The national policy on Grade One school admissions is in the news again. It is being presented to the Cabinet at long last, we are told. After it passes muster at that level, it will be presented to Parliament. But, from what is reported in the press about the new policy, one cannot be sanguine about a lasting solution being found. A strategy to tackle the problem has to go way beyond juggling with percentages and quotas, however necessary they may be as short term measures to retard the country s slide towards a disaster in education.
We, as a nation, are quite adept at, as a pithy local saying goes, changing pillows by way of a cure for a headache . We have been changing pillows several times over but the headache of school admissions persists. It is a headache not only for parents/teachers/politicians but also for the learned judges, who have had to exert themselves to clean up the mess. Sagara Palansuriya s famous poem, Ugathkama comes to mind. He tells us about an erudite man who ends up in court for having made a public nuisance of his magnum opus which nobody understands, by reading it out to people against their will. The judge, curious to know the contents of the book which the people find so repulsive, makes the mistake of ordering him to read it out. Our man goes on reading his work with relish and in the end, unable to hear it any more the judge resigns himself! We earnestly hope and pray that a similar fate won t befall the good judges who have undertaken to rectify the mess of school admissions! That task is far more arduous than cleaning the Augean stables.
The main cause of the present crisis is lack of good schools. When the demand for something is high and the supply low, there is always a problem. Rations and quotas may work in the short run but the long term remedy is to increase the supply. In other words, more and more schools must be developed to the level of their so-called privileged counterparts.
Unfortunately, the focus of successive governments has been on managing the crisis rather than rooting out the causative factors. The present government at the inception of its tenure embarked on a grandiose project to rehabilitate thousands of irrigation tanks. What has become of that scheme is anybody s guess. But, if a similar programme is launched to develop schools and sustain it over a period of five years, the mad scramble for admissions to popular schools could be contained to a considerable extent. If some schools could be equipped with better facilities with English as the medium of instruction in the city as well as other urban centres, even the children attending the present-day popular schools might want to vote with their feet. (More and more students are leaving big colleges to join International Schools, lured by the English medium .)
There has been a proposal that primary classes be conducted separately and admissions to popular schools be determined on the basis of children s performance at the Grade Five Scholarship Examination. Children who pass that competitive examination deserve a break but any sifting process based solely on that is not only seriously flawed but also unfair. For, the fact that intelligent children pass that examination doesn t necessarily mean all those who go through it are exceptionally gifted or those who fail to clear that hurdle are not intelligent enough to deserve preferential treatment. Some children, it should be noted, blossom early in life while others take years to succeed.
Once, there lived a very dull schoolboy who was described as mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams . So, he was dubbed Dull Albert . After plodding along during his early school life, he crashed at the examination to get into a technical college. Who was that boy? None other than Albert Einstein, the architect of the Nuclear Age!
History also tells us of another schoolboy who was voted the dullest boy of the year at his college. His father and teachers were of the view that he was a useless child. But, he went on to become one of the famous people on earth. Charles Darwin was his name! Another schoolboy had the misfortune of repeatedly failing economics in school. He was so weak that his principal had to summon his parents to tell them about the pathetic performance of their child in economics. But, later in life he became the Father of modern economics. He was Lord Keynes?
Let a long list be cut short with this example. A child was so weak in school that he used to be caned. And when he left his first school, teachers heaved a sigh of relief and declared a half-holiday. But, he didn t give up and pursued his goal with the tenacity of a bulldog. He not only succeeded in life but also saved his country from a ferocious monster. He was Winston Churchill.
Had those dull boys been given a test early in life like our Grade Five Scholarship Examination and denied an opportunity to prove themselves, what would have happened? Man would have been poorer in science the dismal science would have been growth retarded we would have been groping in the dark as to the origin of the species and Hitler would have marched on London!
If it is such gems that we seek in this country, no unnecessary hurdles should be slapped in the path of children. All students deserve equal opportunities in education and it is the duty of the State to enable them to study in good schools, without hiding behind temporary remedies.
Meanwhile, it is a shame that politicians have had the cheek to ask for a one per cent of the slots in Grade One classes, having brought school education to this sorry pass. These politicians have a penchant for having a finger in every pie! Is it that they are trying to make a business of schools admissions as well? One effective way of developing schools is to make politicians send their children to schools in their electorates. Then only will they feel the need to improve those seats of learning.
Their one-per-cent demand may be granted on one condition: They must use those slots themselves and go back to school. They are badly in need of some basic education, if their debating standards and conduct are any indication.