Education not only for the rich

Once again attempts towards constituting education reforms went belly up with the Supreme Court decision to invalidate the new Grade I admission system and the government’s subsequent decision to revert to the old system with a few changes.
The new Grade I policy was deemed necessary to put an end to the nepotism and bribery that is part and parcel of getting students into national schools. The proposed system recommended primary school boards for each Grama Sevaka Area be established. These boards would have then decided on admissions to schools in the area. In order to apply for admission to the school boards, parents with children to admit would have had to obtain bona fides from the Grama Sevaka officer of the area as proof of residence. The new system aimed to eliminate the problem of people living in completely different areas applying for admission into schools in another area by providing a false address in order to be eligible for admission within the 1 kilometre radius rule.
The proposed school boards, to have been overseen by a zonal director, were also conceptualized to overcome another severe problem with regard to admissions – the bribing and influencing of principals to obtain admission. The latter is particularly dangerous and discriminatory since such tactics effectively exclude less privileged children who cannot afford to make massive contributions to the ‘school development fund’ or the principal’s personal pocket in order to ensure admission into national schools. Several principals of reputed schools have been implicated in scandals of this nature involving admissions in the past. This is probably the reason the government, even at this late stage, threw down the gauntlet and decided the process of admitting students needed to be streamlined, requiring drastic changes in order to prevent discrimination against the less privileged child.
But the new policy was doomed to failure the moment the Old Boys’ Associations went up in arms. The OBAs of several prominent schools charged the new policy did not take into account school development activities or the contribution the Old Boys’ Associations made to ensure schools retained their high standards and evolved to meet the challenges of today. The new policy would have effectively sidelined the OBAs in admissions procedures since the school boards would not have included representatives of the unions.
But all this is history now. The new policy has been put away for the time being and admissions are to go ahead as per usual, although the government has promised changes to the procedures.
These changes must essentially aim to make the process as inclusive as possible. The right to equal opportunity in education is fundamental in a developing country such as ours where the only means to upward mobility remains a sound education. Furthermore, as a country that totes the ‘free education for all’ line, we cannot afford to exclude children from our best schools on the grounds that they do not have enough money. Even if that is not official government policy, the fact that it has been a reality for many years is reason enough to sit up and take notice. The child who hails from the most impoverished family may perhaps be the brightest of them all—capable of doing the country proud, and bringing us all glory and fame. That we might, in our short-sightedness, exclude such a student from obtaining the best possible education at a top school—simply because he does not have enough funds to contribute to the school development fund—would be a grave social injustice and a disservice unto ourselves and the country at large.
Quality education cannot be reserved for the rich or the connected alone. To be truly ‘free’, education must be all-inclusive, giving each and every child in this country the same right to apply to the best schools, and to obtain the best possible teaching and guidance. If the new admission policy has been vetoed, then it simply must be rethought. There cannot be halfway houses on this subject. It is too vital and entails the very future of our nation. Let children not feel they have been given a raw deal in life at such an early stage. This will surely lead to anti-social behaviour and, perhaps, even violence at a later date when he or she realizes that it was his poverty that deprived him of the best quality education—something not within his control. It serves us all well to rethink education policy for we will not be immune to the problems caused by a discontent and frustrated student populace.
As they say on TV, Education Minister Susil Premajayanth, this is over to you.