Education Minister Bandula Gunewardena’s sudden announcement at the end of last month that the Grade 5 All Island Scholarship Examination would be abruptly stopped has sparked a heated national debate – mainly protests. The discussion, particularly as a new school year was about to begin has become so contentious that, when asked about it by [...]


Grade Five exam: What is the answer?


Education Minister Bandula Gunewardena’s sudden announcement at the end of last month that the Grade 5 All Island Scholarship Examination would be abruptly stopped has sparked a heated national debate – mainly protests. The discussion, particularly as a new school year was about to begin has become so contentious that, when asked about it by his party’s Central Working Committee on Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa denied a decision had been made.

Minister Gunewardena told editors on Tuesday that the exam in its present form would be replaced by a simpler, shorter test paper from this year. In keeping with the recommendations of the National Education Commission (NEC), the revamped test will be conducted in 2014 and 2015. The Government hopes to finish setting up 1,000 new ‘Mahindodaya’ secondary schools during this period. The goal is to establish such good schools that rural children will no longer seek entry into popular city schools-or ‘janapriya pasal’-particularly in Colombo and the big cities. At the end of 2015, the NEC will decide anew whether the scholarship exam in its latest incarnation should continue.

The Standard 5 exam was introduced in 1944 by the late C.W.W. Kannangara, the Father of Free Education, to select 40 bright children from low income families for residential scholarships in central colleges that were to be the reservoir of talent from rural towns. It later became a ticket for students everywhere to gain entry into popular, state-assisted and central schools. The test was made exceedingly more difficult and competition increased exponentially. Rote learning has become the norm and it is arguable whether it is the brightest students who top the list.

More than 300,000 now sit the exam annually, though there is broad consensus that it has today become a crushing burden for students as young as nine and ten. The Minister admitted the test papers are designed to get the students to fail. A lucrative industry has sprung up around it with private tutors, publishers and vendors of specialist textbooks. Tutoring can start as early as the second grade. The test and the run-up to it are gruelling. It is often called the “mother’s exam” for the single-minded determination with which parents have their children coached. Vast amounts of money are spent. Only 15,000 students are ultimately selected and failure can lead to huge disappointment and, in some cases, depression.

The discussion about the need for change is an old one. The NEC’s latest report is preceded by several other publications that emphasise the detrimental effects of this exam on the physical and mental wellbeing of young students, families and society. Among them are ‘Education, Proposals for Reform’ (1981); the ‘Technical Committee on Primary Education and Early Childhood Development appointed by the Presidential Task Force on General Education’ (1996); ‘An Action Oriented Strategy towards a National Education Policy’, NEC (1995); and the ‘National Education Policy-A Framework for Action on General Education’, Ministry of Education and Higher Education (1996).

Most reports recommend that the test be restructured to better identify the clever students. But calls for its complete abolishment are rare, if any. Given the crippling financial and human resource constraints Sri Lanka continues to face, it is impractical to expect rural schools to start providing the services or facilities that established popular schools already do. The Minister’s boasts of a thousand high quality provincial schools are not backed by the Government’s allocation of funds — only Rs. 38 billion or 2.5 % of the country’s entire Budget for 2014.

The education system of any country evolves in such a way that some schools are always in higher demand, better equipped and better serviced than others. These may be elite schools but not necessarily elitist schools and it is no crime to aspire to study in such institutions. There has to be a route through which children of low-income families from rural areas gain entrance to these popular schools. The most common route unfortunately is to obtain a letter by hook or by crook from a Minister to the Principal or bribe one’s way through officialdom irrespective of the merits of the child. The rest must sit for this exam and hope to excel.

The Education Minister said that once the new test was introduced the number of scholarships offered would be increased to 25,000. Ministers love the numbers game. Quantity not quality is their ultimate. The cut-off mark will continue and those who wish it can still apply to popular schools, he says. Will this be a temporary arrangement, pending a decision by the NEC on how to proceed after 2015?

One of the problems, however, is with the nature of the exam. In this regard, the NEC’s proposal to simplify the scholarship exam is welcome but needs further clarification. If the exam becomes easier, a larger number of students will pass, thereby increasing pressure on schools to take in more. The Government’s plan is for rural students who produce good results to be absorbed into state-of-the art Mahindodaya schools in their own areas –complete with computer, mathematics, language and technology labs as well as sports complexes. But what happens if the selection process changes before the schools are ready? Will these students be left in the lurch like those unfortunate enough to have got caught up in the NCGE and HNCE exams in-between experimentations to abolish the GCE Ordinary and Advanced Levels?

The 1,000 schools programme has already run into funding problems. Less than 500 school buildings have so far been completed, although the Minister says he will “find the money” for the rest. The Government is already short of teachers for existing schools. A deputy minister admitted that teachers don’t like to serve even the mandatory three years in rural areas.

How practical, therefore, is the timeframe set for this proposed changeover? There is this pervasive fear — and suspicion that some in the Government have hang-ups about the bigger schools. Even previously, there were attempts to tinker with the established system. But the majority of these schools do not cater to the social and economic elite. A majority of the students who come in through the scholarship exam are from humble backgrounds and at Grade 6 they infuse fresh blood while imbibing the hallowed traditions of these schools. But because these Grade 5 exams are strictly exam-oriented these students rarely become rounded citizens, often just intent on landing a job in the public service. There is a need for sports and extra-curricular activities to be considered when a revamped scheme is eventually mapped out.

What it cannot be is a playground for Government MPs and Ministers to keep sending ‘chits’ to principals to enrol students. This is what is happening now. When some students can fail by one mark, others get in with a ‘chit’. A joint UNESCO/UNICEF report published mid last year referred to the “trend of politicisation” of appointments, promotions, transfers of educational personnel and officials and the allocation of financial and physical resources. Here lies the root cause of the continuing rot in the country’s educational system.

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