take over of schools ‘. Thanks to this new plan, some  Christian schools, moved out of the state sector and went  private. St Anthony’s College, Kandy was one of them, I think.

Yahapalana government  decided to  further extend this. In 2019, Yahapalana announced that  it intends to provide assistance to 13 more unaided Private schools, after  they were converted into Government-assisted Private schools,  following Education Ministry criteria. Yahapalana would pay teachers salaries to 13 private schools that do not currently receive assistance from the government. 381 teachers at these schools would be paid a colossal sum of Rs. 160 million a year.

The 13 schools  are Sri Sumeda Vidyalaya, Gampaha, Bolawalana Ave Maria Vidyalaya, Negombo, Nalanda Buddhist Vidyalaya, Kundasale, Suradithika Balika Vidyalaya Paiyagala, Siri Sumana Buddhist Vidyalaya Biyagama, N.C.E.F. Buddhist Vidyalaya, Mulleriya, Minerva Vidyalaya, Matara, Sri Rahula, Anuradhapura, Sinhala Buddhist Vidyalaya, Matale, Western Province Jaya Indrasiri Vidyalaya, Pitakotte, Mahamvenawa Buddhist Vidyalaya, Kurunegala and Vidyani Vidyalaya, Kelaniya. The Ceylon Teachers Union said  this was an additional burden for the cash-strapped Education Ministry and the money could be better used to upgrade and provide facilities for schools in rural areas.

 In 2018 Cabinet  approved a government proposal to allow popular semi-government schools to establish branches across the country..A total of 36 popular semi-government schools including St Peter’s, St Joseph’s College and Wesley College in Colombo, Maris Stella College and Loyola College in Negombo, Holy Cross College, Kalutara and Christ King College, Pannipitiya are allowed to build five branches each around the country, according to cabinet paper No. 18/0850/742/017 of April 26, 2018. By 2019, these schools had established nine branches in Negombo, Wattala, Katunayake, Bopitiya and Kalutara. Ceylon Teachers Union said allowing popular schools to build branches across the country would result in the  closure of  several existing schools.

FREE TEXT BOOKS

In 2018,  Yahapalana  had printed only a fraction of the free textbooks books needed for schools. The total requirement of textbooks for 2018  was over 41 million and Rs 4.385 billion was allocated. However they  printed just over 28 million (28, 210, 600) books. This  resulted in a severe shortage of text books . Teachers too are affected by the situation as the number of textbooks needed for the teachers has not been included in the printed textbooks.

out of the 28 million books that were printed, the government had printed 8,802,100 new books for Grade 1- 4, 6,432,000 new books for Grade 09 and 2,630,000 work new books, these had to be printed due to syllabus change. Students from Grade 6 to Grade 9 had been told to re-use about previously used books .  Some students were receiving new books while others were told to re-use the old books.

Most of the old books could not  be reused because  they were not in good condition.   They were  torn, damaged and written all over. Students who received these old books are now buying new ones. The past few weeks saw hundreds of parents standing in queues at the Education Publications Department bookshops, to buy  the books., complained Ceylon Teachers Union. The Ministry had created an artificial shortage  to make students buy the books. This has ensured that a large number of students are buying books from the Department.

In 2017 Yahapalana had started printing prices at the back of each textbook. The reason for printing the book price, the teachers unions were told was to show the students the value of books they were getting for free. This was not accepted. This was a move to reduce expenditure on free education, encourage the purchase of books and initiate a voucher system for textbooks similar to that for uniform material.

The Commissioner of General Education Publications, blamed the Government Press, which had delayed the matter,  due to the printing of election poll cards and the Bond Commission report. This  explanation  was  not accepted. School textbooks need to be given out before the school holidays and are  printed  much earlier. About 97% of school textbooks are printed by 26 private sector printers.  Education Publications Department advertised on January 30, 2018 calling for tenders for the printing of extra textbooks.

UNIFORMS

Yahapalana  had earlier decided to issue vouchers instead of material for school uniforms. This was heavily criticized.There has been criticism from various parties about the Voucher system, for school uniforms, but we have decided not to withdraw the scheme, said the Ministry. The Ministry  decided to continue with the Voucher system, despite protests, but will consider increasing the payment for material.  The scheme cannot be changed immediately, as it would take time to order the material and  issue it. There would  also be problems regarding storage, transportation, administrative, additional staff for distribution, the possibility of low quality material reaching the market and irregularities of tenders.

SURAKSHA

 In 2017 the Cabinet approved a proposal to introduce an insurance scheme, for all school children between the ages of 5 and 19 years  in both government and private school students,   at a cost of Rs. 2700 million to the government.   Around 4.5 million schoolchildren from all walks of life studying in government, private and international schools as well as student priests in Pirivenas are covered under this scheme. This scheme, named Suraksha commenced on 2.10.17 . The scheme  was facilitated by Sri Lanka Insurance, which offers the service through its extensive network of 150 branches island-wide.

Suraksha consists of three main areas – Health Insurance, Personal Accident Insurance and Special Benefits .The insurance cover includes surgical and hospitalization benefits of Rs. 200,000 per annum as well as outdoor patients’ benefits worth Rs. 10,000 for seven selected ailments. Further, there is a personal accident insurance benefit provided to both student and parents – Rs. 100,000 to be paid upon the sudden accidental death of the student as well as a cover worth Rs. 100,000 in the event of a total permanent disability and Rs. 50,000 to be paid upon partial permanent disability of the student.

The scheme also covers parents’ accidental death where a sum of Rs. 75,000 is paid to the student for such losses. Suraksha beneficiaries are also entitled to additional benefits such as discounts on hospitalization, consultants’ fees, etc.

