Uduvil Girls College – politics of education and the challenges facing private schools

Friday, 16 September 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Niyanthini Kadirgamar and Esther Surenthiraraj

Images of the week-long protest held by the Students of Uduvil Girls College (UGC), filling the news last week, have spread beyond the community of Uduvil. The issue is now of wider social concern and has led to a debate about the role of private schools and the future of education in Sri Lanka.

The students’ protest and demands received support from parents, and UGC alumni, although they were disregarded by the school’s management board. As tension mounted, other groups including the Ceylon Teachers Union expressed concern and condemned violent actions to suppress student dissent. Subsequently, the students appealed to various actors including President Sirisena himself, while he was on a visit to Jaffna.

In the highly politicised and sensationalised reporting of the events, the concerns of the parents and students who are most impacted by the school were drowned out. Parents and students are concerned about the quality of education, of accountability for abuses against students, curtailing the interference of church politics, and democratising the management of the school.

At a time during which the reports of the event involve a focus on factional Tamil politics and political groups attempt to use these incidents for their own gain, we would like to bring into the discussion the demands of the students and parents, and situate the UGC students’ act of resistance amidst broader social concerns. The students’ courageous protests have created a moment for public reflection on the politics of education, privatisation, and the challenges of women’s education.

Uduvil Girls College and the church

Many Christian missionary schools were established in Jaffna in the 19th century. Among them, the American Ceylon Mission (AMC) was the first to establish missionary schools and an institution for higher studies in Jaffna. Such institutions became the centres from which individuals and communities emerged with strong institutional loyalties and commitment to communities. They served as educationists, government servants, priests and medical officers, as well as scholars and writers in the Tamil and English languages.

Stories of unforgettable personalities and admirable leaders are often recalled by the generations who have passed through these institutions. Although battered by the war, migration and multiple displacements, many of these institutions continue to survive, adapting themselves to socioeconomic and political conditions.

UGC was established in 1824 by the AMC, and became the first boarding school for girls in Asia. Institutions set up by the AMC later became affiliated with the Church of South India. Currently, both Jaffna College and UGC are managed by separate Boards of Directors that include members of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JD CSI), although funding for the school is provided by the parent body of the AMC in Boston.

The split within the church, which occurred due to conflicts over the appointment of the present Bishop and the formation of another church (Church of the American Ceylon Mission), further complicates the structure and management of the school. Indeed, the history of missionary schools has had its share of strife and controversies. This is the context for the current crisis at UGC.

The issue has emerged in the public eye as one of disagreement over the decision to appoint a new principal by the board which argues that the current principal has reached her retirement age, and a plea to reappoint her by those who are protesting this decision. However, the real problems of the school are deeply rooted in the structure and management of the institution. Behind the request for the extension of the term of the former principal, in addition to acknowledging her valuable contribution, is the fear of a further deterioration of the school.

Private schools and accountability

Sri Lanka is at a crucial stage in deciding the future trajectory of its education system. While the present Government has promised a steady increase in spending on public education, efforts are being made for further privatisation of education. Student-led struggles to safeguard ‘free’ education are continuing to be waged. However, the larger push is for establishing private educational institutions. In this context, the protests at UGC have highlighted some of the challenges faced by private schools.

The management board is vested with the responsibility of running the school without disruptions and ensuring the safety of students. However, when the Board is incapable of dealing with the situation or unconcerned about students’ wellbeing, parents and students are left in a predicament.

When the management of the school is left in the hands of a few, mere personal interests can stifle the future of the school community, and the students in particular. Corruption and mismanagement of educational funds can also easily creep into the institution. Further, raising sufficient funds for private institutions is an important challenge. As the burden of paying teacher salaries is also borne by these schools, their long-term development is restricted.

It is evident that there is a need for greater accountability and for external oversight of private schools. However, it is unclear as to who has the authority to intervene in a crisis, as with the situation that emerged at the UGC. Is there an interim role for the Government to ensure the functioning of the school until a permanent solution can be implemented?

As to whether issues relating to private schools can be more efficiently handled at the provincial or state levels has to be carefully explored. The Private Schools Branch within the Ministry of Education has a limited mandate to ensuring the quality of education. Perhaps provincial governments can play a more active role in private schools. The assisted schools provision allows for more State oversight of these schools, although some have complained about excessive Government interference. All such concerns require further investigation and discussion in order to ensure greater accountability of existing private schools.

A place for women’s education

Missionary schools in Jaffna established during colonial times, especially for girls, have been reshaped by the socio-cultural, political and economic influences of war. UGC too has undergone transformation, both in terms of the focus of education and the socio-economic makeup of the student population. The school now serves a broader community with a higher percentage of lower middleclass and Hindu students. The ethos of women’s education in these Christian missionary institutions was centred mainly on grooming women to be ‘respectable’ and ‘efficient’ homemakers. However, they have had to rework themselves and their educational outcomes in the face of significant social change.

UGC students’ recent protest differs from the actions of the stereotypical woman produced through missionary education, as we see schoolgirls descending to the streets, lying in front of the school gate, challenging teachers who attempted to enter the school, and being vociferous in their demands. The very discourses that emerge against these actions (i.e. first learn to obey your teachers, get up off the street, behave yourselves) testify to the protest’s challenging of social norms.

Jaffna society and its leaders were ill-equipped to deal with the resistance by schoolgirls and are forced to question the conditioning of women and their role in society. The protests have even gone beyond challenging the status quo in traditional Jaffna society. There seems to be a reworking of previously-held norms by these students, whose protest demand the inclusion of their voice into decisions made by the school’s management.

The incident goes so far as to make us challenge our own notions about children and their representation on the governing body of private educational institutions. The students’ protest at the retirement of their principal could be read as a demand to recognise and give due place to them as key members not only in education, but in the management of their education as well.

We hear that there is a move in a private Christian school in Central Sri Lanka to include student representation in the board. It reflects the global ecumenical trend to give a bigger role and importance to children in churches and church affiliated institutions. If a school is run primarily for the purpose of educating children, why should they not be included in a democratic process of running school affairs? The political awareness with which the girls at UGC have reacted challenges us to rethink our own assumptions about children’s agency.

When ‘tuition syndrome’ took over schools in Jaffna, and focused only on attaining higher results in exams, UGC has stood out for providing an all-round education. The girls have excelled in sports and aesthetics, and music in particular is embedded in the tradition of the school. Even when the usually laidback, charming campus of Uduvil was shaken up last week, music filled the air. The girls resorted to singing familiar Tamil lyrics along with slogans of protest in spite of the violent verbal and physical abuse endured at the hands of teachers and others.

Hope for the future

The prolonged war did not only create polarisation between ethnic groups. It resulted in a complete disintegration of society and trust within the Tamil community. Living under the shadow of the gun and authoritarian politics, there was very little room for dissent or non-violent protests.

It is remarkable that in this backdrop, the students of UGC have demonstrated the value of non-violent collective action, giving us hope for a different future. The sense of community, dedication towards the educational institution, and rejection of authoritarianism was visible in their protests and parents’ expression of solidarity for these actions. Therefore, the challenges in UGC require serious attention and a deeper reflection of social institutions and their relationship to democratisation. Parents, teachers, alumni, churches and the community must rally around the students to ensure their education and future is not only secure, but also transformative. The leadership of a generation of girls with a progressive social outlook is at stake here.

(Niyanthini Kadirgamar and Esther Surenthiraraj are researchers with an interest in education.)