Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A tale of two kids and future of free education in SL The Grade V Scholarship Champs:

By Carmen Wickramagamage

Every year, around this time, the Lankan media become engrossed with a phenomenon that I find distressing, if not downright annoying: the parade on TV and newspapers of the supposed high achievers at the Grade V Scholarship Exam. This year is no different and we have already been treated to the photographs, interviews and life stories of these kids flanked by their proud parents and/or teachers. Every year the phenomenon irritates me. It irritates me because the publicity only encourages an already skewed education system: the race to be first, the race to get perfect scores or grades at exams at the expense of everything else that formal school-based education is supposed to be about: extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, a time for unstructured play and laughter and, well, to just "stand and stare."

How intense that rat race has become was brought home to me last year when my son sat the Grade V Scholarship Exam—an exam for which we let him sit only because it is now compulsory. My son was not sent to any tuition classes for this purpose—the only extra tuition was the compulsory after-school prep by his class-teacher in the immediate run-up to the exam and who tutored her students as all other Grade V teachers did their students at her school. We hear that there is now competition among Grade V teachers to record the highest number of ‘passes’ from their respective classes, with one Sep 27 newspaper [Lankadeepa] reporting a quarrel between two female teachers at a school in Galewela over exam results! The competition is not confined however to teachers and schools. It has spread to parents. Someone we know inquired from me last year whether my son had ‘passed’ the exam and what his score was. When told, this was her reaction: "He just managed to scrape through, didn’t he?" And then the unsolicited information: "my sister’s son got 183 marks." Oh? How wonderful! No wonder the media now call it the Ammalaage Vibhaage [tr. Mothers’ Exam].

Exam-oriented education

The one-upmanship evident in the above conversation encapsulates the worst aspects to our present, exam-oriented dog-eat-dog education system. It also shows why we need immediately to re-think and revamp the way we understand, define and implement education in this country. As Kisara Kodituwakku, the young man who is tied for first place in the island at the Scholarship Exam, admitted on TV [Sirasa, Sept 25, 7 pm], he started going for private tuition for the scholarship exam from Grade III onwards. His parents, doctors by profession, supported him by buying him model question papers and other study-aids [Dinamina, Sept 26, p.4]. He said he did not ‘break rest’, only studied till 9 pm. He did watch some TV, he admitted reluctantly, but had a consistent plan for study every day. He is not alone. One has only to go by any tutory on a weekday afternoon or Saturday to see the young children, clearly under 10 years of age, attending "Scholarship" classes. One has only to visit any newsstand or bookstore to see the number of study aids on offer targeting the Scholarship Exam [the publishers, Masterguide, masters in the business]. Today, in many major towns, special one-day revision seminars are on offer for the Scholarship Exam, with teachers in some schools acting as agents to persuade students in their classes to attend such seminars. At one seminar, students were tempted with the promise of a CD [for a fee] which purportedly carried target question papers and model answers!

But what is this overload of tuition and exams doing to our young? On the day of the scholarship exam, one hears of students breaking down, others fainting and throwing up, obviously unable to bear the stress that this race to be first and race to get through the exam is causing them! What right have we as adults to bring so much pressure to bear on such young minds? And why? A casual review of the history of the scholarship exam in Sri Lanka suggests that not too long ago it was optional and that it was meant to give a leg up to truly clever students from deprived backgrounds by way of financial support so that they could stay on in school or go to a better school that offered senior secondary or AL instruction. Some would move from the under-privileged village school they were at to ‘central schools’ with better facilities and, most importantly, a boarding on such financial support. While this continues to happen today, the scholarship exam has now come to be tied up with that whole ugly race for ‘popular/privileged schools" with some students using the cut-off mark to play musical chairs, that is, moving from the second-ranked school in his/her area to the first ranked school in the same area. (This was also the reason why Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s well-intentioned proposal to either scrap the Grade V Scholarship Exam altogether or at least to move it to Grade VII never materialized. So much rests on this exam now.) This move to a popular school moreover is not always a matter of better facilities and better teachers. It is very much tied up with the putative prestige that attaches to popular schools, for which young kids sacrifice a significant portion of their childhood—the extra time spent on the road, congested classrooms, less time for play or other extra-curricular activities.

Students’ race

Popular schools encourage the students’ race in their own race for rankings and for the ability to boast of the number/percentage of students who scored high from the school. Unfortunately, though, more and more, as seen at A/L and OL exams, the credit should go as much to the tuition master/mistress as to the school concerned for these high achievements! So, very soon, photos of high achievers at such exams will include their tuition masters! Of course, the tutors or tuition masters are supported by the learning/study-aid industry, which is of course manned by teacher educators if one were to go by the qualifications of those on the editorial staff of these ‘children’s’ newspapers or who compile such texts. Today, there’s even an industry in ‘short notes’ for all prescribed subjects, including subjects like Sinhala, and these short notes cater even to those in primary school, say, Grade V!!!

What this highlights is an ailing, if not dying, ‘free education’ based school system. Unbeknownst to most parents, they are shouldering a significant portion of the education expenditure, a process accelerated by the license granted to School Development Societies to raise funds for their respective schools. Such a trend, which relies on private funding, increases the inequity in access to education among students, both at school and at tutory level. The 2011 World Bank Report on Education offers some interesting insights into this growing inequity in access to education tied as it is with income. On the one hand, they speak of the differences in private spending on education among households in the urban, rural and estate sectors. According to the Report, education spending among urbanites is 15 percent more than that among rural households and 420 percent more than that among estate sector households. The same Report also highlights the correlation between income and net enrollment rates in education. The poorest sector shows consistently lower enrollment rates in primary, junior, secondary and senior secondary education than their counterparts in the richest sector. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that fewer students from deprived backgrounds enter the Medical and Engineering Faculties of Sri Lankan state universities today than previously. An economist I know has a theory that the greatest beneficiaries of free education or state funded education today are the children of school teachers who know the system and can take advantage of it to provide the best coaching to their offspring.

