Monday, February 11, 2013

Schooling: Picking and plucking coconuts

The Island,  


Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena got into hot water a few moons ago for claiming that a family of three could live on a monthly income of Rs. 7,500 if the home economy was frugally managed. He, true to form, flew in the face of common sense in a futile bid to prove his point and cut a very pathetic figure in the process. Today, it has become patently clear that when he plucked that figure out of the air he chose to ignore at least the ‘cost of free education’ which even the poorest of the poor have to bear as evident from the predicament of a small schoolgirl from Horana who allegedly stole a few coconuts from a neighbour’s garden to raise funds for colour-washing her classroom. She was charged with theft, produced before Courts and enlarged on bail. The law is said to be an ass. Equally asinine are those who enforce it.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ordered a probe into the incident. His action seems to have gone down well with the public, but his government ought to do what really needs to be done. Parents have to pay through the nose to maintain their children’s schools which are starved of state funds, be it in Colombo or in the rural backwaters. This, they do with nary a peep as they are wary of antagonising school authorities for obvious reasons. They have to beg, borrow or steal.

The schoolgirl of Horana had to steal as her parents could not beg or borrow. The government should not pretend that it is unaware of the sorry state of affairs in the education sector. It is quite au fait with the situation. Besides regular financial contributions to the state-run schools perennially thirsting for money, parents have to pay for their children’s private tuition as well, which costs them an arm and a leg. The public school system has gone the same way as the Sri Lanka Transport Board, which has been overtaken by the private sector.

The aforesaid presidential inquiry, in our book, has the trappings of a red herring in that it is apparently aimed at covering up the government’s culpability. The government does not allocate enough funds for maintaining schools. This is the main issue that needs to be addressed, we reckon. If the government looks after the school system properly there will be no need for funds to be collected from parents for repairs etc. So, while the errant principals who demand money from parents should be dealt with appropriately, as the Education Minister has promised, the blame for school heads squeezing parents dry should be apportioned to the government which has failed in its duty where the allocation of resources for education is concerned.

This is not the first time the long arm of the law has swung into action against small children ruthlessly; nor will it be the last. On Sept. 10, 2010, we reported that a 13-year-old girl, also from Kalutara, had been arrested for allegedly stealing Rs. 5.00––yes, FIVE RUPEES––hauled up before Courts and bailed out. Politicians and the media let out a howl of protest, but precious little was done by way of amending the draconian laws. Children are being thus dealt with for petty thefts in a country where tax evaders, plunderers of public wealth, criminals in the garb of politicians and well-connected fraudsters carry out their sordid operations with impunity. No one has been arrested for the multi-billion-rupee CPC hedging racket.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), which took to the streets a few months ago, demanding, among other things, a substantial increase in state funds for education stands vindicated. It looks as if the country had come to such a pass that children now have to commit larceny to help maintain schools. The government is without any pecuniary woes when it comes to bidding for international sports events like the Commonwealth Games and holding political circuses and all sorts of Saturnalia which gobble up a great deal of public funds. Facilities available in schools and universities are wretchedly inadequate and the quality of education is far from satisfactory. Setting up more and more international schools and private universities is certainly not the answer. The government had better stop believing in its own lies, cut down on its wasteful expenditure, get its priorities right and increase investment substantially in the education sector if it wants to achieve its ambitious goal of turning this country into Asia’s Knowledge Hub. Else, the day may not be far off when the majority of children have to pick coconuts to raise funds to help run schools and, worse, pluck coconuts after passing GCE A/L, deprived of their right to higher education or after university graduation, unable to be gainfully employed.