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PROBLEMS OF ILLITERACY IN A LITERATE DEVELOPING

SOCIETY: SRI LANKA

CHANDRA GUNAWARDENA

Abstract – With 87.0% of its population literate, Sri Lanka occupies a high ranking
position among South and South-East Asian nations in educational development. The
high percentage of literacy achieved through progressive measures in education
spanning half a century, however, has led to a state of complacency and less priority
being given to efforts at eradicating illiteracy.
This paper will focus on a recent study conducted on the incidence of illiteracy in
specific disadvantaged communities in the country which indicated that in the present
era of technological advancement, lack of literacy will continue to affect the life-
chances of people in these communities where the rate of literacy remains much lower
than the national average. The study investigates into the factors associated with illit-
eracy, and the attitudes and perceptions of the communities themselves towards literacy
programmes and regarding the modalities and strategies of providing literacy. The
implications of the study and the final recommendations drawn up in consultation with
the policy makers at national and provincial levels in governmental and non-govern-
mental sectors are also discussed in the paper.

Zusammenfassung – Mit einem alphabetisierten Bevölkerungsanteil von 87 Prozent


nimmt Sri Lanka in Bezug auf die Entwicklung des Bildungswesens innerhalb
der süd – und südostasiatischen Nationen einen hohen Rang ein. Dieser in einem
halben Jahrhundert durch fortschrittliche Bildungsmaßnahmen erzielte hohe Alpha-
betisierungsgrad hat jedoch nicht nur zu einem Zustand von Selbstzufriedenheit
geführt, sondern auch dazu, daß den Bemühungen, das Analphabetentum gänzlich zu
beseitigen, weniger Priorität eingeräumt wird.
Dieser Aufsatz stellt eine kürzlich durchgeführte Studie zum Auftreten von
Analphabetentum in spezifischen benachteiligten Gemeinden auf dem Lande in den
Mittelpunkt, woraus hervorgeht, daß im gegenwärtigen Zeitalter technologischen
Fortschritts das Fehlen von Bildung die Lebensperspektiven und Chancen der in diesen
Gemeinschaften lebenden Menschen, in denen die Alphabetisierungsrate im Gegensatz
zum nationalen Durchschnitt weitaus geringer bleibt, auch weiterhin beeinflussen
wird. Die Studie untersucht die mit dem Analphabetentum verbundenen Faktoren
sowie Meinungen und Auffassungen, die den Gemeinden selbst hinsichtlich der
Alphabetisierungsprogramme bestehen. Im weiteren werden in diesem Aufsatz die
Implikationen der Studie sowie die abschließenden Empfehlungen diskutiert, die in
Beratung mit den politischen Kräften auf nationaler und lokaler Ebene in Regierungs-
und Nichtregierungssektoren ausgearbeitet worden sind.

Résumé – Comptant 87,0% d’alphabétisés parmi sa population, le Sri Lanka occupe


une place de premier rang parmi les nations d’Asie du sud et du sud-est en termes de
développement de l’éducation. Ce taux élevé d’alphabétisation, atteint grâce à des
mesures éducatives échelonnées sur un demi-siècle, a cependant instauré un climat
de contentement passif et affaibli la priorité de la lutte contre l’analphabétisme.
L’article présente une étude récente sur les conséquences de l’analphabétisme pour
certaines communautés défavorisées du pays, qui signale qu’à l’ère actuelle du progrès

International Review of Education – Internationale Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft –


Revue Internationale de l’Education 43(5–6): 595–609, 1997.
 1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
596

technologique, le manque d’alphabétisation continuera à influencer les chances des


