By Senuri Fernando –
The Sri Lankan press has witnessed some content on the alleged efforts to shift a reputed all-girls’ school situated in Colombo 8 to a new location outside Colombo city limits. Some past pupils of that school have expressed concern over this development. The general narrative of the school’s principal is that no such thing is going to happen. In a funny twist, the principal of this school – herself a government servant whose job falls within the purview of the Ministry of Education – is contradicted by the sitting Minister of Education! Responding to a question by an opposition MP, Minister of Education Professor G.L Peiris confirmed in parliament that efforts to shift a section of the said all-girls’ school are under way – in response to the high demand for this school, from parents of prospective pupils!
The behind-the-scenes story, informed by discussions with several past pupils and concerned persons, revealed a scenario that will be of much interest to those interested in Sri Lankan politics.
Here are some of the narratives that have come to light. While these are not as yet substantiated, they certainly do not sound implausible in the current context of Sri Lanka. While some past pupils of the above-mentioned all girls’ school have clearly confirmed sensing foul play, many are cautious to avoid saying a word on the public record. These narratives are noted below, with the one and only objective of providing a glimpse of the concerns that this issue brings to light – and their relevance to present-day Sri Lankan politics and political economy.
1. A top multi-millionaire has proposed to make a donation of 100 million LKR to this school. The money is apparently intended at developing new facilities, especially for pupils in the Advanced Level science stream. The 100 million will be used to build new facilities when the school’s ‘A level science section’ is shifted to the back of beyond.
2. The father-in-law of a politician representing a major political dynasty in Sri Lanka has apparently expressed an interest in the land on which the all-girls’ school’s student hostel currently stands, on prime land in Colombo 7, right next to the Otter Aquatic Club.
3. There is a coordinated attempt by the powers that be, to prevent past pupils from mobilising to find more information about what’s going on, and to take action to prevent their alma mater from being moved from its current central Colombo location. A Facebook page, entitled along the lines of ‘Protect [the name of the school]’, was removed by Facebook soon after it was created and made public, apparently at the behest of certain forces – supportive of the big business interests behind this affair, the school’s principal [who, according to some sources, is clearly in the pocket of such business interests], and some past pupils who seem to benefit from whatever is going on.
The veracity of the above narratives will come out at some stage in the near future. What is of interest in this story is the following: The Sri Lankan government is currently undergoing a major international debt crisis. The government is heavily indebted to China. The recent VVIP treatment accorded to a Chinese minister with no rank as head of state or special envoy of a head of state/government, demonstrates the extent to which Colombo has had to prostrate itself before Beijing. The president of Sri Lanka, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an ex-army officer-turned computer operator based in Los Angeles California, who was elected only thanks to a devious campaign to create a non-existent image of him as a visionary leader, has in fact proved to be a spineless, gutless, coward before the Chinese. When the merchandise of WHO-unverified and unauthorised Chinese Covid vaccines arrived in Sri Lanka, the President personally went to Katunayake airport to receive the merchandise! This alone is evident of what a pathetic puppet computer-operator-turned President G Rajapaksa has become.
The President is surrounded by an even more laughable group of individuals, when it comes to economic affairs. The serving Secretary to the President, and the head of the Central Bank, are people with negative track records of economic mismanagement – to say the very least. In sum, the President is surrounded by a careless cabal that is unable to develop a workable medium and long-term plan to manage the international debt crisis that earns the recognition and respect of the international community.
This has resulted in utter chaos. One strategy of managing the debt crisis that this cabal has come up with is to begin a process of mass land-grabbing. This involves taking control of the most valuable land, especially in Colombo city, and selling the land to Chinese interests. The Rajapaksa brothers, let’s not forget, are extremely smart and experienced in this venture. What country gives away on a permanent basis, the most precious land on which its defence headquarters are situated? The answer is Sri Lanka. Who is the idiotic and unpatriotic and clueless leader who would approve such a headless chicken decision? The answer is Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Now, let’s return to the story of the all-girls’ school in Colombo 8.
Compared to other prestigious schools in Colombo city, this school has a relatively recent history. It is also a girls’ school, with a large majority of Sinhala Buddhist girls. It is a place that attracts highly gifted pupils with high scores at the Grade 5 scholarship exam. Unlike some of the ultra-elitist schools in Colombo where the country’s top elite send their offspring to, this school has a student population from middle, and to a lesser extent, upper middle-class Sri Lanka.
If certain vested political and business interests were to eye for a substantive plot of high-value land in the centre of Colombo, that they would develop an interest in the land on which this girls’ school is situated does not come as a surprise. Unlike with other prestigious schools in Colombo, their calculation could well be that it may be somewhat ‘easier’, if not more amenable, to move this school to the back of beyond, grab the land, and use it for an extremely lucrative investment, most probably with Chinese investments involved. If this were indeed the case, the choice of this girls’ school could also be understood as an initial ‘pilot project’, which they can extend to other Colombo schools situated on even more valuable and larger plots of land, which could provide promising grounds for billions-worth investments.
Why this needs to stop?
