Where We Passed and Failed | Daily News
G.C.E. Ordinary Level Examination

Where We Passed and Failed

The O-L Exam is an integral part of our education system. (File Photo)
The O-L Exam is an integral part of our education system. (File Photo)

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” - Nelson Mandela, the first President of South Africa and anti-apartheid revolutionary (1918-2013)

Our country is riddled with a thousand and one problems in all spheres at the moment, but forgetting all of them temporarily, the entire Nation made a collective effort in the last two weeks to successfully hold the G.C.E. Ordinary Level Examination in a very challenging atmosphere.

The Ordinary Level (O-L) and the Advanced Level (A-L) Examinations are the two most critical hurdles in our school education system. The grades one scores in these highly competitive exams determine his or her future to a large extent, except for a few who are unafraid to take the less-traversed paths to craft the success story of life and some others who can depend on their parents’ fortunes to pursue what they want in life.

Whether we like it or not, what students pen to paper in two or three hours at examination halls during the O-L and A-L Exams are used to gauge their 13-year school education. The pros and cons of this system and its effect on the country’s student population is a different but important debate that has been continuing for years. Educationists and policy makers agree that reforms are overdue in our education system.

Students face the O-L Exam at Grade 11 when their age is around 16 years, but the age is not a barrier for private candidates. For example, a 74-year-old male in Neluwa sat for Science and Mathematics subjects at the recently concluded O-L Exam, reminding us that learning is a never-ending process till we die.

Passing the O-L Exam is a basic requirement to enter many careers, of course except for politics and a few other skills-based jobs. The O-L Exam for the year 2021, usually conducted in December, was held from May 23-June 1, five months behind schedule due to extended school closure owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-economic unrest in the country.

About 517,000 candidates sat for the exam at 3,844 centres islandwide, not only putting up with exam stress but also a wave of socio-economic troubles in the country. The weather was also unkind to them throughout the exam. Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic, which heavily disturbed two school years, was under control at the time of the exam.

It was heart-warming to see how the people, from ordinary citizens to troops of the Tri-Forces, went the extra mile to help the students facing the O-L exam in every way they can. These acts of kindness showcased the Nation’s love and protective instincts towards its greatest asset, the children.

Generous hearts

“We just concluded the O-L Exam which was held under the most trying circumstances in Sri Lankan history,” Examinations Commissioner General L. M. D. Dharmasena remarked at a presser held at the end of the exam last week.

“We had a myriad of issues internally due to a lack of funds and resources. When we settle those and try to move ahead, the external situation was equally bad, or even worse, with fuel shortage, power cuts, transport difficulties and inclement weather,” he said, while appreciating the timely interventions by various authorities, organisations and individuals to ease those problems and the staff, especially teachers and principals, for tolerating all difficulties and taking swift decisions on behalf of the children.

It was reported that some hotels, including some reputed hotel chains, allowed students to study at their premises in the evenings as those had continuous power supply via generators. Those hotels had even provided evening snacks, tea and dinner for them. A number of private companies offered their buses and vans free transport to students and teachers to exam centres, and many ordinary citizens voluntarily picked up and dropped students off at exam centres from their private vehicles, even by motor cycles and three-wheelers, on their way to work. It was heartening to see how vehicles stopped at bus halts at the sight of students in school uniform waiting for buses.

Heeding to open requests made by many quarters, public protests demanding fuel and LP Gas, which often blocked roads, were minimal during the whole period of exams. Same were the anti-Government protests.

Inclement weather

The South-West monsoonal rains were active in the last few weeks. Students and invigilators braved heavy rains to report to their centres and go back. Flash floods in the Puttalam district due to incessant rains in the night of May 23 and May 24 morning posed an extraordinary challenge to conduct the exam. The swift actions taken by the authorities and the overwhelming support extended at this instance by the Tri -Forces and the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) deserve plaudits.

The ground-floor exam halls of St. Andrew’s College and Zahira College in Puttalam were several feet under water, but those were quickly relocated to safer locations with the support of the DMC, Army and Navy teams. They carried desks, chairs and exam materials to new buildings wading through knee-length flood water and evacuated students and teachers in Army buses. When the engine of a bus suddenly stopped, the troops got down disregarding flood water to give it a push start. The exam was conducted smoothly in the new halls upstairs and candidates were given additional time to make up for lost time.