membres de ces communautés, dont le taux d’alphabétisation demeure bien inférieur
à la moyenne nationale. L’étude analyse les facteurs liés à l’analphabétisme, ainsi
que les comportements et perceptions des communautés elles-mêmes envers les pro-
grammes d’alphabétisation, les modalités et stratégies de ces programmes. L’article
entame d’autre part une discussion sur les répercussions de cette étude et sur les recom-
mandations finales qui en ont été tirées, en consultation avec les décideurs politiques
des niveaux national, provincial, gouvernemental et non gouvernemental.
Resumen – Con un 87,0 por ciento de la población capaz de leer y escribir, Sri Lanka
ocupa un puesto destacado entre las naciones del sur y del sudeste asiático en cuanto
a desarrollo educativo. No obstante, el alto porcentaje de alfabetización conseguido
a través de medidas progresivas en la educación a lo largo de medio siglo ha causado
un estado de complacencia y una reducción de la prioridad que se está dando a los
esfuerzos por erradicar el analfabetismo.
Este trabajo se concentra en un estudio reciente realizado sobre la incidencia del
analfabetismo en unas comunidades especialmente desaventajadas en el país, que ha
indicado que en la actual era de los avances tecnológicos, la incapacidad de leer y
escribir seguirá afectando a las oportunidades de vida de las personas en aquellas
comunidades en las que la tasa de alfabetización permanece muy por debajo del
promedio nacional. El estudio investiga los factores asociados con el analfabetismo
y las actitudes y percepciones de las comunidades mismas en cuanto a los programas
de alfabetización y a las modalidades y estrategias de alfabetización. En este trabajo
también se someten a discusión las consecuencias del estudio y las recomendaciones
finales que se delinearon en consultas con quienes hacen la política, en los niveles
nacionales y provinciales, y en los sectores gubernamentales y no gubernamentales.

Literacy is accepted as an educational tool of crucial importance to life in a


literate society and an indispensable instrument for access to further learning
and training opportunities. The statement of the UNESCO that “A person is
functionally illiterate who cannot engage in all those activities in which
literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and
also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing, and calculation for
597

his own and the country’s development” (Lestage 1981) underscores the
importance of literacy for life.
Moreover, illiteracy is more likely to affect the underprivileged than the
privileged; the poor, the female, ethnic, cultural or linguistic minorities and the
handicapped are particularly at risk. “Illiteracy is not merely an inability to
read and write but a complete, socio-economic phenomenon rooted in poverty
and deprivation and requiring a comprehensive approach” (Ryan 1985). Even
when illiteracy exists on a limited scale, in small pockets of economic or social
deprivation, it cannot be disregarded as of minor consequence, for in the life
of the illiterate individual it extends beyond education; it affects his/her social
status, economic possibilities and access to many forms of culture.
The Constitution of Sri Lanka has among its goals, “the complete eradi-
cation of illiteracy and assurance to all persons of the right to universal and
equal access to education at all levels” (Article 27 (2) h), and “to promote
with special care the interests of children and youth so as to ensure their full
development, physical, mental, moral, religious, social and to protect them
from exploitation and discrimination” (Article 23 (13)).
Literacy represents the core of the development spelled out in Article 23
(13). Notwithstanding the importance given to the provision of the right to
education in the Constitution, Sri Lanka initiated legal provision for com-
pulsory education only in 1995. It is possible that the picture painted by
official statistics regarding literacy is rosier than warranted and that the
positive achievements in education Sri Lanka has gained relative to her South-
East Asian neighbors have lulled her into a state of complacency.
In Sri Lanka, the policy of democratization of education led to a rise in of
the level of literacy from 57.8% in 1946 to 86.5% in 1981. A mild reversal
in literacy rates observed between 1978/79 and 1981/82 has been described
by Jayaweera (1989) as disquieting. The gradual reduction of literacy attain-
ment in the last decade has been identified as a vital problem that may negate
the achievements of the three preceding decades, in which a progressive edu-
cational policy was implemented. This problem prevails in certain pockets of
deprivation and continues to affect the lives of a small proportion of the
country’s population. Literacy rates for the last census held in 1981 were
91.1% for males, 83.2% for females and 87.2% overall (Sri Lanka 1994).
The limited magnitude of incidence of illiteracy does not warrant that it be
pushed aside as an unimportant issue. The imperative before us is to give
priority to illiteracy as a critical impediment to the total development of an
individual and to devise ways and means to combat it on all fronts – educa-
tional, social, economic and political.
The present research studied the persisting incidence of illiteracy in a
selected sample of communities in Sri Lanka to suggest interventions which
would not merely attempt to give a training in reading the word but also in
perceiving and understanding socio-economic realities and acting to transform
these realities (Freier and Macedo 1988; Lankshear and Lawler 1987;
Freebody and Welch 1993).
598