All of the above could be disregarded by detractors as being mere ‘speculations. However, they have been gathered by examining the facts in the public domain, and by talking to concerned parties, especially to some of the past pupils of this school. Irrespective of who is involved, who is interested in the land, and whether an act of land-grabbing is going on here or not, the effort to shift this school to the back of beyond needs to be halted and here’s why:
1. Given the financial conundrum the government is stuck in, efforts to grab valuable state-owned land in Colombo is indeed a plausible reality. If it is the girls’ school in Colombo 8 today, it could be Vishaka Vidyalaya tomorrow, Royal College thereafter, followed by the sprawling campus of the University of Colombo! When gutless, spineless, politically, strategically, and diplomatically illiterate, populist nutjobs occupy the most important positions of national leadership, none of these are impossible or improbable. Concerned citizens, therefore have every right to be concerned, and to mobilise.
2. Sri Lanka’s education system is outdated and does not serve the current needs of the country. The system of gender-segregated education is a remnant of the Victorian era. Today, in a country with very high levels of gender-based violence, gender-based discrimination, and gender-based inequalities, this system of highly-gender-biased schooling needs to end. For good. This does not only mean that gender-segregated schools need to go co-educational. More importantly, this means that we need to create a new co-ed schooling system where children of all genders are treated with equality. True, in countries such as Australia, some people have been trying hard to develop a case for girls-only schools. One ludicrous argument is that “There’s not the social pressure to be quiet in class. The conversation becomes about learning, not being liked”. This would be the case of no proper policies to promote gender equality in the school are developed, and if the teachers and management sit their feet up without taking necessary steps to promote a strong understanding of equality in the student population. Besides, this kind of reading implies that all girls are interested in boys and all boys are interested in girls! Another stupid argument is that: …teachers, like everyone else, have implicit gender biases, and may, for instance, subconsciously think that boys are better at maths, or encourage boys to take higher levels of Stem subjects than a girl of the same ability.
Once again, the solution is not to continue gender-segregated education, but to provide strong, robust, and in-depth training to teachers on treating pupils of all genders equally, overcoming their innate gender biases. A very strong vetting and monitoring system, where one faux pas leads to misery for teachers with archaic mindsets, is another way forward.
3. Point 2 above prompts us to reflect on ways of changing our system of education. If minister Professor Gamini Lakshman Peiris, or his successors, were to develop strong policies on promoting equality, such as [and not limited to] gender equality, with a strong emphasis on treating each pupil as a pupil and not through the lens of their gender, consent education policies, comprehensive sex education policies [including comprehensive LGBT+ rights education including trans student policies], training programmes on mutual respect – that is how we could begin to end the ongoing vicious cycle, and move in the right direction. All of this should be complemented by a strong emphasis on ending faith and language-based education. A medium-and long-term plan needs to be elaborated, to make English the language of teaching in every single school in Sri Lanka. Similarly, children and youth from all ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other communities in the country should be given the opportunity to mingle and learn together [in English] in every single school. This kind of bold, futuristic, visionary, forward-thinking policymaking, and policy-development, coupled with a complete shift to co-educational learning islandwide, constitute the one and only way in which Sri Lanka’s failed, out-of-date, self-destructive, system of education can be transformed.
We often talk about the democratic deficit in our country. We constantly whine about the fact that the electors keep voting for anti-democratic and unqualified individuals at elections. We lament the absence of strong public policy in our country. When tragedy hits our children and youth and is all over the news, we take to social media to lament about how horrible and abusive our society is, how badly children of all genders, and women of all ages suffer from sexual harassment and many other vices. Some of us who have been to gender-segregated conservative schools in Sri Lanka are hell-bent on getting the hell out of Sri Lanka because we know that the ‘system’ in Sri Lanka is atrocious. Some of us in that category like to send our own children to schools in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and elsewhere, where children and youth do enjoy [even parsimoniously] the ‘rights’ I mentioned in point 3 above.
It is precisely this that I call the vicious cycle of Sri Lankan existence. To break this cycle and to address all the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph, the only way forward is to change our system of education and update it to meet the requirements of a country with a highly diverse population in the 21st century. Unless and until we work collectively and get there – building a system of education based on rights, equality in all aspects, critical thinking and caring – we can never afford to resolve any of the bigger social and political ills we are faced with. If we were to disregard the importance of such a complete overhaul of our system of education, we will continue to live in an under-developed and backward island that is easy prey to foreign powers seeking control in the region and for big businesses involved in shady deals.
In this light, it is my take that the all-girls’ school in Colombo 8 needs to cease to be an all-girls’ school. All schools in Sri Lanka should go co-ed, with the right policies, as outlined above in this article. However, until we get to a place where such reforms can be implemented, we must protect whatever remnants of an education system we have. Land meant for our children to run around and grow should not be given away as pawns because our leaders are unskilled to manage a mounting debt crisis. Big business tycoons and members of royal families should not be allowed to touch a single plot of land that belongs to the ministries of Education and Higher Education.
While advocating for a Sri Lanka with a modern and advanced ‘rights and equality-based co-ed educational system’ across the board, we all need to rally to stop the dodgy deals being played behind-the scenes to shift that girls’ school in Colombo to the back of beyond.
*The writer is a legal professional, and a past pupil of one of the most prestigious all-girls’ schools in Sri Lanka. Due to many concerns emanating from being based in a mango-shaped island headed by a fascist cabal, she writes under a pseudonym.