 The scheme was successful, said the media. By May 2018 the government has paid Rs. 89 million in claims to 8,870 people said Daily News   over 1,600 claims were already paid by Sri Lanka Insurance said Island. The insurer has received over 4,300 insurance claims from schoolchildren during the last four months..

Several success stories  of Suraksha were given in the media. A school girl needed Rs 2.5 million for a spine operation at a private hospital. Her father found out about the scheme and applied for it. Within two to three days I was able to get Rs. 100,000. Though the cost was not recovered 100 percent, it was something.” A schoolboy got dengue twice, The first time, Suraksha helped meet part of the hospital bill, and the second time, we were able to recover the whole amount through Suraksha,” the father said

B.A. Rupika’s  husband in Wattemulla met with an accident and passed away. She is now the sole breadwinner in her family. As she struggled to make ends meet, her child’s school informed her that she could apply for a claim through Suraksha. The claim took 1.5 months, but she was able to get Rs. 75,000 for the death of her husband, It helped me a lot,” she said.

 One parent, Senadeera,  said that many  parents were reluctant to claim through Suraksha because either way they would have to foot the initial amount on their own and only later get it reimbursed. Many people cannot afford to put up that initial sum.

There must be a direct payment scheme where the insurance covers the cost without us having to pay it first. If you connect the hospitals directly to the insurance company, many more people will make claims.” Though government hospitals are meant to be free, in reality healthcare is not. There are many expenses people have to bear, from costs in care to tests, he added.

Also, there were many delays when applying for claims, especially when it was applied through a branch office of Sri Lanka Insurance, The first time we applied, we did so through the Kaduwela branch and we had to follow up so many times, because they told us that the claim has to be sent to their head office to be processed. The second time around, it took less time because we knew the system and applied directly at their head office,’  said Senadeera

He further asked that the amount given per day to the child admitted at a government hospital be increased. This scheme is most helpful to parents who can’t afford healthcare. So Rs. 1,000 per day is not enough, it should be more.”

The level of awareness about Suraksha  varies in schools. Some schools are doing a good job whilst others are not interested,” A parent found out that her child’s school had not registered with Sri Lanka Insurance, when she called them up to ask whether her child was eligible for the scheme. The school just sent us a leaflet about it once, but thereafter they did not collect my son’s information or tell us how we could apply for it,” she said.

Also though they had applied for the scheme, at first they were not aware of what exactly it covered. Admission charges to private hospitals are not covered. It is only when the child is going to be discharged that they tell us what is covered and what is not. They should inform the parents about this at the start,”  she observed. This is a  common problem with all  types of insurance.

 The Education Ministry said they had conducted an awareness programme for schools on December 7, 2017. They were having discussions with Sri Lanka Insurance to have more awareness programmes conducted in schools.  The Ministry has also asked whether the Insurance Corporation can look at a scheme to directly connect their services with the hospitals. We were hoping that at least some hospitals could be selected to do this at the start and later it could be expanded to all others,” said the Ministry. Sri Lanka Insurance is yet to agree to the proposal they said in 2018.

In 2019, the picture  changed. The   agreement with Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) expired on November 30, 2018. The SLIC has paid only Rs 450 million as claims, while the total amount insured was Rs 2,700 million. Around 4,000 claims from schoolchildren, received by the Ministry under the Suraksha insurance scheme, remain unpaid, said the Ceylon Teachers Union  in 2019. The paperwork for the claimants was done  by the teachers. The children were automatically registered under Suraksha, but the responsibility of collecting the student’s information and registering them with the scheme and making parents aware of the benefits has been delegated to the school authorities by the Education Ministry.

The scheme has come to a halt in 2019 and the claims  put on hold,  due to a deadlock between the Ministry and the Presidential Secretariat, over the selection of the Insurance company. The Allianz Co. was initially awarded the contract,  they had made the best offer, but Sri Lanka Insurance appealed to the Presidential Secretariat Appeal Board. The Appeal Board decided that the Allianz . should be awarded the contract, but Presidential Secretariat directed the Ministry to halt the issue of the contract. objections were also raised by trade unions against awarding the deal to a foreign company.

Thereafter, no directive has been issued about the contract, thereby putting the entire project on hold, reported the media. Students who relied on the insurance scheme and entered hospitals or proceeded with medical treatment, have been affected.

the best course of action is for the Ministry to scrap the Insurance scheme and instead, establish an office which will make payments for the claims, said the Ceylon Teachers Union.  Then the government could save money and use it for the development of schools providing good buildings, water and other facilities. Alternatively, the funds could be used to establish children’s hospitals with all facilities.

The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA)   also  urged the Government to reconsider the  proposal to introduce a health insurance scheme for all school children on the grounds that it lacked consultation with key stakeholders and impacted on the current free health service. Neither the Ministry of Health nor professional medical bodies have been engaged in planning or implementing the insurance scheme, which will have wide-ranging implications for the health sector.

while there already is a free national health service,  what is the justification for a new insurance scheme for school-going children, SLMA asked. This is an age group that generally requires very little curative care. If at all, this health insurance scheme should target children with critical and chronic illnesses. SLMA said. The major health issues afflicting the school-going population such as malnutrition, obesity, unhealthy eating patterns, insufficient physical activity, exam stress and broader mental health concerns will not be addressed by this insurance scheme.

The SLMA said the Government should direct funds set aside for the proposed new scheme  toward strengthening primary care. Developing a strong primary care system, encompassing preventive and curative services, will be beneficial to all Sri Lankans, including school-going children,” SLMA said. ( CONTINUED)

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