The Grade One challenge

Wednesday, 28 June 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Government has extended the deadline for Grade One admissions to State schools but it may well be the precursor to another round of controversy as parents struggle to get their children the limited positions available in a stringently administered system.  

Last year 10 national school principals and teachers had legal action initiated against them by the Education Ministry for taking bribes to admit children. The problem is neither new nor exceptional, but it does smack of the need for good governance.

Undoubtedly, school admission is one of the most controversial topics in the current debate about education in Sri Lanka. There are frequent media reports of preferential access to popular schools, facilitated by bribes or through family or political connections (nepotism, cronyism). In fact ‘mediators’ have sprung up around the country to profit generously from this issue.

The perception of corruption in the admissions sector is certainly widely felt but few parents will actively admit to bribery or being pressured into grease palm tactics, making accountability that much harder. Opaque financial records maintained by the school and the lack of engagement between parents and teachers also worsen the situation. 

Understandably, parents are reluctant to report illegal payments to principals and officers as they feel this might jeopardise their child’s schooling. While it is difficult to quantify bribery and nepotism in school admissions, this apparently frequent practice has tainted the image of a fair and equal public education system.

The residential criterion for school admissions together with intense and increasing competition for good schools seems to provide various opportunities for corruption. Many parents prepare for school admission long before the child is ready to go to school. Frequent corrupt practices include purchasing, leasing or renting a house close to a prestigious school, and bribing the Grama Niladhari to falsely certify that the family lives in close proximity to a good school.

This practice further increases pressure on popular schools and entrenches the gap between a few better-off schools and the balance. Fraud in the use of residential criterion is facilitated by poor levels of interaction between the community and the school. If principals and authorities do not know their constituencies well, they are more easily duped.

The latest round of Budget proposals pledged to gradually increase public spending on education up to 6% of GDP but this is not going to make a significant dent in bridging the gap between prestigious schools and their lesser counterparts. Schools depend on reputations and it will not be easy for average schools to catch up to elite schools that are usually far ahead with over a century of history behind them. Excellence in education also pushes up demand for specific schools in the short term, opening up new avenues for corruption.

Clearly admission systems need to be policed better, but this is clearly not the only path to take. Teachers need to be paid better salaries, trained and given the chance to earn back their reputation. They must be treated fairly and given the promotions they deserve. Stronger relationships need to be built between authorities, schools, teachers, students and parents. 

Companies also need to stop paying underserved attention to job applicants based on their schools and reduce culpability in making decisions based on school contacts. An equitable society demands the end of such archaic practices so selection to key jobs is based on merit and not the school they attended.