Be that as it may, 50-odd years of free education has not only not made it totally free to people but is becoming even less free! Rather than reducing costs, cuts in expenditure on education [we may call this the percentage of the GDP allocated to Education in the Budget] have only exacerbated the gap between the ‘popular’ schools where the children of the ‘haves’ go and others. So in national assessments of learning outcomes, according to the World Bank, students from Type 1AB schools, where the children of affluent parents go, perform better than students from Type 2 schools where children from poorer or more disadvantaged homes go. There are also reports that the majority of the schools that have been shut down due to inadequate student enrollment are located in rural areas. Moreover, according to the World Bank Report for 2011, 40-50% of schools in most provinces lack adequate toilet facilities and approximately 20-30% of schools lack drinking water. Another indicator of equity, the number of English teachers per school, tells a similar story. While Sri Lanka has adequate numbers of English or ESL teachers on cadre, there is asymmetry in their distribution with schools in urban areas reporting not only an excess but also the best-trained and better qualified teachers while those in non-urban or rural areas report the opposite. Thus, although tuition itself remains free, the hidden costs to education in this country today, which form a type of glass ceiling with regard to socio-economic mobility through education, make education less than the social equalizer that it was in the past and less than the socially transformative measure that it was meant to be when it was first introduced in 1945 by its architects.

A near miracle

But this year we have witnessed a near miracle, which bears testimony to the peaceful social transformation that Free Education can be. Two students are tied for first place in the island in terms of their marks for the Grade V scholarship exam: the young boy from Richmond College, Galle, and a young girl, Anjali Upeksha Maduwanthi, from Thalaathu Oya Kanishta Vidyaalaya [tr. Thalaathu Oya Junior School]. The parents of this young girl eke out a living through farming according to Dinamina [Sept 26, p.4]. She has never attended a tuition class and given the level of her family’s poverty could not afford any of the study aids on offer in the marketplace. According to her father and principal, she must walk 3 km to the nearest bus-stop to catch the bus to school—a journey that begins at 5.00 am for the child. She returns home around 5 pm according to the father. From the television footage on Sirasa TV, she lives in a simple house that appears to have no electricity, let alone a TV. The school she goes to will not make it to the ‘congenial’ school category in the graded system prepared by the Ministry of Education (see SL Education Information, 2010) which would mean that there will not be an excess of teachers at her school, only a handful of dedicated teachers. Students who wish to pursue studies beyond presumably Grade 5 (since it is a Junior School) would have to anyway move to other schools. Whether many of them would, and how many of them would be able to come out of their poverty through free education, given the socio-economic conditions of this remote and rural location is anybody’s guess—a problem worthy of research.

Yet, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Maduwanthi is truly special. When asked about her own preparation for the Scholarship Exam, she said that she would "solve problems introduced at school in her head" once she returned home after school (Sirasa TV, September 25). If the house is without electricity, she surely would not have been able to study late into the night. Yet, not only is she intelligent, she is also percipient about her chances of success in today’s Sri Lanka given its increasing privatization of both general and higher education.

When asked about their future plans, the young boy from Richmond College confidently declared his intention to become an Engineer [and I wish him good luck in that endeavor]. When Maduwanthi was posed the same question, she gave a response that showed a level of maturity way beyond her years. She said that she does not have a "definite idea" [nishitha adahasak] of what she wants to be but will aim at realizing her maximum potential to the best of her ability [in Sinhala: puluvang uparima thaeneta yanavaa]. Why didn’t this young girl give the predictable answer? Doctor or Engineer? Why that hint of uncertainty? Maybe this is reading too much into her response. But perhaps she realizes, given her socio-economic circumstances, and given the direction that this country is traveling in, that there is a serious doubt whether the free health and education systems that helped people realize their maximum potential is not that secure.

Indeed, even as I write this piece, I hear reported in the media of many people showering this young girl with gifts: in the form of a new house by Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa and land, cash, even a gold chain by other well-wishers. Maybe some regional or national level politician with clout will now appear on her doorstep to shower her with even more gifts, maybe out of the goodness of his/her heart but, maybe, just maybe, for the photo opportunity and symbolic capital that that gift will generate in turn for the politician concerned! All of this attention and largesse will in turn transform Maduwanthi into someone truly exceptional and special, her achievement a singular achievement. Perhaps as the Government rolls back on its commitment to ‘state-funded education’, this may happen very soon turning girls like her into a rarity. However, for now, Maduwanthi is not alone. There are many more like her, gifted and capable young children knocking at the door of opportunity that education affords and who too can record such marvelous achievements if given equal access to educational opportunities. One TV channel for instance reported [Derana TV, September 27] of a school in Owilakanda that has no drinking water but boasts of three students recording ’ at the Scholarship Exam. Another news item displayed a young girl without arms at a school in Dehiowita who uses her right foot to write but had obtained ‘passing’ marks at the same exam. Therefore, rather than turn Maduwanthi into the exceptional but rare individual, we need to think of her as the best known face of a phenomenon—gifted young children from under-privileged backgrounds and schools—that requires urgent attention and action on the part of all those in this country who are committed to social justice. It is for them that we need to save ‘free education’ and pressurize the government to increase its commitment, through deed as well as word, to state-funded general and higher education. So let us do all we can to retain that level playing field for the Maduwanthis of this country!

The writer is Professor in English at the University of Peradeniya

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