By Asankha Pallegedara –
The ministry of education recently launched the ‘The Nearest School is the Best School’ or in Sinhalese ‘ලඟම පාසල හොදම පාසල’ program. According to ministry of education, the main objective of this program is to select two schools from each divisional secretarial division and develop them as ‘Smart Schools’ by providing required physical and human resources as in current leading and popular public schools, thereby minimize the demand for these popular schools. In this short article, I will critically assess this new initiative and discuss possible reasons why it will not necessarily decrease the current demand for popular schools.
Of course there are many positives in this program if implemented as proposed. According to ministry of education, government has already allocated over 48 billion rupees for this new program despite the critics of declining trend in public education spending over time. It is reported that two selected schools from each divisional secretarial division will be provided with basic facilities such as electricity, water and sanitation as well as sophisticated educational facilities such as information and communication technology (ICT), science laboratories, language labs, auditoriums, playgrounds and swimming pools. Further, school principals and teachers from these selected ‘Smart Schools’ will be offered foreign training in order to improve the teaching quality of these schools. In addition, education ministry aims to promote e-governance activities in the selected schools by introducing computer based office, library and evaluation systems.
However, it is highly unlikely that all these benefits given to these selected ‘Smart Schools’ will consequently achieve the main objective of decreasing the parents’ demand for enrolling their children into so called popular or elite public schools. First, these so called elite public schools are popular not just because they have more facilities such as swimming pools, auditoriums and laboratories. Most of these schools such as Royal, Ananda, Dharmaraja, Richmond, Mahinda, and Maliyadeva etc. have longstanding history often started in the British colonial period as elite private schools governed by either Christian missionaries or Buddhist Theosophical Society before taking over by government in 1961. These schools had prestigious and elite status long before they became government schools and only children from ‘elite class’ were able to enroll into these schools. After these schools became public schools, parents especially middle class were eager to enroll their children into these schools thereby create an increased demand for these schools. It is not just the quality of education of these schools, but longstanding prestigious status has created more demand for these schools. Therefore, by any means this new ‘smart schools’ may not be received attention from middle class parents same as established popular public schools.
Second, these popular schools have better educational achievements not just because of the quality of the teachers, but also owing to the competition created among pool of top performers in small number of popular schools. Students who perform well in early years usually finish their schooling in these popular schools by obtaining required marks in the scholarship exam or GCE O/L exam. There should be no difference of teaching quality in all public schools as all teachers both in popular schools and other schools are either graduates from local public universities or trained in the government teacher training colleges. Therefore, It is highly unrealistic to assume that students from this new ‘Smart Schools’ will have better educational outcomes just because of foreign teacher training under this new program and thereby parents eager to enroll their children to these ‘Smart Schools’.
Third, the elite public schools usually have extremely popular sport culture backed with longstanding traditions such as annual cricket big matches. As a result, parents try to enroll their children into these schools because they know that get into a school team of popular sport such as Cricket or Rugby in these elite schools often guarantee a good future for their children. The expenditure for these sport activities such as coaching fees, sport equipment and training gyms are usually funded by old boys/girls and other well-wishers of the schools not by government. The new ‘Smart Schools’ will not easily have similar extra-curricular culture as in current popular schools. Hence it will not necessarily reduce the crowding at popular elite schools.
In short, although this new policy aims to minimize the crowding at popular school syndrome of the parents, this program will most probably fail to accomplish the main target same as the previous governments’ projects such as ‘Navodya Schools’, ‘Isuru Pasal’ and ‘Thousand Secondary Schools’. All of above projects had also been started by providing facilities to selected schools with the aim of minimizing the crowding at popular public schools but eventually failed to get the expected attraction from the parents.
*Dr. Asankha Pallegedara is a senior lecturer attached to the department of industrial management in the Wayamba University of Sri Lanka and is currently a Humboldt Research Fellow in Passau University, Germany. He received his MA and PhD degrees in Development Economics from National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Japan. He was a Japanese Government scholar for his undergraduate and post-graduate studies.