The writing on the blackboard
The calamitous epidemic of bribery and corruption raging from top to bottom in political and business circles has tragically hit the very foundations of society also, as seen in the scandals revolving around school admissions.

In a bid to tackle this crisis at the roots, the Education Ministry has taken one small step by inviting public suggestions on how to bring about justice and fairplay in school admissions and minimize the bribery and corruption that takes place behind the blackboard of donation.

A committee chaired by Prof. Savithri Gunasekera of the National Education Commission has been asked to study the issue at depth and make proposals that hopefully would communicate to our children some lasting lessons on sincerity and merit instead of deception and foul play.

This revision - though it is subject to widespread and largely justifiable public cynicism about political promises and schemes - comes amidst the controversy over a JVP parliamentarian's bid to put his son into a national school though he did not quite qualify, despite the party's insistence that it would follow higher principles whether in office or out of office. For even the JVP, which is straining to live up to be a different and principled party to succumb to this just shows what pressures are there for parents to use whatever means possible to get their children into big schools.

The Education Ministry and a PA MP in Matara had supported the move to help the JVP MP's son jump the list and get into Rahula College in Matara. The JVP leadership no doubt read the Riot Act to this MP, and the boy was withdrawn. They talk of the poor boy having to be withdrawn from the school because of the adverse media exposure. But there is no one to talk for the parents of an unknown poor boy who would have missed his place because the JVP MP, aided and abetted by the PA Matara MP - and the Education Ministry - bypassed the all-island scholarship examination. Shame on all of them.

The JVP general secretary's statement that the MP was using his parliamentary privilege to get his son admitted to a national school was a blatant contradiction of most of the principles that the party professes.

Above such desires for party privileges or personal gain, one of the basic facts and realities we need to keep in mind is that the population is growing faster than our schools system and structure can cope with. Though we obviously need more and better schools, the opposite is happening and scores of schools are reportedly being closed down due to lack of teachers or facilities or because incompetent provincial councils are unable to monitor and maintain the schools in the area.

Education Ministry Secretary Tara de Mel is trying to spearhead a fightback in this vital sphere. She has an unenviable task before her, and if she proceeds on a national, apolitical basis, she deserves our support. It’s not goung to be easy. For instance, she has outlined plans for the development of rural schools through the introduction of English education along with information and communication technology. On English education, the secretary's strategy is to first train good English teachers and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar during his recent visit to London sought help from the British government for this purpose.

At least two well-known Colombo schools which rushed into starting English streams from Grade One are now known to have run into serious problems because the standards of their English teachers are being questioned. While focusing on English and ICT, the Education Ministry would need to get tough with bribery, corruption and the 'packages' available to parents for a fee — false addresses, electricity bills, telephone bills, etc. We know that at a prestigious school like Royal, the headmaster often goes checking addresses of applicants from house to house. But we have not heard of anyone being taken to courts, fined or jailed for lying or forcing their children to lie and learn to lie in getting admitted to a national school. Some deterrent action might help the cause.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is whether some non-Buddhists schools give preference to non-Buddhists and parents actually change religions to get their children into schools. This is the type of practice that fuels demands for anti-conversion laws. During a better era in the education of Sri Lanka, we had an independent Education Services Commission. We remember this famous story of the 1980s when V. L. Wirasinha - an upright civil servant of times when civil servants were able to be upright - refused to appoint an art teacher to Royal College on the request of President J. R. Jayewardene. What has happened to this Education Services Commission? Perhap, some lessons could be learnt from it.

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