Research methodology

The major sample survey was undertaken for the purpose of collecting data
on literacy levels and factors associated with literacy of people living in
deprived communities. Sampling consisted of several stages. The first stage
was the selection of two communities, purposively from each of the following
six types of deprived communities identified for purposes of this survey. The
six types of communities were:
1. Rural peasant
2. Rural working class
3. Urban slum
4. Urban working class
5. Fishing
6. Plantation.
The twelve communities were selected in such a manner that they were more
or less representative of the six major community types. Each of the com-
munities so selected extended over an area termed Grama Niladhari Division,
the smallest administrative division in the country. The second stage of
sampling consisted of selecting 50 households randomly from the total number
of households in each community. The lists of households in each commu-
nity were obtained from the respective Grama Niladharis. In one of the 12
communities selected, there were only 40 households in all and hence all of
them were included in the sample. Another community dropped out of the
study. All persons of age 10 years and above in the selected households, num-
bering 2133, constituted the total sample of the major survey.
When classified by gender, 48.1% were male and 51.9% female. Seventy
four per cent had Sinhalese as the mother tongue, and the remaining 26%
had Tamil as their mother tongue. In age, 56.4% were between 20–54 years
and a considerable proportion, 36.7% were less than 20 years of age. In all,
54.7% claimed to have completed primary education or more, while eleven
per cent of the respondents had never attended school. Another 34.4% had
dropped out of school before completing their primary education. Forty-seven
per cent, according to the information given, received a monthly income of
less than Rs. 1000/= (approximately US$ 20); while 28.4% did not respond
to this question.
Four instruments were developed and used for collection of required data:
1. General information on persons living in selected households.
2. Interview schedule
3. Test of literacy.
4. Test of numerical ability.
599

Literacy in deprived communities

The term “literacy” in the present study generally refers to reading and writing
ability and the term “numeracy” to arithmetical or numerical ability. The
present study employed two methods to assess the literacy rate. One was to
obtain people’s own subjective judgement about their ability to read and write.
The difference between those who claimed the ability to read and ability to
write was negligible, the latter being a little less than the former. Hence the
literacy rates on the basis of people’s claim (hereafter referred to as claimed
literacy rate) were calculated on the basis of people’s claim about their ability
to read.
The other method used to test people’s ability to read and write and to
calculate the literacy rate (hereafter referred to as actual literacy rate) on the
basis of the test score, where only those who scored 100% were considered
literate.
Table 1 reports claimed and actual literacy rates by community type. The
claimed rate ranges from 92.5% (rural peasant) to 67.6% (urban slum). The
actual rate ranges between 66% (urban working class) and 31.1 (urban slum).
The overall claimed literacy rate in deprived communities is 82.9% while the
actual rate is only 59.7%, indicating that the real status of literacy in deprived
communities is far from what is usually reported.
The rank order positions of different community types in terms of both their
claimed and actual rate are similar in some cases. Urban slum communities
occupy the lowest position followed by plantation or estate communities. The
discrepancy in claimed and actual rates was greatest in the urban slum com-
munities (36.5%) and was followed by rural peasant (32%), fishing (21.0%),
urban working class, rural working class and plantation (all three being
15.8%). For the total sample, the discrepancy in rates was 23.2.
Table 2 reports literacy status by community type and gender. It can be
noted that both claimed and actual rates are lower for females than for males
in all community types. The most marked gender discrepancy in both claimed

Table 1. Literacy Rates: Claimed and by Test Performance.

Community Number Percentage Number Percentage Discrepancy Total no. of


Type Claimed Actually in Rates Respondents
to be Literate
Literate

Rural Peasant 0372 92.5 0241 60.0 32.5 0402


Rural WC 0245 80.3 0197 64.5 15.8 0305
Urban Slum 0217 67.6 0100 31.1 36.5 0321
Urban WC 0380 81.8 0306 66.0 15.8 0464
Fishing 0420 92.0 0324 71.0 21.0 0457
Plantation 0135 73.4 0106 57.6 15.8 0184
Total 1769 82.9 1274 59.7 23.2 2133
600

Table 2. Literacy rates: Claimed and Actual by Gender.

