Sri Lanka: School Admissions Policy--Legalising social injustice?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Sep 5 13:43:39 UTC 2007

School Admissions Policy: Legalising social injustice?
Siri Hettige

solution: The school admissions policy has emerged as a contentious
national issue, following the recent involvement of the judiciary in
the matter.

As the opposition leader has pointed out in a recent speech, the new
guidelines can nullify the objectives of free education that was
introduced even before the country gained independence in 1948. This
is another instance where the authorities have failed miserably to
come up with a rational and reasonable solution to a long standing

Let us deal with the fundamental issue; our education system has
failed to ensure equal opportunities to all children irrespective of
their class, ethnicity, and residential, social and political
background. The glaring inequities within the system have been clearly
evident for many years. While some schools in urban centres like
Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Jaffna and Kurunagala have the best facilities,
remote rural and estate schools have little or nothing by way of
qualified and competent teachers, libraries, computer labs, etc.
Parents are aware that children who attend disadvantaged schools have
no prospect of realising their potential and moving up the educational
and social leader.

This is the reason why parents want to admit their children to better
equipped urban schools. Yet, it is only those who have the resources
and the necessary social and political contacts who usually succeed in
their effort. It is common sense that not all the children in the
country can be accommodated in well equipped urban schools, though
theoretically, all of them should have access to such schools as they
have a right to be treated equally. Yet, we have not treated our
children equally ever since modern education was introduced to Sri
Lanka. In fact, it has become much worse in recent years.

When education facilities are highly unequally distributed in the
country, it is impossible to ensure equality of opportunity. If one
argues that this is possible, he or she should be insane. If only 20%
of the schools are well equipped, while the rest fall into the
category of under-privileged schools, it is only logical to argue that
the education system denies to a majority of school children their
right to have a good quality education. In such a situation, the vast
majority of school children cannot be expected to achieve a reasonable
standard of education. Even if we go by the highly unreliable
indicator of educational achievement; namely GCE (O/L) and GCE (A/L)
results, the picture is clear. Those who attend disadvantaged rural
and estate schools have the poorest results.

When one looks at student performance in the English language, it is
even clearer. Those who attend rural and estate schools acquire no
knowledge of the English language, though they all realize the need to
have a working knowledge of English and do everything to achieve their

Given the resource limitations, it would be unrealistic to assume that
all schools in the country can be brought up to the level of
privileged urban schools in the near future. What is realistically
possible is to narrow the gap between the privileged and the
under-privileged schools.

This can be done by upgrading ill-equipped schools in a systematic
fashion so that they do not fall below a minimum standard. This
minimum standard should be determined by educational authorities in
consultation with specialists in the field.

Another step that needs to be taken is to stop pumping in any more
public resources to privileged urban schools.

What should be noted is that, countries like Malaysia, Thailand and
South Korea allocate a much higher percentage of their GDP for
education than Sri Lanka. As is well known, a higher level of public
investment in education in these countries has been a major factor
contributing to economic and social development there.

What I have attempted to demonstrate above is that, as long as the
current disparities in the public education system persist, it is
virtually impossible to provide opportunities to all prospective new
entrants to schools, no matter what kind of admission policy we adopt.
On the other hand, parents do everything to find a good school for
their children.

As mentioned earlier, parents who have economic resources and social
or political capital usually manage to find good schools for their
children. We are well aware of the methods used by privileged and
well-connected parents to find places for their children in good

Many of them collect fake documents to prove the eligibility of their
children. They collect all kinds of documents to show that the child
lives in the vicinity of the school. This becomes obvious when the
same parents, in collaboration with their political contacts, arrange
private transport for their children to travel 15 to 20 kilometers
daily between home and school.

Authorities responsible for enforcing the rules have no problem with
such blatant violations. Old boys and girls associations and
parent-teacher associations also do everything to ensure that their
family members have privileged access to their "own schools". They
want to reserve these schools to their children as a birth right.

Given the intense competition for admission to such schools,
corruption has also become a widespread phenomenon that involves
public officials, school principals and others. Some of them have
become rich as a result.

Given the above state of affairs, it is not possible to argue that the
prevailing practices pertaining to school admissions are just and
reasonable. On the other hand, one cannot imagine how a reasonable
admission policy can be devised and administered given the highly
unequal distribution of educational resources in the country.

Among the criteria currently used to allocate places in more desirable
schools, the only one that appears to be reasonable is the residential

Even this criterion deprives a majority of children who happen to live
in the vicinity of disadvantaged schools, as they are forced to attend
such schools when the admissions are done on the basis of the
residential criteria.

All the other criteria used such as parents' or siblings' school
background, parents' ability to make financial contributions to
schools, social and political background of parents etc... violate the
equity principle as under-privileged children are automatically
eliminated from the competition.

In the case of a pre-school child who has had no formal schooling or
any kind of prior coaching, what is there to be tested? A few middle
class children who have been prematurely coached by their parents or
pre-school teachers might appear to be better prepared for school
education but such children can be few and far between. It would be
ridiculous to subject an average pre -school child to an admission

Up to now the year five scholarship examination is conducted in the
country to select school children to Grade six. Private tuition is
given to children preparing for this examination and those who have
access to best coaching naturally do better. These are children from
better off families, though there can be a few exceptions.

If a new test is introduced to select children to Grade one, parents
will be forced to give private tuition to pre-school children as well
to prepare them for the test.

This would not only put enormous economic, social and psychological
pressure on families but would also amount to virtual abuse of small
children. There is no need to mention that children from poor families
will invariably be marginalized.

In this country we are quite pleased to deal with symptoms of deep
rooted problems rather than their causes. The issue of school
admissions has gone from bad to worse over the years due to growing
disparities within the education system.

The influential and powerful groups have virtually monopolized
privileged urban schools, relegating children from poor and powerless
families to disadvantaged schools. Now we are ready to legalize this
unjust system by giving legitimacy to socially unjust practices.

Instead of perpetuating an unequal and unjust system that marginalizes
the poor and the powerless, what we should have done was to compel the
authorities to set minimum standards below which no school in the
country should fall. Indian Supreme Court did something similar for
private universities some time back.

A time frame would have been set to narrow the gap between the
privileged and under-privileged public schools and create a more
equitable system of education. This is the only way to make sure that
children attending government schools have equal opportunities
irrespective of their class, ethnic, caste and residential
backgrounds. This of course is too much to ask for, from our myopic
leaders as servile public officials.

The writer is Professor of Sociology, University of Colombo

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