SOMEWHERE IN COLOMBO – Last Wednesday, a long line of parents were seen standing outside the gate of a prominent school in Colombo. Armed with files and documents, they were waiting to be called inside, to hand over applications to gain admission for their 5-year-old children to Grade 1 next year. Every year, more than [...]

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Reflections on education Reflections on education


SOMEWHERE IN COLOMBO – Last Wednesday, a long line of parents were seen standing outside the gate of a prominent school in Colombo. Armed with files and documents, they were waiting to be called inside, to hand over applications to gain admission for their 5-year-old children to Grade 1 next year.

Every year, more than 300,000 are admitted to Grade 1 in schools across Sri Lanka amidst a huge tussle to get into the more prestigious schools in Colombo. While admission is supposedly free given Sri Lanka’s free education system, the struggle to get into the ‘popular’ government schools in Colombo means that desperate parents are willing to spend anything to get their child into a ‘good’ school. And that’s where money comes into play – making a ‘donation’ to the school as discreetly requested by school authorities: The higher the donation, the better the chance of your child being admitted. This, then, is Sri Lanka’s free education!

According to the Ministry of Education, 322,135 students were admitted to the first grade in all schools in Sri Lanka in 2017. The largest entry came from the Western Province with 71,249 and the lowest from the North — 16,719. In 2016, the total was 317,899, with the highest being in the West — 70,530 and the North the lowest at 17,087.

In 2016, the total number of schools was 10,162 with a student population of 4,143,330, while in 2017 the total number of schools had increased marginally to 10,194 with the student population (also marginally up) at 4,165,964.

Education seems to be the focus of discussion these days because the next morning (Thursday), Kussi Amma Sera and her friends too were in ‘education mode’.

Seated under the Margosa tree armed with steaming cups of tea, the trio was  discussing the budget proposals on education, particularly the decision to reward the best students with scholarships to prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge. “Meva honda theerana (these are good decisions),” said Serapina, removing some leaves that had fallen on her clothes. “Ov, ethakota apey daruvana pitarata honda adhyapanayak labaganna puluwang (Our children can get a good education abroad),” added Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Habei, keepa deneku-ta pamanai eka labenne (However, only a few students will get this),” asserted Kussi Amma Sera.

Education seems to be the topic because soon after passing the school where a long line of parents were waiting patiently, I received a call from ‘Koththamalli’ Fernando, the “Kokatath Thailaya” (oil for any ailments) expert who has a remedy for any issue.

“I say, the Budget has some good proposals on education, ah,” he said, getting involved in a long conversation on this topic. “Yes, it was interesting because I just passed a long line of parents outside a school waiting to admit their children into Grade 1,” I replied.

“How unfortunate, this is one of the tragedies of the education system. You cannot blame parents for ‘paying’ to get their children into the best school, as every parent wants his/her child to get the best education,” he said.

We then got involved in a discussion on the education system, the struggle to get into the best school, the need for schools in the provinces to have the same facilities as Colombo schools and the pressure on young students sitting the Grade 5 scholarship examination.

On the last named topic, newspaper reports in October 2018 quoted Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as saying that he has instructed his Ministry Secretary to rescind the circular which makes the Grade 5 scholarship examination compulsory for schoolchildren.

This is a good move, since many 10-year-olds come under undue pressure to perform well at the Grade 5 scholarship and many even fall ill, unable to bear the pressure, ahead of the exams.

The move to offer scholarships to the best students at the AL examinations is a move in the right direction and provides some motivation to those doing these exams.

Some, however, are not too happy with the proposal to offer scholarships to international universities to the most deserving students. According to a ‘Budget reaction’ review by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), giving a few students opportunities to study in top universities in the world is not a favourable proposal. “For one, only a few will benefit from this. Also, there is no guarantee that these students will return to the country. Even if they come back, whether there will be jobs for them to do in Sri Lanka is a concern. It is better to facilitate top class educational facilities within Sri Lanka and give scholarships for more students to attend those facilities,” IPS argued in its suggestions.

According to the Budget proposal, the Scholarship for Educational Excellence – SEE Fund, is to facilitate the country’s top performers at Physical Science, Biological Science, Technology, Commerce and Arts, at the AL exams to pursue their undergraduate education at top universities, such as Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, etc and will see the first batch of 14 students (chosen from the results of the 2019 ALs in August) being sent this year.

On education, it was also proposed to offer low-interest loans to AL qualified students to pursue their studies at non-state universities since only 30,000 are eligible for admission to state universities from a total of 300,000 sitting the exam.

The Budget also said investment focus would be on a STEM+A master plan. “This is to allow students to pursue a combination of subjects such as Mathematics with Music or Biology with English,” it said.

In another positive move, the Finance Minister said the IT industry will train 1,000 unemployed graduates who are mostly Arts graduates for a year as interns with 50 per cent of the monthly wage (up to Rs. 25,000) being met by the Government.

These are all bold steps in the right direction but given the slow progress of implementation of Budget proposals, it is questionable as to whether these proposals will see the light of day soon.

Despite all its challenges – rural and provincial schools not having the same facilities and benefits as Colombo-based schools like good teachers, up-to-date laboratory facilities and active and cash-rich old boys/old girls associations that help to uplift standards – Sri Lanka’s education structure is something to be proud of. Education is free (though there is an element of ‘donations’) and teachers – despite some distraction with tuition classes, etc – are dedicated.

As I wound up writing this week’s column on education, Kussi Amma Sera brought the morning tea, saying “Mahattaya, Adhyapanaya-ta honda yojana kihipayak thibuna budget-eke (there were a few good proposals on education),” she said. “Ov eka hari,” I said, sitting down to enjoy my cup of tea on this bright and sunny morning.

PS – On Friday, the line of parents waiting outside the Colombo school for interviews had lengthened considerably.

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