This is a painting of a student who died jumping off her school building last year. The artist is my sister Anu Samarajiva. I’m not sure if it’s inappropriate for this article, but I think it can be loosely intepreted as the hopes people put in their children’s education, and the mixed results they get.
“According to investigations, only 16 students out of 107 had been admitted improperly. This means I have done 90 percent of admissions correctly. We have to consider whether this is the kind of penalty for such an offence….”
– (Former) Kingswood College Principal R. Chandrasekara after being interdicted for malpractices concerning year 1, school admissions.
“For a bugger to be cocky enough to say something like this, really is not a good sign for what is happening around here is it?”
– Member of the elite and secretive Walalasekera Quotations Dictionary
I think there have been 3 principals (more?) sacked for taking bribes to let kids into school. I’d say the extent of the problem points to a systematic problem. Education is so damn stressful in this country. When I took the SATs I didn’t study at all, I just took them. I also pretty much coasted through high school. Here kids study all year for their A/Levels and spend what should be beer money on tuition classes. Now, apparently the rat race starts earlier, with your parents bribing your way into school. The sad thing is that rat race doesn’t lead anywhere. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be unemployed.
I dunno if anyone wants to pursue this, but here’s the intro for a forthcoming piece on the subject, not by me. My comments are in italics.
“The above described symptoms point to a serious mismatch between demand and supply. But before applying market analysis, it is necessary to identify clearly what is being bought and sold in the market. It appears that parents (who are the “buyers” in the market for Year 1 admission to popular schools) seek an integrated bundle of services that includes:
# High-quality educational services for the school career of the child (i.e., over a 13-year period);
# Opportunities for the child to network with future members of economic, social and political elites and thereby to achieve upward social mobility (*akin to buying membership in a club*); and
# Improvement of own social status through obtaining a difficult-to-obtain scarce opportunity.
So, education is basically seen as social, akin to a Beamer or Benz.
The third component may be disputed, therefore evidence may be required. Given the relative fixity of resources (teachers, class rooms) and the intensity of demand, class sizes have increased from around 35 or less 30 years ago to close to 50 in the “popular” schools, not only in the Colombo schools but also in regional schools such as Dudley Senanayake MMV (formerly Tholangamuva Central College). Increased class size is universally recognized as a characteristic of reduced quality of education. The almost universal reliance on private tuition by students enrolled in popular government schools has resulted in the de facto conversion of the free education system into a hybrid free and fee-based system, partially because of the low quality of the educational services that are offered. The fact that demand for admission to these schools has not decreased despite the obvious deterioration of quality allows us to infer that few if any parents are getting component 1, and that components 2 and 3 may if fact be overshadowing component 1 in their calculus. Anyone who has had a conversation with the proud parent of a student recently admitted to Royal or Visakha can testify to the significance of Component 3.
So, even if the school sucks, as long as the ‘good people’ are going there you child will probably have a shot at more business and social opportunities
Why has the problem become so acute, despite Sri Lanka’s low birth rate? The quantitative increase of the middle class (defined as those whose basic needs have been met; and who have resources for self-improvement) over the past two decades is an obvious contributory factor. This was accentuated by the deeply ingrained faith in education as a means of social mobility. Underinvestment and inefficiency that are characteristic of government-supplied services, especially under conditions of low growth (defined as growth under 8 percent) exacerbated the problem. Improved access to transportation enabled parents to consider schools which required greater travel distances from home. In the early 1960s, parents living three miles outside Negombo, in Katunayake, considered that town too distant to send children to. Now the Katunayake schools are in danger of being closed down because most children from there are attending Negombo, Jaela or Colombo schools, using the ubiquitous van services.
The increased demand is not for all schools, but for popular schools. There is an ongoing process of consolidation whereby a small number of schools are becoming mega schools with enrollments in excess of 2000, while demand is dropping fast from small schools within their catchments.”
So, as far as I see it, in trying to enter the elite, the Sri Lankan middle class has completely redefined schools. They are really more like country clubs where you can make the connections to carry you through life. Taking money for prefered admittence is odd for a school, but perfectly normal for a country club. The paper moves on to propose some solutions, which I’ll quote when it’s released.