Some state policies in this country defy comprehension. Successive governments have made grand shows of their campaigns to battle alcoholism and tobacco addiction while encouraging the production of those two products and raising funds by way of taxes on them to bridge budget deficits. Governments become compassionate towards animals only on Poya days, when their slaughter and the sale of their flesh are banned. Education is said to be free but parents have to pay through the nose for private tuition, without which no student can pass a public examination, given the poor educational standards at the state run schools. The same goes for healthcare, which is also said to be free. Unless the generous public rushes to the rescue of the needy by contributing funds to life saving operations and the purchase of vital drugs, we will have hundreds, if not thousands, of people dying every month as the state health institutions cannot cope with the increasing demand for medical care.
Similarly, we have another impressive state policy, which holds unambiguously that all citizens are equal. But, it is silent on the fact that some of them are `more equal than` others in reality. School admissions are a case in point. If all citizens are equal, how come the progeny of a vast majority of them are made to attend underprivileged schools while the children of the affluent parents enjoy the privilege of attending `popular schools`? This is nothing but state sponsored discrimination against the majority of children in this country.
It is natural that all parents want to admit their children to the so-called popular schools. This has led to a mad scramble for Grade One admissions. It is easier for a camel to go through a needle`s eye than for an ordinary man`s child to enter a popular school!
School admissions have become a goldmine for many unscrupulous elements, including corrupt principals. Most of them are multi millionaires! For, desperate parents are ready to oil any number of palms to admit their children to their dream schools. They also spend a fortune to prepare bogus documents to `prove` that they live within the stipulated radius of those schools. Children are trained to utter lies at interviews and gain admission by way of deception!
The situation is worsening with the increasing population. Politicians, true to form, have attempted ad hoc remedies. Some have proposed that primary schools be conducted separately and admission to popular schools be restricted to those children who pass the Grade Five Scholarship examination. Who says we are short of political geniuses?
Are they being fair by the other children who fail that examination? We see those who fail to clear that hurdle excel in studies later in life. Should they be made to continue education at not so popular schools? It has also been proposed that the existing quotas for the children of old boys/girls be scrapped. This proposal has sparked widespread protests as we saw last week.
Before attempting any remedies, the illness needs to be diagnosed properly. What is really wrong with the Grade One admissions? Can it be solved by denying old boys or old girls` their quota or separating the primary sections from the popular schools? The real problem is that the school system is growth retarded. With the increase in population, the demand for education has increased manifold over the years but governments have failed to develop the schools to meet that demand. Hence, the unholy scramble for admissions to a handful of existing popular schools. Had successive governments built the other schools, or at least some of them, to the level of the popular schools, the problem could have been tackled successfully.
The popular schools are bursting at the seams and they cannot be expanded anymore. One of them already boasts of having the largest number of students in South Asia! They are becoming unwieldy by the day with primary classes having more children than teachers can handle. It is high time the government began to develop other schools.
Let that begin from Colombo. A few model schools with modern facilities and expert teachers, in the suburbs, may help ease the demand for the `big` schools in the city. Some private institutions have already done so and a large number of parents have opted for those fee-levying schools. Free education will make the state run schools much more attractive.
In any case, the government has to give serious thought to the deteriorating educational standards in the peripheral schools. In Colombo alone, the GCE (O/L) failure rate was hundred per cent at nine schools last year. The situation is more or less the same in all other districts. Little wonder that children are voting with their feet! It is not only popular schools that should be on the government`s radar. Other schools, too, need its attention and deserve a better deal. Their education shouldn`t be left entirely to the cash strapped Provincial Councils, which have failed to develop school education.
The problem of school admissions is far too serious to be tackled perfunctorily. A lasting solution requires strategic thinking and better planning.
The government seems to be barking up the wrong tree!