How Elitism In Access To Education Is Failing Our Young People

Originally published on the Sunday Leader

The Budget for the fiscal year of 2017 has been presented before the Sri Lankan Parliament. Once capital carrying costs are deducted from last year’s allocation, there has only been a marginal increase in the allocation for education. While some noteworthy steps such as increasing the student intake to universities, the provision of student loans and scholarships to top graduates, steps to uproot ragging and incentivise students to pursue technical and vocational education have been taken, I believe that the policymakers of the country could use some introspection on the inequalities in the education system at the school level.

Our system of education from kindergarten onwards is highly unequal and in many ways, elitist. The school one attends is directly linked to other grounds for inequality such as class, the urban-rural divide and English language proficiency. Rarely do we question the grossly unfair and conspicuously elitist system in which 3% of schools in the country are branded as ‘National Schools’ and others (97%) as ‘Provincial Schools’?As per the 13th Amendment to the constitution,education remains a devolved subject in the domain of the provinces; with the centre only being responsible for the formulation of national policy, monitoring and evaluation. ‘National schools’ always get the most qualified teachers and administrators, patronage from elite old boys/girls at high positions in government and the private sector, the best equipped laboratories, libraries and computer labs, swimming pools, gymnasia and so on.

Why don’t we talk about how only 8% of schools in this country offer Advanced Level in all streams? 92% of schools in Sri Lanka either don’t have classes up to Advanced Levels or only offer Arts and Commerce streams for ALs. This is why thousands of students have been left with no alternative but to pursue Arts subjects for Advanced Levels; not because they genuinely prefer to study subjects offered in the Arts stream but because the schools in their villages only offer the arts subjects for ALs. Predictably, 41% of all graduates are Arts graduates. Furthermore, even within the ‘Arts’ stream, while schools in the cities have a plethora of subjects which students can choose from including some which are perceived to be ‘sophisticated’ and therefore ‘marketable’ most ‘provincial’ schools only offer subjects like History, Sinhala and ‘Logic’ which are often perceived as ‘unmarketable’. This perpetuates the unfair hierarchy in our system of education, where the Arts and the Humanities are often placed right at the very bottom, both in terms of prestige and ‘employability’.

While we are quick to boast about instances where students of schools from rural areas perform well at examinations, why aren’t we talking about how this is the exception and not the norm. The truth is that 37% of youth in Sri Lanka do not proceed beyond the upper secondary level and there are huge provincial disparities in terms of student performance.

For instance, according to the National Youth Survey, only 15% of respondents from the Uva Province had attained GCE AL. However, in the Western Province 44% of respondents had attained ALs.

There is no institutionalised system in which students are provided career guidance and counseling. Students’ views of what they want to do in life and what choices are available before them are often shaped by the views of their parents and older siblings. Furthermore, in post-colonial Sri Lanka, English has changed from being a language of communication to a question of class and social standing. In the National Youth Survey, only 10% of youth from the estate sector said their English speaking skills were good.

This is while 20% of ‘rural youth’ and 38% of ‘urban youth’ said their English speaking skills were good. ‘Kaduwa’ in Sinhala means sword and it denotes the power of English to cut down anyone who do not speak the language.

Education is meant to be a leveler in an unequal society, not further reinforce existing disparities. While recognising that the system of free education has enabled thousands of students of this country from the most marginalised groups of society to have better standards of living, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that even ‘free’ education is systematically stratified.

If you’re born to a low-income family, your odds of receiving a good education are much lesser than that of the more affluent kids. This is grossly unfair and perpetuates the poverty trap from generation to generation. The government and development partners should take all possible steps to bridge these inequalities to ensure that all students get the best possible education.

Senel Wanniarachchi

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