Community Type Claimed Actual


Male Female Male Female
No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 183 96.3 189 89.1 130 68.4 114 53.7
Rural WC 119 80.7 126 79.8 104 69.7 093 59.6
Urban Slum 121 75.6 096 59.6 080 50.0 020 12.4
Urban WC 177 82.3 203 81.5 155 72.0 151 60.0
Fishing 206 91.9 214 90.8 170 75.8 154 66.0
Plantation 079 91.8 056 57.7 069 79.3 037 38.1
Total 885 86.3 884 79.7 708 69.0 569 51.3

and actual rates are reported for urban slum and plantation communities. In
the urban slum, actual rates for males and females are 50.0% and 12.4%
respectively, while in the plantation they are 79.3% and 38.1% respectively.
In the urban slum community, claimed rates for males and females are 75.6%
and 59.6% respectively, while in the plantation they are 91.8% and 51.7%
respectively. For the deprived communities as a whole, the actual literacy rates
for males and females are reported to be 69.0% and 51.3% respectively. It
appears that the females in the urban slum and plantation communities are
even more disadvantaged than their counterparts in other deprived commu-
nities.
Table 3 presents data on literacy by community type and mother tongue.
It can be observed that, in all communities for which data are available,
literacy rates, both claimed and actual, are higher for those subjects whose
mother tongue is Sinhala compared to those whose mother tongue is Tamil.
Subjects whose mother tongue is Tamil belong to two ethnic groups, Tamils
and Muslims. Subjects in the rural peasant community type were almost exclu-

Table 3. Literacy Rates: Claimed and Actual by Mother Tongue.

Community Type Claimed Actual


Sinhala Tamil Sinhala Tamil
No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 0190 95.4 182 89.6 0129 64.8 112 55.1
Rural WC 0245 80.3 000 0– 0197 64.5 000 0–
Urban Slum 0163 70.8 053 58.2 0093 40.4 006 05.5
Urban WC 0327 86.0 053 63.0 0266 70.0 040 41.6
Fishing 0420 91.9 000 0– 0324 70.8 000 0–
Plantation 0010 91.0 125 72.2 0010 91.0 096 55.5
Total 1355 85.6 413 74.9 1019 64.4 254 46.1
601

sively Muslims while the subjects in plantation community type were almost
exclusively Indian Tamils. Urban slum and urban working class communities
consisted of both Sinhala and Muslim subjects. These residential patterns have
led to the fact that the literacy rates, claimed as well as actual, are higher for
Sinhalese than for Muslims and Tamils.
Another important fact that emerges is the wide disparity in actual literacy
rates between the Sinhala and Tamil mother tongue subjects in the urban slum
and plantation communities. The disparity is most marked in these two types
of communities. Moreover, the overall actual literacy rate of Tamil mother
tongue subjects in deprived communities is 46.1%, which is one of the lowest
for any group of subjects. The comparative rate for Sinhala mother tongue
subjects is 64.4%.
Tables 4 and 5 report literacy rates for age specific groups according to
community types. It may be observed that both claimed and actual literacy
rates are lower with increasing age, in all types of communities. The highest
rates are reported for the age group 10–14 years, followed by the age group
15–19 years and 20–54 years. Although the observed decline is not very sharp,
the trend towards gradual decline up to the 20–54 years age group appears
to be consistent across all types of communities. This trend, however, is not

Table 4. Literacy Rates: Claimed by Age Group.

Community 10–14 Yrs. 15–19 Yrs. 20–54 Yrs. 55 & above Total
Type No.
No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 087 97.7 077 96.2 202 88.9 006 100.0 0372
Rural WC 033 86.8 043 86.0 151 78.6 018 072.0 0245
Urban Slum 050 83.3 040 80.0 112 60.2 015 060.0 0217
Urban WC 081 83.5 072 85.7 204 82.9 023 062.1 0380
Fishing 076 96.2 079 94.0 232 91.0 033 082.5 0420
Plantation 026 72.2 024 75.0 080 72.7 005 083.3 0135
Total 353 88.4 335 88.1 981 80.7 100 071.9 1769

Table 5. Literacy Rates: Actual by Age Group.

Community 10–14 Yrs. 15–19 Yrs. 20–54 Yrs. 55 & above Total
Type No.
No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 079 88.7 055 68.7 108 47.5 00 00.0 0242
Rural WC 023 60.5 040 60.1 116 60.4 18 72.0 0192
Urban Slum 040 66.6 020 40.0 029 15.5 11 44.0 0100
Urban WC 080 82.4 067 79.7 136 55.2 23 62.1 0306
Fishing 071 89.8 072 85.7 148 58.2 33 82.5 0324
Plantation 022 61.1 019 59.3 060 54.5 05 83.5 0106
Total 315 78.9 273 71.8 597 49.1 90 64.7 1275
602

continued in the 55 year and over age group in the case of actual rates. Here,
one can observe a reversal in the trend, with the actual literacy rates begin-
ning to rise again in all types of communities. The reason for higher literacy
rates among the age groups of 10–14 years and 15–20 years seems obvious
as most subjects within these age groups would have been attending school
at the time of survey. Some of those within the older age group of 20–54 years
may not have been to school. Some of those who attended school may have
relapsed into a state of illiteracy due to non-use of literacy skills in their day-
to-day life.

