The Education Minister’s proposal to do away with the grade 5 scholarship exam has created a huge uproar in the country. Apparently the National Educational Commission took this decision taking into consideration the psychological impact of this exam on primary school children. But many thought this was an attempt to block the only pathway available [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The grade 5 exam: Reduce the stress, tap the potential of a child

Dr. Sajeewana Amarasinghe looks at the issue from a psychiatrist’s point of view

The Education Minister’s proposal to do away with the grade 5 scholarship exam has created a huge uproar in the country. Apparently the National Educational Commission took this decision taking into consideration the psychological impact of this exam on primary school children. But many thought this was an attempt to block the only pathway available for a talented rural child to enter a prestigious school in a major city. As a provincial psychiatrist working in one of Sri Lanka’s most underprivileged districts I certainly agree that scrapping the scholarship exam will be a drastic step that will have serious socio economic implications. But I believe that we need to make some adjustments to this exam to reduce the immense psychological burden on primary schoolchildren.

Many children in grade 4 and 5 present to me with vague physical complaints like headache and abdominal pain. They have been investigated by paediatricians and no medical basis found for their symptoms. The parents will often tell how their easygoing and

A student sitting for the grade 5 exam. File pic

A student sitting for the grade 5 exam. File pic

lovable child has recently become irritable and moody, throwing temper tantrums at the slightest provocation. When I interview the children alone it becomes clear that most of them have got anxious due to the impending scholarship exam. Many parents have little idea of their child’s scholastic abilities and push children to achieve unrealistic goals. The child becomes worried that he or she will not be able to fulfil the parent’s high expectations.

During the last two decades the grade 5 scholarship has become extremely competitive. The huge media publicity given to the top scorers has made things worse. Most parents who have missed out at grade 1 try to use the scholarship exam to get admission to a popular school. One cannot blame them as it is the only mechanism available to an ordinary parent with no connections. But a child needs to score at least 90 percent to enter one of the more popular schools. This is a big task for a 10-year-old child as it leaves very little margin for error.

Therefore many parents push their children to the maximum and send them to two or even three tuition classes. All extracurricular and leisure activities are stopped and the child is forced to cram for long hours. Most 10-year- olds are naturally quite playful and not too keen on studies. Therefore this exam creates a great deal of anxiety and some may actually need psychological intervention. Of course there will be some mature students who will study independently and get good results. But these children are usually the exception rather than the rule. Most children will have to be forced to study at this age!

I think the main cause of the stress for both children and parents is the intense competition to enter a popular school. An increase in the slots available in the popular schools will be a major step to reduce the competition. Most of the leading government schools have around 50 children in a primary class. Therefore the number of places available for scholars in Grade 6 has declined.

The Education Minister hopes that with the development of 1000 secondary schools the need to enter popular schools will not arise. But we need to remember the fact that only very few recently established schools have reached the level of the old traditional educational institutions. This too was due to the efforts of their pioneering principals. Many new schools started with much fanfare wither away after a few years. Therefore it is left to be seen whether any of these newly developed 1000 schools can match the old established schools.

I believe that the improvement of the well-established provincial central schools and semi urban schools to national standards may help reduce the high demand for city schools. In today’s context this will involve the improvement of facilities for education as well as sports and extracurricular activities. In this context a good example is Rathnavali BalikaVidyalaya, Gampaha which has consistently produced outstanding results at the national level at public examinations in recent years. Now many parents living in Gampaha opt to keep their children in this school even if they get the opportunity of getting admission to a Colombo school. I believe the establishment of around 50 well equipped provincial schools on par with the popular schools will lead to a reduction in the intense competition. If the government gives continuous support these schools too will they gradually develop their own reputations as centres of excellence and start their own old boy and old girl networks! This will probably be more practical than attempting to establish 1000 popular schools when we consider the limited resources in our country.

The Education Ministry decision to simplify the exam seems to be a step in the right direction. But it is left to be seen whether this will actually reduce the stress on children. Giving a very easy paper might result in the cut off marks to enter a popular school reach very high levels. (eg 99% or 100%) This will intensify the stress as there will be absolutely no margin for error! It will also make it difficult to pick out the really brilliant kids as many will score very high marks.

Instead the scholarship exam should be modified to reduce the amount of rote learning needed. It should be a test of academic potential rather than of knowledge. The focus needs to be on testing intelligence, language skills and mathematics. This will probably reduce the need for attending multiple tuition classes and long hours of cramming. It will also improve the identification of truly gifted children.

We have to accept that the selection at the current scholarship exam is by no means perfect. Many children who pass the scholarship with flying colours fail to perform well at higher exams. The vice versa is also true as there are many who perform poorly at the grade 5 scholarship exam but do well at the Advanced level exam. A look at the top performers at the recent A’L examinations will show that many children from rural schools have outperformed their city counterparts. Most of these children have missed out on entering a prestigious school at the grade 5 scholarship.

Some advocate a postponement of the scholarship exam to grade 8. This proposal has some merit as the child will be more mature and ready to face a competitive exam. Hopefully the involvement of parents too will become less intense! Parents may also have a better idea of the child’s academic potential. This will prevent academically average children getting unnecessarily harassed to achieve goals that are way beyond their capabilities.

The Education Ministry should also consider introducing a formal pathway whereby rural school children who excel in sports and extracurricular activities too can enter a leading school. A certain number of places in popular schools can be reserved for children who excel in sports and other extracurricular activities such as music and dancing. This probably needs to be done around grade 8 or 9 in order to pick out the really talented kids. It will create an alternative pathway for children who are not academically inclined. Of course this already happens in an informal manner even now as some big schools recruit outstanding sportsmen from smaller schools by offering scholarships. Even some of the exclusive private schools are known to do this. But it is unfortunately restricted to the glamour sports like Cricket and Rugby.

Although I don’t agree with the proposal to scrap the scholarship exam I am glad that the Education Minister and his officials have some understanding of the psychological impact of this exam on children. I hope that they will modify this exam so that primary school children can enjoy their childhood without the undue burden of a highly competitive exam.

( The writer is a Consultant Psychiatrist attached to the Base Hospital, Puttalam)

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