ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 52
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Removing the old schools ties

While the Government and the whole nation are engulfed in the northern insurgency, and people are looking up at night for any sign of enemy aircraft, many other issues that are of substantial importance are slipping through the national radar.

One could feel some sympathy for a Government that needs to keep a 3D or even 4D political radar screen to catch these low-flying issues that may not get the exalted status the northern insurgency gets, but which are no less important to the future of this country and potentially as dangerous, if mishandled.

The issue that seems to now appear as a blip on the national radar is the new proposal by the National Education Commission (NEC) to change the admissions structure to Grade 1 in the National Schools (the big schools) of this country.

This comes in the wake of a recent Supreme Court judgment that held that a citizen's fundamental rights had been infringed by the current Grade 1 admission policy, and the Supreme Court asking the NEC to come up with fresh proposals to change this policy.

Basically, there are two issues they are dealing with: 1) to detach the Primary School from the Secondary School (of the same College) and make the Primary School come under the Grama Sevaka area surrounding the school. Selection tests for Grade 1will be discouraged but entry to the Secondary School will be at Grade 6 through an island-wide exam.

The main thrust of the proposal is to give equal opportunity to all children of this country and provide a school for every child.

The proposals aim at providing a Primary School to every child close to the place of residence with all schools to be vested under Provincial Councils. Primary Schools will also function as mixed schools.

The NEC proposals, which come against the backdrop of the shocking revelations about GCE results, currently the subject of much debate, have now been sent to the President. Undoubtedly the issue of school admissions is a burning problem for parents today. One fundamental issue is that the existing resources cannot match the growing population. This is true not only in the case of schools but also of transport, health services and many other facilities.

The second problem is that there is rampant corruption, not only among school principals but among most public servants, a national malaise which we have discussed often in this space.
The third problem is of political interference -- of Ministers and MPs using the ubiquitous 'chit' system that slips a child into a school at the expense of another who doesn't have the political clout.

Nothing in the NEC proposal seems to address these three problems. Instead what it seems to be doing is to cut the umbilical cord between the past pupils of a national school and the school, in trying to do away with the quota for children of past pupils.

The state with its increased preoccupation with the grave issues of the day and its financial commitments elsewhere surely cannot take on the burden of the upkeep of the national schools. At present they can only afford to pay the salaries of teachers. Even the electricity bills in some cases, the repairs and certainly the extra curricular (sports) activities are taken care of by the Past Pupils' Associations. By de-linking these associations from an interest in the schools, the state will only be committing hara-kiri.

At primary level, the financially better-off parents who feel their children will not gain admission to the Secondary Schools of the same college will look for options in private schools thereby depriving the schools of their largesse. There is no doubt that swimming pools, gymnasiums etc have all been built with the support of past pupils.

Admission to Grade 6 when limited to those who pass an all-island exam will see a nation pursuing academic excellence at all costs and not aiming for the 'rounded' education that is considered essential for a healthy nation.

The Supreme Court judgment does not order the abolition of the past pupils quota -- probably the court too understands the value of the contribution by the past pupils but it suggests that the methodology of the quota scheme be revisited.

What the NEC recommendations don't seem to have addressed is what would happen if they were to bring the entire school system within the utterly discredited Provincial Council system and open the doors for the MP chit system, nepotism, corruption et al.

One of the main aspects the NEC will have to consider is whether the contributions of past pupils both financial and otherwise will dry up by what they are trying to do -- dispensing with an army of volunteers working tirelessly to uplift standards of their old schools and just adding to the burdens of an already overburdened and cash-strapped State.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.