Teach us how to learn
School admission, always a vexed issue in our society, has become a major concern, with the current efforts to change the status quo. This week, in a rare feat in Parliament, unanimity was reached across the board when the Supreme Court recommended new ways and means of admitting children to schools.
Many believe the Supreme Court is acting preposterously in running the administration to the extent it is and playing the role of the Government while others argue that when the Government is not administering, somebody has to.
The new guidelines attempt to abolish the criteria for chief householders and allocate half the total marks for the child's intelligence.
That was the system nearly 50 years ago; but then there was no great pressure for admissions and corruption was not heard of as it is today.
But the more controversial proposal is to give preference to a parent's professional status.
The very valid criticism here is that the child will be penalised for what his parents are.
Will this be the death knell for Free Education in this country? Free education as we know it, is not completely free. From the time a parent begins scouting for a school, the hand is already in the purse looking for ways and means to oil the palm of school authorities or a local politician.
When a child is enrolled (it is often a condition of enrolment), parents must make purchases of desks and chairs or contribute to the School Development Fund.
Though books and other material are subsidized, when the child gets bigger and competitive exams loom in the horizon, the tuition trap begins. This is quite apart from pushy parents who buy gifts for teachers to ensure their child becomes class monitor or who woo the team coach with 'presents'.
It was the British who began the formal school system in this country - and together with the American missionaries in the North - provided quality education after the old temple-school era of yore.
The Colleges they started with hand-picked Principals and dedicated teachers nurtured generations of disciplined and well-mannered citizens, well equipped to fill the administrative service of the British Raj.
Since Independence, it is on this bed-rock that the country's education has continued.
With a rapidly increasing population, former Education Minister C.W.W. Kannangara - The Father of Free Education - mooted the concept of one Central School in each electorate with feeder schools in the rest of the electorate.
The British-begun Colleges became National Schools, taking in the cleverer students from around the country by way of all-island scholarship examinations at Grade 6 (age 10). Some of Sri Lanka's best public servants and administrators as well as scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals have come from rural schools to the bigger Colleges through this scholarship system which proved a sound way of selecting the best and honing their skills at the bigger Colleges. But in time, the Central Schools which were meant to take the brunt of the demand for better schooling in the provinces, collapsed to the extent where everyone wanted to send their child to one of the National Schools straightaway.
Like so many British-built systems in this country, from city sewerage to rail transport, the existing school system has not been able to meet the demands of population growth. So much so, it is now riddled with corruption and political interference.
To expect all schools in the country to be equal is like saying that all people are free to eat at the Hilton. In reality that is not the case; an oligarchical society is almost the inevitable outcome - but this is not one that is based on race, religion, caste or financial considerations, but on scholarship and sport.
The issue has so sapped the energy of the administrators that other needs in secondary education are thoroughly neglected. Take this year's disastrous GCE O/L results. Lack of focus on English education has made most Sri Lankans 'frogs in the well'. Students know little of their history and technical education is lagging behind.
The problems have long been identified but corrective measures have been slow in implementation. The end result has been on the one hand, for the less privileged to look for the big schools in the city as a passport for their child's future; and for the privileged to look for passports to get the hell out of the country through higher studies abroad - leaving the village school and even the Central Schools to close down one by one.