The entire education system is in crisis. Universities are on the boil they remain more closed than open. Their products are not fit for the job market and have to be employed virtually on charity basis in the state sector which is bursting at the seams. GCE (A/L) paper marking has come to a standstill with teachers holding students to ransom in a bid to win their demands. Only 17,000 out of about 117,000 who qualify for higher education annually gain university admission as universities are not equipped to accommodate all of them. Nearly one third of students who sit the GCE (O/L) examination are said to drop out. Private tuition has come to prop up state-run schools thus making a mockery of free education. Atop all these, Grade One school admissions, too, have become problematic.
We are notorious as a nation for letting the grass grow under our feet, wishing away problems. We wait until disaster strikes to realise the magnitude of any problem. And then we go hell for leather to solve it. Anticipation and proper planning for future are not for us. School admissions are a case in point. It had been an unholy mess right from the inception. Everyone knew it was a big racket. But, no one gave a tinker`s damn about it and chose to swim with the tide in typical Sri Lankan style. For school principals, Grama Niladharis and politicians, school admissions became a goldmine. (A Grama Niladhari in Colombo is said to own as many as 21 vehicles thanks to the issuance of bogus documents required for school admissions!) Successive governments kept on papering over the cracks.
Today, the corrupt and convoluted system has caved in under its own weight and all those who kept it going are performing the postmortem. But, like those proverbial blind men who tried to figure out the shape of an elephant, they keep on arguing, unable to grasp the real nature of the problem let alone discuss a solution.
Politicians and their bureaucratic henchmen are, true to form, busy trying to find escape routes without grasping the nettle. Some of them have suggested that primary sections be run separately and the Grade Five Scholarship examination be used to select children for popular schools. Little do they realise that over 80 per cent of children who score more than 160 marks (out of 200) at that examination are said to be from the middle and high income groups, because of the cost of private tuition. If that method were to be adopted, what would happen to the progeny of the poor?
Some political troglodytes with a tunnel vision want the government to absolve itself of the responsibility for running schools completely! There has also been a proposal for doing away with the existing Old Boys`/Girls` and religious quotas. It has triggered widespread protests. Old boys and old girls have, in some cases, overstepped their limits and usurped the powers and functions of principals and the tutorial staff, making a nuisance of themselves but the fact remains that they contribute to the wellbeing of their alma maters in no small measure. Therefore, the question is whether it is fair to deny them preferential treatment when it comes to their children`s education. Although schools should ideally be secular institutions, the sensitivities of religious institutions need to be heeded as they, too, keep a large number of schools going albeit with state assistance.
The issue of school admissions has got so complicated over the years that it has caused the intervention of the judiciary and led to some friction between the apex court and the national legislature. A Supreme Court decision on the Education Ministry circular governing school admissions is expected today.
Whatever the Supreme Court determination may be, school admissions, especially in respect of popular schools, are a problem far too complex to be tackled by cutting the Gordian knot judicially. What the circular aims at solving is only a single problem stemming from the crisis that has been neglected for decades. It is tantamount to finding ways and means of rationing a certain commodity in short supply without stepping up its production.
There are said to be about 70 popular schools characterised by a mad scramble for admissions. In other parts of the country, too, there is a competition for school admissions but it is not so stiff and manifest and the aggrieved parents are not so influential as to make their grievances a national issue.
It is natural that parents seek to admit their children to the schools they consider best. When the state fails to cater to them, either they resort to protests, as evident from the current dispute or opt for private education providers who are having a roaring business at present.
If the government is desirous of removing the rot once and for all, it has to provide alternatives to the exiting popular schools while reviewing the current admission procedure. Many schools obviously have the potential to compete with popular schools but they are without resources. Such schools need to be identified and given a resource boost immediately.
True, popular schools have certain attributes such as traditions and the attendant reputation which increases the demand for them. But, the increasing popularity of the newfangled international schools and private educational institutes may help prove that reputation is something more contingent upon performance than factors such as much flaunted traditions and the influence of old boys`/girls` associations functioning as de facto boards of governors. Academic excellence and impressive performance in extra curricular activities, which could be achieved through the provision of good teachers and physical resources such as spacious buildings, fully equipped libraries and laboratories and sports facilities, will serve as rocket fuel to take any properly managed school to the giddy heights of popularity in record time.
Funds cannot be a problem. We have a government rich enough to build a second international airport. If funds to be splurged on such grandiose projects could be saved, they could be expended for developing a large number of schools. That would be a worthwhile investment. For the survival of a small nation like ours caught in the vortex of globalization depends on its ability to produce an educated workforce capable of competing with a knowledge driven world outside. It can no longer depend on slavery of its women in West Asia.
Meanwhile, there are protests from various quarters including parliamentarians against what they term a move to introduce an IQ test for Grade One admissions. (Lawmakers have got something right?for once!) There should be a limit to putting children through the hoop. All work and no play makes Jack a diabetic. According to the National Diabetes Centre about 15 per cent of schoolchildren suffer from diabetes due to stress, irregular meals and lack of exercises.
On the other hand, testing a student`s IQ at a tender age could give misleading results. Albert Einstein, the architect of the Nuclear Age was so weak as a child that he was nicknamed `Dull Albert` in school. Charles Darwin, who presented the Theory of Evolution, was once voted the dullest boy of the year in school. He had this to say in his autobiography, `I was considered by all my masters and by my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.` Lord Keynes used to fail in Economics repeatedly in school! Sir Walter Scott had the sobriquet, `King of blockheads`.
Should our children be subjected to IQ tests even before their enter school?
How many Einsteins, Keynes, Scotts and Darwins may have dropped out of school due to our flawed education system? They must be making tea in wayside eateries or working as porters in Pettah. Who knows?
It is only wishful thinking that a solution to the much vexed issue of school admissions could be evolved overnight. Some tinkering with it may be in order for the time being in view of next year`s admissions. Let all stake holders put their heads together thereafter and come up with a well thought out strategy to solve it once and for all.
A holistic solution is called for.