Jan 21, 2017

A nationally accepted fraud and middle class ‘poverty’

Grade 1 schools admissions and Royal College were featured on 12 January in a DM Online news report based on what Education Minister Kariyawasam briefed the media on Thursday of the previous week.

Minister Kariyawasam had said, admission to Grade 1 of Royal College was temporarily suspended on complaints received. Investigations had revealed, 31 out of 147 applications looked into had fraudulent documents on addresses given.

Most addresses were of public places, security counters, religious places and business establishments, he had told media. Obviously Royal College would have had a few thousand applications that should have also been investigated into.

Investigations into 147, is just an “ant bite” on a Gulliverian Fraud. Fake documents are not only those with non-resident addresses. A heavy load of documents that provide addresses of houses around very popular schools are also fake without doubt.

They have to be investigated too, for veracity of occupants in those addresses. I’ve heard of a case a few years ago, where the landlord’s child was rejected, while the child of a non-resident parent who had paid only for his “next door address” had been selected to a leading Sinhala Buddhist School in Colombo.

A threat by the landlord he would file a FR petition, immediately qualified that child too, for admission. Interestingly, that year, the decided distance to school made both addresses a few metres too far for admissions.

It was 55 years ago in 1962, the distance from home to school was made the primary condition for Grade 1 schools admissions. Then the maximum distance allowed was 02 miles (Metrics wasn’t the measure then). It wasn’t a big issue for almost two decades with that maximum distance of two miles left unchanged. Yet, from around the decade of 1980 after the economy was completely opened up, the pressure on city schools, especially the leading popular boys’ and girls’ schools in Colombo, grew beyond control. The qualifying distance between home and school began shrinking quite fast over the past decade or two.

For most leading schools in Colombo it could be a couple of metres from the school wall now, to compete for admissions.

With the warped growth in the economy that is exclusively city centred, especially and more Colombo centred, the rush for leading Colombo schools was quite expected. The alumni of these schools becoming quite powerful economically and politically gave these schools the advantage in city life.

The growing middle class that settled in the expanding periphery around Colombo thus want their children also to attend these schools. The fast growing competition brings in a couple of thousands of applications for Grade 1 admissions annually to these high profile Colombo schools.  

They usually accommodate around 300 to 400 applicants from the lot received. The distance from home to school gets reduced when the competition keeps increasing. By now the distance from home to school is reduced to metres and not kilometres due to very heavy competition. In real terms, these schools should now have children walking to school from houses a few metres away.

But no one stops to ask, “why are all these vans and buses bringing children from far off destinations?” Governments allow school vans and SLTB buses to ply from far away towns like Kalutara, Avissawella, Gampaha and Negombo and some from even beyond that. That cannot be, if Grade 1 admissions for the past 02 decades and more had been from genuine applicants. Could not have been when the distance was on a metre scale measured from school.

Parents of all children travelling to school daily from far off towns, definitely have their names even in electoral lists in those addresses. They would have submitted Grama Niladhari certificates of residence counter signed by the Divisional Secretary, along with applications. They may support their claim for residence in those addresses with more documents like rent agreements, phone bills and other mail received at that address. Though at a heavy cost, how all such documented proof is pre-arranged is an openly shared secret in society. They are all fake with children travelling to schools from faraway places.

This in fact is the biggest fraud in the country the urban middle class indulges in without any shame. This fraud goes on unabated without being questioned by any. From politicians through public officials, principals, teachers, professionals, academics and even by “good governance” activists. It is now a “nationally accepted fraud” kept out of discussion.

This whole corrupt practice is being legitimized by professionals in a very selfish way. Instead of challenging this fraud, they demand quotas. The GMOA declares war over Grade 1 admission quotas and is prepared to hold public life to ransom for their children to have leading schools of their choice. The FUTA claims they too have a right for a definite quota in school admissions, with not merely “progressive” but “radical” lecturers threatening to leave FUTA if their children cannot be found admission to popular schools of their choice. The rot in education is so complex, is so deep rooted and is impossible to patch up.

The mad rush over Grade 1 admissions to leading, high profile city schools has made all other issues in education, irrelevant to the middle class. With patronage and sponsoring by their alumni, these schools have become privileged, “full option” schools controlled by “past students”. Intake has been gradually increased over the decades to meet the demand, turning them into massive schools. They would need CEOs, HR Managers and Educational and Planning Consultants to run them as corporate institutes due to their huge sizes. They have grown beyond what could be called schools in relation to learning and child development.

Schools most importantly, should be entities with a very close rapport among students, teachers and parents. They need to have very close student – teacher relationship, not only in class rooms, but in the whole school. The principal and teacher co-ordination and supervision has to have a personal understanding for co-operation and unity in a school. Both teachers and principals should have adequate and regular access and time for parents of all children on a personal key.  

The massive high profile, leading schools cannot afford such close rapport between students, teachers and parents. They therefore need to be re structured into three or four manageable schools for them to be actual pupil oriented schools.

That nevertheless is no answer to the crisis in education and would not completely answer the competition for Grade 1 admissions. For an adequate solution, the question why ordinary urban middle class parents enter the race to secure admission to leading city schools for their children and are willing to slog to earn the money needed has to be answered.  

The middle class aspiration in this highly competitive and perverted society is to seek the best education for children in the best of schools.

Their belief is that these leading popular schools provide everything best in a school. What they understand and believe as “best” is what creates high competition.

What’s “best” in these leading schools is that they are privileged for reasons other than quality of education and discipline.  

The “powerful” in society, the top State bureaucracy, the politicians, the officer caste in security forces and the rich business community form the alumni and the parent body of these schools.  Thus to be in such social company is certainly a privilege. But there is no guarantee that these schools maintain the “best” of all discipline compared to other schools. There is also no guarantee they provide the “best” of teaching in schools.  

In the Western Province and more so in Colombo including in these leading popular schools, GCE O/L and A/L exam results are very much influenced by private tuition and not by what is taught at schools.

Yet, answers are not forthcoming as the middle class including professionals are not demanding real and permanent answers to their own issues. Their selfishness and their mediocrity in understanding the crisis in education do not compel them to demand quality, well facilitated modern schools in their own areas.  

Don’t make them understand, that schools are where children are helped to learn and not where they are “taught” by force.

That for children to learn and learn well, they should have to be in an environment without stress and allowed free time of their own.

They should have time for normal meals at normal times for a healthy child’s life. Mediocre they are though middle class professionals, their ego decides for children who have to forego their due life for selfish parental aspirations.

Middle class parental aspirations were what had made children obese and suffering from gastritis, which in their middle age life would drag them into health complications.

Mediocrity of these professionals is very much in the nude, if one places the two contradictory demands together, campaigned for by university academics; 06 per cent budgetary allocation for education as the answer to educational problems and their fancy demand for a quota in Grade 1 schools admissions for FUTA membership. In plain language, the middle class will have to leave their selfishness and demand for far reaching serious reforms for this educational mess to be cleared for a more robust child centred education to be put in place.  

- Kusal Perera