Numeracy in deprived communities

For the purposes of this study, two methods were used to assess the numeracy
rate. One was to ask for people’s subjective judgement about their ability to
engage in simple numerical tasks. The numeracy rate (hereafter referred to
as claimed numeracy rate) was calculated on the basis of these subjective
claims of people. The other method used was to test subjects’ ability to engage
in simple functionally relevant numerical tasks and to calculate the numeracy
rate (hereafter referred to as actual numeracy rate) on the basis of the test
score, where only those who scored 100% were considered numerate.
Table 6 reports claimed and actual numeracy rates for different types of
communities. The claimed rates range between 95.0% (rural peasant) and
74.0% (plantation), and actual rates range between 71.5% (urban working
class) and 50.7% (urban slum). As with literacy rates, it can be seen that the
lowest numeracy rates are associated with urban slum and plantation com-
munities. The overall claimed numeracy rate in deprived communities is
86.3%, and the actual rate is 64.9%. As with literacy, the actual numeracy rate
is very much lower than the claimed rate. However one important feature
about numeracy rates when compared to literacy rates is that the numeracy

Table 6. Numeracy Rates: Claimed and by Test Performance.

Community Number Percentage Number Percentage Discrepancy Total No. of


Type Claimed Actually in Rates Respondents
to be Numerate
Numerate

Rural Peasant 0382 95.0 0269 66.9 28.1 0402


Rural WC 0250 81.9 0192 62.9 19.0 0305
Urban Slum 0263 81.0 0163 50.7 30.3 0321
Urban WC 0395 85.1 0326 71.5 14.4 0464
Fishing 0416 91.0 0327 70.2 20.8 0457
Plantation 0136 74.0 0109 59.2 14.8 0184
Total 1842 86.3 1386 64.9 21.4 2133
603

rates in different community types, as well as the overall numeracy rate, are
relatively higher than the literacy rates.
Table 7 presents numeracy rates in different community types by gender.
As with the case of literacy, it may be observed that both claimed and actual
numeracy rates are relatively lower for females, in all community types. The
most marked gender disparities in both claimed and actual rates are reported
for urban slum and plantation communities. In the urban slum, actual rates
for males and females are 66.8% and 34.7% respectively, while in the plan-
tation they are 77.0% and 43.2% respectively. For deprived communities as
a whole, the actual numeracy rates for males and females are reported to be
72.2% and 58.2% respectively. (The greatest discrepancy in rates are in rural
peasant and urban slum communities, similar to the discrepancies for literacy
rates.)
Table 8 reports numeracy rates by community types and mother tongue. It
shows that, in all community types for which comparable data are available,

Table 7. Numeracy Rates: Claimed and Actual by Gender.

Community Type Claimed Actual

Male Female Male Female

No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 184 96.8 198 093.4 130 68.4 139 65.5
Rural WC 124 83.2 126 080.7 102 68.4 090 57.6
Urban Slum 138 86.2 125 077.6 107 66.8 056 34.7
Urban WC 184 85.5 211 084.7 162 75.3 164 65.8
Fishing 205 91.5 211 090.5 173 77.2 154 66.0
Plantation 076 87.3 060 061.8 067 77.0 042 43.2
Total 911 88.8 931 084.0 741 72.2 645 58.2

Table 8. Numeracy Rates: Claimed and Actual by Mother Tongue.

Community Type Claimed Actual

Sinhala Tamil Sinhala Tamil

No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 0186 094.1 196 92.4 0124 62.3 145 58.9
Rural WC 0250 081.9 000 0– 0192 62.9 000 0–
Urban Slum 0194 084.3 068 74.7 0143 62.1 019 20.8
Urban WC 0336 088.4 059 70.2 0279 73.4 047 55.9
Fishing 0420 091.9 000 0– 0331 72.4 000 0–
Plantation 0011 100.0 125 72.2 0010 91.0 099 57.2
Total 1397 088.3 448 81.3 1079 68.2 310 56.2
604

