No school for 4 long months
38 students who passed Grade Five scholarship exam left in the lurch
Eleven-year-old Fathima Ashrak has not been to school in over four months. The girl who ranked sixth in the Batticaloa district at the Grade Five scholarship examinations last year cannot understand why her dreams of attending a leading school in Colombo have been so rudely shattered.
Refused admission by the principal of the school assigned to her by the Ministry of Education - due to the fact that she belonged to a different race than the majority of the students of that school - she now spends her days at home while her parents struggle to find a solution to this predicament.
|Mohammed Ashrak: When will my daughter go to school? Pix by J. Weerasekara
"We uprooted our entire family from Eravur to come to Colombo just for the sake of our children's education," says her father, Mohammed Ashrak. Their elder son was admitted to D.S. Senanayake College last year, also based on the results of the scholarship examination. Having had no issues with their son's admission, and assuming that Fathima was also guaranteed a place in one of the schools of their choice due to her high marks, the family decided to rent a small house in Colombo so that the children could pursue their studies here.
They received the letter from the Education Ministry in April, informing them that Fathima was eligible to enter the school they had selected as their first preference in her application. The joyous parents took the letter as instructed to the school - only to be told that Fathima could not be accepted as she was a Muslim. This was in early May. Almost a month later, after having run from official to official at the Ministry, pleaded with the principal of the school, and asked lawyers and others to intervene, the dilemma remains unresolved. Other schools have refused to take her, saying that their quota for scholarship students has already been filled.
"I have still been unable to find a job in Colombo - everyone and everything we know is back in Eravur. We are struggling just to get by," says Mr. Ashrak, fighting back tears, "But hardest of all, is having to look at my daughter's face everyday when she asks, 'Have you found a school for me yet?'"
Fathima is just one of 38 scholarship students who have been refused admission to this school because of their race. All of the students have been allocated this particular school by the Education Ministry, based on their marks at the exam. "I just can't understand it," says another parent who also moved his family from Ampara to Colombo so that his daughter could attend this school. "How can a school principal reject an order from the Ministry? And if so, isn't it the responsibility of the Ministry to give our children an alternate school?"
Officials at the Ministry of Education, concede that the principal of a national school does not have the right to make such a move. "This is the first time that such an issue has been raised," says W. Dharmadasa, Additional Secretary of Education Quality Development. "The Grade Five scholarship examination is not conducted on any religious or ethnic basis," he says, adding that the criteria for selection to schools are based entirely on the marks obtained by the students and the cut-off mark set for various schools. The entire procedure for allocating students to the schools is computerised, leaving no room for any bias.
Mr. Dharmadasa says students of other races have gained admission to this particular school in previous years. However after the allocations were made this year, the Ministry had received a letter from the School Development Society (SDS) of this school informing them that it was an 'embarrassing situation', but that they did not wish to take in these 38 students.
"The Minister has been informed of this," says Mr. Dharmadasa, "and since no policy decision has been taken on the matter, he has told us to follow the same procedure as in previous years." The Ministry has now drafted a letter instructing the school to grant admission to all 38 of these students.
The principal of the school, however, says she has not received any instructions from the Ministry regarding this matter. "This was a collective decision made by the SDS," she says, adding that despite being the President of the SDS, she could not go against the choice of the parents and the founders of the school.
In the meantime, the parents remain in ignorance of any developments and despair over their children's education. "It is such a burden on my mind to see my child without a school to attend," says the mother of yet another student who has moved from the Eastern Province to Colombo, believing she would gain admission to this school. "We have made sacrifices for our children's education - but now we are at a dead end."
As the Ministry and the school seem to be at a deadlock regarding this issue, many more precious days of these children's education are being lost. As Mr. Ashrak says the aim of the Grade Five scholarship examination is for gifted students to gain access to a better quality of education.
Is it fair that they should undergo such hardship to achieve what is theirs by right? Is it not the responsibility of the Ministry to provide them with a solution - and soon?