The majority of English teachers in the rural schools of Sri Lanka are themselves unable to speak or write English correctly. If you want to understand how teacher supply can impact not just individual lives but also how whole societies operate, there is no better example than that: the poor of Sri Lanka, who live outside the urban centers, are kept poor through sub-standard education.
English is one of the compulsory subjects in our schools. When students are 16 years old their knowledge of English is tested in the Ordinary Level exam, considered one of the most important exams they will take. Despite "learning" English for 11 years, only around 8%-10% of the students in rural areas pass this exam.
That’s because the best teachers of the language do not venture into rural communities. The facilities are poor and the lifestyle harder. They seek employment in well developed areas, leaving the rural students without sufficient opportunities or coaching to speak English – as I said above, many of the teachers that do make it to these communities to teach English barely speak the language themselves. With no infrastructure or internet, there is little the students can do to help themselves.
And so these students suffer. They are denied their right to an education and this impacts there entire life. Although Sinhala and Tamil are widely spoken languages within Sri Lanka, job opportunities are contingent upon one’s ability to converse in English. Nearly all employers expect fluency in English which means that most of our rural youths are rejected at interviews due to lack of knowledge of English, even if they are very capable and have very sound educational and other qualifications.
At my school, we are doing our best to end this poverty loop by bringing excellent English tuition to rural communities. My school serves the poorest communities, the tea plantation workers, and it is in one of the most remote areas in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. We have helped more than 700 youths in this area and this is already creating a positive impact within the community.
But we are just one school. As a country, we need to address the shortage of qualified English teachers in rural areas to provide these children with the equal access to opportunities that they are entitled to.
Yadharshani Selvaraj is principal of Tea Leaf Vision in Maskeliya in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Tea Leaf Vision is a UK based charity funded by Lebara Foundation.