numeracy rates, both claimed and actual, are higher for subjects whose mother
tongue is Sinhala, in comparison to those whose mother tongue is Tamil. As
indicated earlier, the second group comprised Muslims and Indian Tamils. The
discrepancy in numeracy rates between the two groups is once again found
to be most marked in urban slum and plantation communities. Specific factors
which lead to this discrepancy are difficult to identify. In the case of planta-
tion communities which mainly comprise Indian Tamils, the quality of edu-
cation provided is lower due to insufficient resources and absence of qualified
teachers. Their rate of drop-out is also quite high. In the case of urban slum
dwellers of Muslim origin too, the high rate of drop-out could have been a
contributing factor.
Tables 9 and 10 report age-specific numeracy rates for different commu-
nity types. It can be noted that claimed numeracy rates decline with increasing
age with a few exceptions. The highest claimed rates are found to be in the
10 to 14 years and 15 to 19 years age groups. Although the decline in claimed
rates with increasing age is not very sharp, there seems to be a general trend
in this direction, with a few exceptions. In the case of actual numeracy rates,
too there is a general decline up to the age group 20–54 years, after which
there is a reversal in the above trend with the exception of one community

Table 9. Numeracy Rates: Claimed by Age Group.

Community 10–14 Yrs. 15–19 Yrs. 20–54 Yrs. 55 & above Total
Type No.
No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 087 97.7 077 96.2 0214 94.2 04 66.6 0382
Rural WC 030 78.9 043 86.0 0158 82.2 19 76.0 0250
Urban Slum 055 91.6 045 90.0 0145 77.9 18 72.0 0263
Urban WC 081 83.5 077 91.6 0214 86.9 23 62.1 0395
Fishing 076 96.2 078 92.8 0231 90.9 31 77.5 0416
Plantation 027 75.0 026 81.2 0079 71.8 04 66.6 0136
Total 356 89.2 346 91.0 1041 85.6 99 71.2 1842

Table 10. Numeracy Rates: Actual by Age Group.

Community 10–14 Yrs. 15–19 Yrs. 20–54 Yrs. 55 & above Total
Type No.
No. % No. % No. % No. %

Rural Peasant 079 88.7 062 71.5 127 55.9 01 16.6 0269
Rural WC 019 50.2 040 80.0 114 59.3 19 76.0 0192
Urban Slum 047 78.3 028 56.0 073 39.2 15 60.0 0163
Urban WC 081 83.5 072 85.7 150 60.9 23 62.1 0326
Fishing 072 91.1 073 86.9 150 59.0 31 77.5 0326
Plantation 024 66.6 021 65.6 060 54.5 04 66.6 0109
Total 322 80.7 296 77.8 674 52.4 93 66.9 1385
605

type. This community type had only one subject belonging to this age group
and hence it may not be safe to conclude that it was in fact an exception to
the general trend that was observed.
It is relevant at this point to compare the literacy rates obtained through
our study (Tables 1 and 2) with the official statistics on literacy. The literacy
rate among the population of 10 years and over in Sri Lanka according to the
last national census (1981) was 87.2%, the male and female rates being 91.1%
and 83.2% respectively (Sri Lanka 1994). Comparison of these statistics show
that achieved literacy rates in deprived communities are relatively lower than
national rates and the claimed rates for the sample studied, both of which are
derived on the basis of respondents’ subjective judgments.
This study has thus clearly demonstrated the existence of pockets of illit-
eracy within even the most developed districts in the country, in the areas
identified as urban slum particularly.

Literacy and numeracy in relation to socio-economic conditions

An effort was made to identify relationships between literacy and numeracy


rates on the one hand, and socio-economic status on the other, through a rank
correlation analysis of the data on the above two sets of variables obtained
for the six community types. The results are reported in Table 11. It reveals
fairly high correlations between percentages of literates in each community

Table 11. Relationship between Actual Literacy/Numeracy Rates and Selected


Indicators of Socio-Economic Status.

Variable 1 Variable 2 Spearman


Correlation
Coefficient

Percentages of literates in Percentages of those


each type of community a) Who have been to school 0.60
b) Who are employed 0.71
c) Who completed primary cycle 0.20
d) With monthly income over 0.26
Rs. 1000/=
e) Who read books other than texts 0.37
f ) Who read newspapers daily 0.77

Percentages of numerates in Percentages of those


each type of community a) Who have been to school 0.48
b) Who are employed 0.88
c) Who completed primary cycle 0.10
d) With monthly income over 0.14
Rs. 1000/=
e) Who read books other than texts 0.37
f ) Who read newspapers daily 0.60
606

type with percentages of those who have been to school (0.60) as well as
with percentages of those employed (0.71). An exactly similar finding emerges
in relation to numeracy rates and percentages of those who have been to school
and percentages of those employed. Thus the above findings seem to suggest
that literacy and numeracy rates in deprived communities are closely related
to the level of schooling and economic status.