Navy boats and boats of the DMC and the District Secretariat Offices were facilitated to transport students and invigilators as some roads were inundated. The rescue teams had also provided breakfast and lunch to students and the staff after learning that some children had had no food in the morning. A few children, who could not go back to their homes due to floods, were provided shelter at nearby houses and temples.

Eye-opener

Gampaha Thakshila College courted controversy following pictures of some O-L candidates answering the exam paper, holding umbrellas to cover themselves and their answer scripts from the rain. The pictures taken by an invigilator from the mobile phone made the rounds in social media towards the tail end of the exam, triggering a social dialogue on the pathetic conditions under which the students faced the exam and the lack of proper infrastructure at schools in general. The pictures showed how sodden the classrooms were and there were soiled answer scripts too. Those photos, no doubt, were an important wake-up call for the authorities.

The school authorities had responded that two classrooms got wet, not because of a leaky roof, but because of drizzle that came in over dwarf walls when there was a downpour accompanied with wind, and that it often happens in those classrooms. They had gone on to reveal that the same situation had continued in those classrooms for several days during the exam. That explanation begs the question why the exam hall was not shifted to more rainproof classrooms to make the students comfortable.

“The school in question has had plenty of other classrooms that could have been utilized for the smooth conduct of exams. The hall should have been changed at least when they realized that heavy rains were to come. It is a matter of common sense. We cannot direct such things through Circulars. We have received a report on the incident and necessary actions would be taken against those responsible,” newly appointed Education Minister Dr. Susil Premajayantha said.

The immediate reaction of the Exams Chief was that of shooting the messenger when he stated that disciplinary actions would be taken against the invigilator for uploading those photos to social media.

“What should be the role of invigilator? Taking photos and uploading them to social media when the candidates write an exam in the rain or to relocate those children to a better place? She had behaved in an immature way,” he said.

However, adopting a more softened stance the next day, he said, “Uploading photos of answer scripts is anyway wrong under the law, but it is through them even we got to know the incident. This particular invigilator’s past records show that she had made big sacrifices at work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not taking timely decisions was a problem at this instance. The school Principal had also not given the best halls for the children. The failure to switch classrooms and the failure to report the incident to the Examinations Department are being probed. Our aim is not to harm anybody but to do justice to the candidates. Their answer scripts will be evaluated separately in Colombo”.

Points to ponder

Ceylon Teachers Services Union General Secretary Mahinda Jayasinghe found fault with the decision to schedule the O-L Exam for May disregarding the fact that it is a season of heavy rains and floods in the country. “The answer scripts were sodden. The students who used watercolours could not dry their paintings when they faced the Aesthetic subject. The Government should not have played with the students’ lives,” he complained.

The O-L Exam was an eye-opener on the poor conditions of schools on rainy days. If the O-L Exam was not held, those would have been normal school days and students would still be in them learning under deplorable conditions. This highlights the importance of equal distribution of resources to all schools. Resources and funds are often concentrated in well-to-do schools in Colombo.

“Physical resources at schools need improvement. The Prime Minister assured that the Expenditure Head of the Education Ministry would not be slashed. However, there are practical problems as the prices of building materials and transport costs have risen sharply. The remaining allocations have to be used only for the essential requirements,” Minister Premajayantha noted.

Safer society for children

Another serious incident highlighted by the media was that an invigilator had allegedly sexually abused a female student during the O-L Exam at Kaluwila Sena Maha Vidyalaya, Hidogama, Nachchaduwa, in the guise of helping her with the question paper.

The invigilator in question was remanded after a Police complaint. Making the scene uglier, several associates of the suspect had reportedly attempted to bribe the student’s family to let go of the case. In addition to the Police investigation, the Education Ministry has commenced a formal inquiry into the incident and the suspect is facing disciplinary actions.

This disturbing story is only one among many crimes committed against the children in our country, and some of them are not reported at all. The Police have urged the public to contact the National Child Protection Authority via ‘1929’ to report offences against the children.

“The children of today will make the India of tomorrow. The way we bring them up will determine the future of the country,” India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was quoted as saying to his fellow countrymen and women years ago. We, the adults, have a duty to protect and carefully nurture our children to make them responsible citizens of tomorrow. 


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