January 9th of 2015 dawned with much hope but with much baggage too, it turns out. As events since then show, moving forward will be a tough balancing act for the President and the Prime Minister. Sri Lanka achieved independence without bloodshed, we like to say, but much blood has been shed since then. Born as a promising child of the Commonwealth at independence, we have watched Singapore and Malaysia overtake us by leaps and bounds. Smitten with socialism then, now we want to be social-democrats like the Europeans, but without their level of productivity or the high taxes.
This phenomenon is most evident in education. We have been striving for equality long before the economy or the society was ready for it. The fifty two original set of central schools crumbled along with the rest of the educational system with the weight of increasing demand for central schools in every town in a slow growth environment. In South Korea, by design or otherwise, their initial focus was on primary education, preparing a workforce for the factory floor. Then came investments in secondary and then tertiary. In Sri Lanka, we wanted it all then and we want it all now.
During the 2012 to 2013 period, I worked intensively in a school zone in the Ampara District with a group of idealists led by the former Education Minister for the Eastern Province, Wimalaweera Dissanayake and Upali Chandrasiri, an activist. I tried to read and appreciate their bible, the book ‘Guru Geethaya’ or ‘First Teacher’ by Chinghiz Aitmatov, but, I had a hard time being inspired by the Soviet-era heroism of individuals who fought against all odds. I believe in setting up systems that will make ordinary people behave well enough. Yet, along with the team I dreamed of a holistic education that valued achievements beyond exam success, and my role, defined by myself, was essentially to document that process as an action research project and adjust strategy as I went along. The project fizzled due to a change in the leadership and other factors, one of which was our efforts to implement the best option under sub-optimal conditions. The action research report is available, ready for another opportunity, but with less idealism next time.
I thought I was cured of idealism, but was again drawn to apply the best option in another environment which was sub optimal. This time the inspiration was an enthusiastic principal from a failing school in Colombo 5 who would not take no for an answer. This school has inherited space and facilities which any popular school would envy, but the middle-class parents have long fled, leaving it for children from low-income ghettos in the area. Colombo abounds with these kinds of schools, but we easily miss them as we fight traffic jams around popular school. The idea for the second school too fizzled, but the idea is on the same website, to be rejuvenated as needed.
Reeling from the reality checks of the past and hoping to recover from the bad taste of the bond scandal of recent, I welcomed the opportunity to attend the celebration of the 200-year birthday of Katunayake Methodist High School last Sunday. The school had been a beacon of hope then and now a failing one. This time I was determined to look beyond the best option to the second best or third best options and look for a strategy that might work under sub-optimal conditions.
Neighborhood school is the best school – the first best option
The neighborhood school is the best school, is the slogan of the Ministry of Education. This is what I would call the ‘best of the best’ options, for emphasis. Last week, I wrote about the struggles in UK to maintain their ideals from 1960s where they tried to move away from the selective grammar school concept and democratise education to give every child what they call a secondary modern school.
The old Grammar school idea was broad-based by conservative governments of the late 1940s by introducing the eleven-plus examination (the Sri Lanka equivalent of which is the Grade V scholarship examination). Grammar schools were intended to teach an academic curriculum to the most intellectually-able percent of the school population as selected by the eleven-plus. In 1964, the Labour Party brought in the egalitarian concept of the secondary modern school or the concept that neighborhood schools shall be the best schools and those would be open to all.
As Theresa May, the new PM noted, the secondary modern system has failed everybody except those who can afford to send their children to elite private schools, or parents who can coach their children to ace the eleven plus exam to get access to the remaining few grammar schools. Strangely, in Sri Lanka, we seem to have marched lockstep with our old mother country. If the Education Act of 1947 in the UK sought to spread the academic ethos of the existing grammar schools with the eleven-plus exam, during 1943-47, Dr. C.W.W. Kannagara sought to establish 52 central schools across the country with the Scholarship exam as the entry point.
Meanwhile, the 1964 manifesto of the Labour Party promised to abolish selectivity in admissions to schools and the policy was gradually implemented. Notions of equality found a match in the economic might of the UK at that time. In our part of the world, the 1956 transformation brought the aspirations of equality but economic policies were not conducive. Since then, we have been struggling along speaking of equality but delivering little, while in UK too visions of equality are disappearing under a changing economic landscape. Interestingly, both countries are in a somewhat similar situation. Giving a selective school to every aspiring parent is a question vexing policymakers in both countries. A selective school for every child is an oxymoron but try explaining that to parents.
In Sri Lanka we have come up with the ultimate cynical solution. Give the hope of a selective school to every parent by making a media spectacle of the Grade V scholarship exam. The exam indeed gives the impression of equality of access. The first ten children this year, ranked according to their total marks, scored 194 or more out of 200. It is worth putting on record, the locations of no-name schools that they hailed form – namely, Urugamuwa, Matara; Asssadduma, Kuliyapitiya; Rambekulam, Vavuniya; Dedigama, Kegalle; Asssadduma, Kuliyapitiyaagain; Ibbagamuwa; Trincomalee; Giriulla; Vennapauwa;Horana, Bomiriya and Jaffna. Next year, the top ten will form another random set of schools, showing that the examination indeed helps uncover cognitively gifted children wherever they happen to be. The sad truth is that the cut-off marks for popular schools seem to be set up to so that only some of the places in Grade six in popular schools are open for these and other gifted children. The elite have captured the majority of places already through Grade 1 admissions. Perhaps these schools are popular because of the presence of elites, but that is another story.
In the UK, entry to grammar schools is merit based, but the inadequacy of places for these schools is a problem in both countries. PM Theresa May proposes a not-so-ideal but a practical path to expand the number of quality schools. Learn to live with inequity, but give the people more tools with which to cope, is her argument. She proposes to expand the number of quality schools through several means.
Addressing inequity, in partnership – Second best option in education
There are many things wrong with the current concept of popular schools as practiced in Sri Lanka. Yet, the popular schools are here to stay. No sane politician would try to dismantle them. We have to look for ways to work with the system.
To expand quality school, Theresa May’s government proposes to mandate better endowed schools of public, private or civil society ownership to adopt failing schools. She also wants to extend a hand to religious schools or independent private schools to expand if they extend a hand to the disadvantaged families in the vicinity. Universities as leaders in such endeavors are also an idea in her proposal, but in Sri Lanka our universities will have to fix themselves first.
As the Pastor of the Katunayake Methodist Church, Reverend Surnagika Fernando noted, even past pupils living in the Katunayake Methodist school neighborhood send their children to Colombo or Negomo or choose the newly-established private school, leaving only the most disadvantaged families to attend the neighborhood school. The Methodist Church is ready to share responsibility with the Government to uplift the school, and that is an option that should be explored. Olcott Buddhists – an identification now used disparagingly for Buddhists who deviate from Bodhi Pooja Buddhist majority –may take the lead in Buddhist-group-led schools and so on. Private schools can be incentivised to make places available for promising children from failing schools, giving gifted or keen children in those schools the opportunity to move on. Committed school leaders can create niche areas for excellence for the remaining children. Professional organisations like the GMOA can experiment with one or more model schools near teaching hospitals in remote areas, to attract children of professionals serving in those areas. Many possibilities exist, but none involves a Government going it alone.
Ministry of education should take heed
With its slogan, the neighborhood school is the best school, the Ministry of Education in Sri Lanka has set itself up for failure. New brooms will not sweep away socioeconomic issuesunderlying the failure of previous attempts. The ministry can keep the slogan, but they have to realize that they cannot do it alone.