Implications of the study

The main factor that emerges from the research is that Sri Lanka’s claim to
universal literacy levels leaves much room for concern and that complacency
certainly cannot be encouraged. The literacy rates of 90% and above being
circulated in official circles are far from being realistic. Improvement in
literacy rates all round cannot be taken for granted. It is a goal to be taken
seriously and pursued with determination and vigour at every level of policy
planning, management and implementation.
That a single national rate is meaningless has also been shown by this
research. The level of literacy attained by an individual has been shown to
be highly correlated with schooling and economic condition, employment
status being an important contributor to economic condition. These two
factors, schooling and economic condition, differ widely across the nation and
lead to divergent literacy rates for different communities. It has been estab-
lished that while the disadvantaged communities represented in this research
differed from each other as regards the level of literacy achieved, their rates
of literacy differed severally and collectively from the national rate even as
regards claimed literacy.
The considerable differences between claimed literacy and actual literacy
point to the necessity of using reliable objective measures to assess literacy
and numeracy as has been used in the current research and the National
Association for Total Education (NATE) research previously. At present, the
rate of literacy is arrived at by collecting the spoken responses obtained at
census time to queries as to whether one can read and write or whether one
can write one’s own name.
There appears to be an overwhelming case for the expansion of adult edu-
cation and non-formal education both of which, sad to say, are receiving only
scant attention at present. The formal school structure receives greater atten-
tion, although 100% Universal Primary Education (UPE) is still a consider-
able distance away. Harsh economic conditions prevent around 15% of the
children of school-going age from even attending school or completing even
the primary cycle. They are forced to work under grueling conditions, and
the parents find even their meager earnings a very valuable contribution to
the family income. Child labour has risen to the position of a necessary evil
and persists in spite of various social security measures like Janasaviya
(People’s Strength) and Samurdhi (Prosperity) intended to provide relief to
607

the poor. Until economic conditions improve all round, a proportion of each
age cohort will escape into the pool of illiteracy, and adequate measures have
to be taken to lead them to literacy. The proposal to establish an Open School
may be taken as a step in the right direction.
It follows from the above that more resources should be diverted to the
area of literacy training. For obvious reasons, the national exchequer is unable
to furnish all the money required and in any case the politically more popular
servicing of the formal education structures will take precedence. It is here
that friendly and understanding foreign governments and local and foreign
NGOs can lend a helping hand for which their intervention may be actively
sought.
The majority of prospective clients are of the opinion that the central gov-
ernment as well as the Provincial Councils should take the lead in providing
literacy training, playing a more important role than at present. The state
should be responsible for curricular design and content. A considerable
number of prospective clients preferred that the principal and teachers of the
formal school be put in charge of organization at the periphery and curriculum
transaction.
Despite the faith expressed by our respondents regarding formal education,
we believe Non-Formal Education to have greater potential in imparting
literacy. A large proportion of the illiterates in the country are early drop-
outs who have been pushed out of school due to sheer economic need to earn
a wage or by the unattractive instruction available at school. Comprehensive
programmes in which literacy is integrated as one of the components could
better motivate the target groups to make use of the opportunities provided.
As pointed out by Stromquist (1992) “. . . non-formal education is increas-
ingly seen by both government and non-government organizations as a critical
resource that will allow marginal and destitute population to acquire skills and
knowledge to become more effective members of their societies”. If NGOs
are permitted to play a part, there should be proper supervision and moni-
toring of these activities for greater efficiency and conformity with the ideals
to be achieved. The Non-Formal Education Unit of the Central Ministry of
Education in consultation with the National Institute of Education (NIE) and
University Departments of Education should develop the programme to be
implemented by the Provincial Ministries of Education. Training of literacy
instructors should also be given high priority.

Note

This article is based on A study of the Incidence of Illiteracy in Selected Deprived


Communities and Identification of Interventions to Improve Literacy by Chandra
Qunawardena, W. A. de Silva nad N. G. Kularatne, sponsored by the International
Development Research Centre and the Asian Development Bank.
608

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