The Travails of School and Free Education

September 28, 2007

By Victor Ivan

Yet another crisis in Sri Lanka’s education system-triggered by the drafting of new guidelines for state school admissions-drags on. That such a sensitive issue has caused such strong reactions is no surprise. What’s surprising is that it’s taken so many twists and turns in the space of just a few months.

The present crisis is based on several fundamental rights petitions filed against a circular presenting a new framework for admission of pupils to grade one. The Supreme Court declared that the circular violated the principle of equal opportunity guaranteed by the Constitution. The Court correctly ordered the Secretary to the President to submit a circular that would not violate people’s fundamental rights. As a result, the responsibility
of preparing guidelines was handed over to the National Education Commission (NEC). Thereafter, the Commission recommended a good, reasonable framework. Surprisingly,
this framework was not submitted to the the Supreme court. Instead, a different set of guidelines reached the judiciary.

It was then that the Supreme Court put forward its own detailed guidelines. But they recommended a system that would sharpen the dissimilarities and would push the process of admitting children to a greater mess. It was severely criticized by the educationists who pointed out the destructive effects the implementation of those recommendations might cause. Ranil Wickremesinghe a former minister of education, took up the matter in parliament. He made an excellent analysis of the recommendations of the Supreme Court, basically tearing it apart. The parliament then took the issue up for discussion. As a better alternative to the Supreme Court recommendations could not be found immediately, it was decided to use the previous system with some amendments for the coming year only, pending the introduction of a new system.

This decision taken in parliament was approved by the Cabinet. It was against that decision that several past pupils’ associations went to Court. The Supreme Court said that the cabinet had no authority to change a judicial decision. However, the Chief Justice made certain changes to his previous pronouncements.
He agreed to remove the provision that gave marks for the parents’ education and status. However he does not seem to have changed entirely the recommendations in regard to the measurement of the ability of the pupils. He said that it was necessary to take merit into account in admission to grade one although no merit was required to become a member of parliament. However the Chief Justice did not make clear what procedure should be adopted to test the merits of children applying for admission to grade one.

The case filed by a group of past pupils was subjected to discussion in parliament the same day. Making a special statement in parliament, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe
requested that the action taken to summon the Secretary of Education to the Supreme Court, challenging the decision taken by the parliament about the admission of pupils to grade one next year, be suspended immediately. Stating that Jayasiri Ittepana, joint
secretary of the Ananda College Old Boys’ Union, had breached a privilege by submitting to the Supreme Court a statement that had not been made by him, Ranil Wickremesinghe
raised a question of privilege against him.

He also criticized the conduct of the past pupils’ associations who had filed court cases. He said that attorney Manohara de Silva had done a ‘deal’. What did Mr.Ranil Wickremesinghe really mean by it? Is it that past pupils associations gang up with the judiciary to ptotect their turf. Ranil Wickremesinghe said that summoning the Secretary to the Education Ministry to the Supreme Court violated parliamentary privileges and requested the Speaker to convey that to the Registrar of the Supreme Court through the Secretary to the Parliament. Although the principles declared
by the judiciary were severely criticized by the parliament and the cabinet, neither the parliament nor the cabinet went so far as to have a conflict with the judiciary. Instead the
Secretary for Education went before the Supreme Court on the following case date.

The past pupils associations of popular schools made use of this crisis to improve further their influence in these schools. The judiciary too had come to a position of giving
weightage to their demands to an unnecessary extent. By that time the recommendation
of the Supreme Court had been that 40 marks be given either on the basis of being a child of a past pupil or resident in proximity to the school; 10 marks for a child whose parent is in the armed forces and the balance 50 marks for the skills and abilities of the child.

The Supreme Court declared that the Secretary for education had demeaned the judiciary by preparing a circular disregarding the guidelines given by the judiciary. Reminding that several persons who had mined sand disregarding the orders of the Supreme Court were imprisoned, the Chief Justice warned the secretary for Education that such a course of action could be followed in regard to him too. However, unshaken by the warnings, the Secretary for Education did his best to get the guidelines amended. He appealed against giving 40 marks on the past pupils basis as well as against the intelligence test policy. Finally the judiciary agreed to relax their guidelines to some extent but, did not agree to withdraw them entirely. Accordingly, the administrative district is now considered thefeed area of a school. A candidate can submit applications for admission to six schools and at least three of them must be provincial schools. The suitable students are selectedby the school committee.

It comprises of one representative of the provincial Director of Education, two representatives of the past pupils’ association, two representatives of the school development society (who are not teachers or old boys of the school) and aneminent person of the area who is not in active politics. The total number of marks that may be given in the selection of students is 60, of which 20 marks are on the past pupil basis, 20 on residence, 5 on the basis of already having siblings in the school, 5 on occupation of the parents, and 10 for the armed forces or the police. There is only a little difference between the initial guidelines of the Supreme Court and the present ones.

Under the initial ones, 40% were to be on the past pupils basis. Now it is 33%. Under the old guidelines, intelligences and aptitude was to get 50%. Now it is 35%. These recome- ndations not only violate the free education and equal opportunity envisaged by the father of free education C.W.W. Kannangara, but will also worsen the crisis that has arisen about the admission of children to grade one and will inevitably push it to a disorder which
will not be disentangled easily.

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