In 1960 the private provision of school education in Sri Lanka was prohibited by the Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Special Provisions) Act. Over 2700 privately owned but government assisted schools were taken over by government while giving special permission to 50 or so schools to be managed as unaided schools receiving no financial assistance from the government.
After more than 45 years of a government monopoly today we have (a) over 10,000 state owned schools of which about 300 are popular national schools (b) 50 or so original private institutions that remain largely as bastions of Christian education and (c) an unregulated system of 50 or more additional private schools that have found their way in through various ways and means.
Public educations system leaves much to be desired. Getting a child into year-1 has become a traumatic experience for parents with some parents resorting to forgery and bribery to get their children into popular schools. The competition for places in popular public schools is fierce at every level with the rat race beginning as early as in grade-5 where children receive private tuition to prepare them for the Grade-5 scholarship examination. When the demand far exceeds the supply examination results are the only transparent means of allocating resources. Sadly the result is that children pushed into rote learning success at examinations above all else.
Private sector has developed meanwhile as a â€˜stealthâ€™ sector. Judging by the availability of advertisements for enrollments in new private institutions, private companies are willing to invest. They would not do so if the demand was not there, but succeeding governments have chosen to pretend that the demand or the supply does not exist, likely for fear of opposition by the JVP. How much of the demand for education is met by private institutions? Do the children who go to these schools come from families that are any more elite than those who finally manage to claw their way into popular public schools? These are facts worth finding out.
In the meantime the charade continues. Politicians use their privileges to get their children into popular schools and then send them abroad for private university education. At the same time they capitalize on the fear of the public about the private sector to create more ministries and government agencies that are largely means of employment and sustenance for their followers.
Yes, the education charade works for politicians. What about parents with school-age children or frustrated school leavers? Harried parents go from pillar to post to find information about private opportunities. They probably are not all rich parents but parents willing to go the extra mile for a quality education for their children.
What are the reasons for not having a mix of (a) public (b) private and (c) public-private schools that operate within a common regulatory framework? There are many models from world over. Why not learn from them?
What type of student finally gains admission to a popular public school like, say, a popular public school in Ratnapura? Chances are that they are mostly children from better off families in the area. It is worth finding out.
According to the Education Guide, a recent publication, in Ratnapura there are 7 national schools and at least one private school owned by Ceylinco Sussex. Why not repeal the farce of a prohibition on private schools and engage the private sector to provide additional popular schools in that district. Why not go a step further and invite other providers such as Lyceum, Gateway or some other private provider to operate a school on the property of a failing school in an outskirt of Ratnapura, with the government concentrating its efforts to upgrade the currently functional schools to a higher standard and keeping tabs on all schools. What will the people in Ratnapura and the vicinity will say if they were told that they will have more choices and that there will be 10 or more scholarships for every 90 places in the private school for deserving families residing within 2-km? It is worth asking.
The education charade is part of a grander charade that makes a bogeyman out of private ownership to perpetuate dysfunctional government agencies for the benefit of a few.
Other Articles on the topic:
Ranjith Ruberu, Privatization of Education http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2005/07/31/fea19.html
(Ruberu ends by saying â€œThe private schools have an important role in the development and the progress of national education in Sri Lanka. The private schools if they perform their legitimate obligations satisfactorily, there is no reason to discourage their existence and activities. It is the role the private schools play that is important.)
Jayadeva Uyangoda, Private Universities?, http://www.sjp.ac.lk/careers/edreform/sl_openforum/uyangoda.htm
(Uyangoda does not see private higher education as a viable alternative citing the origins of private institutions Harvards and Princetons in the USA as examples)
Rohan Samarajiva, If we care about our children: Ridding year-1 school admissions of corruption and influence. http://www.educationforum.lk/2005/05/year-1-admisssions/
(Samarajiva analyzes the year-1 admissions problem and argues for public-private partnerships and other measures)