The Education Charade

Posted on July 26, 2006  /  11 Comments

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 ‘stealth’ 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

(Ruberu ends by saying “The 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?,

(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.

(Samarajiva analyzes the year-1 admissions problem and argues for public-private partnerships and other measures)


  1. This situation has arisen due to the ‘socialist’ tag in the name of our country.
    Professor Ruberu dismisses too lightly the opposition to private schools due to perceived elitism. Sounding off against discrimination in education shouldn’t be misinterpreted as privatization paranoia. An overwhelming percentage of the population cannot afford to send their children to private school. Disregarding social sensitivities can have disastrous consequences, as we’ve seen in the last 60 years of our tumultuous history. Your suggestion of a 10% scholarship seems to have been made in acknowledgement of this but I doubt it is the right way to go.

    This is not to say privatizing education is a bad idea. It just needs to be well thought out. It is not as simple as privatizing the ports. The driving factor should be that a quality education be equally accessible to all social classes.

  2. According to Ashley “Quality education [should] be equally accessible to all social classes”.

    The kind of ideal that Ashley and many others use to end their arguments is a very difficult one to counter, considering that it took countries like Soviet Union and China many many years to experiment and learn. Here is a quote from the 2005 Annual report from Central Bank-the guys who have to decide whether to allocate money to school lunches or provide more free-of-charge tertiary education.

    International studies show that the social rate of return of
    primary and secondary education is significantly higher
    than the private rate of return. This justifies the continuation
    of public investment in primary and secondary education.
    However, the private rate of return is higher in tertiary
    education, thus indicating that it is reasonable to charge
    individuals for their tertiary education.
    [Central Bank of Sri Lanka Annual Report – 2005, page 54]

  3. I was not commenting on tertiary education because I understood your article to be mainly about primary education. To quote from the 2006 Education for all global monitoring report by UNESCO
    “The charging of fees remains a major barrier to progress towards Universal Primary Education.”

    Why would one look to Russia or China for a model ?
    If I were looking for a system worth emulating, I’d start, well since this only an illustration, how about the UNDP human development report ?
    Let’s just pick the top 3 countries.

    #1 Norway
    To quote from the Norway ministry of education
    “Education for all is a basic precept of Norwegian educational policy.
    Wherever they live in the country, all girls and boys must have an equal
    right to education, regardless of social and cultural background and
    possible special needs. All public education in Norway is free up to and
    including the upper secondary level.”

    #2 Iceland
    “Educational system in Iceland is one of the best in the world. The fundamental
    principle of the Icelandic educational system is that everyone should have
    equal opportunities to acquire an education, irrespective of sex, economic status,
    residential location, religion, possible handicap, and cultural or social

    #3 Australia
    To quote from the Adelaide declaration on National Goals for schooling
    “all students have access to the high quality education necessary to enable
    the completion of school education to Year 12”
    I couldn’t find an authoritative source, but read in various web pages that public schools were free. Their private schools serve 32% of the student population. So there’s a country to look at for a model of privatization.

    ok, so using UNDP report as a basis can be argued to be arbitrary. My point is there are some countries that have successful implementations of a free education policy and they seem to have reaped the benefits.

  4. I was just reading the transcript of a Milton Friedman show on a similar issue, (video also online) and the rather interesting debate that follows, mostly heated argument on the subject of vouchers -which Rohan Samarajiva also mentions in his piece linked above as something that could complement the public-private partnerships that you mention in this article. I thought perhaps some of the readers here might find the debate interesting.

    On a different, more personal note, do you know anything about homeschooling in Sri Lanka? Whether it happens at all, for starters? I’m not sure if this is considered a subset of “private schooling”. I understand that homeschooling is obviously not a viable option for low-income parents and is therefore not a general solution for anything, but for middle-class folks who are sufficiently worried and sufficiently obstinate -and I count myself in this category- it’s something to think about.

  5. To Ashley: I cited communist countries because the current situation in Sri Lanka is shockingly similar to what has been proven to be a sham in those countries.– i.e. promising free-of-charge services and amenities to all, while taking the freedom of seeking private options from anybody who wishes to opt out.

    Norway and Iceland are not good examples. In those countries, the pot (GDP) is large and the spooning-out is fair (governance). In developing countries such as ours the pot is small and the spoon is captured by elite groups (politicians, their supporters, and government officials) in the name of free education.

    My post was not about the free-of-charge provision of primary and secondary education. There is no question that primary and secondary education should be offered free to low income groups if not to all school-age children. My concern is about the effective banning of private education and forcing public education on everybody in a country where the public sphere is corrupt and ineffective.

    Tez’s link to the Friedman show is a little ahead of the argument. The debate there was not about the right of private institutions to offer primary and secondary education because the American constitution would not allow legislation that bars individual freedom. The debate in the USA is whether the students attending those private schools should receive government aid in the form of vouchers.

    In Sri Lanka we are still in square one, seeking the right to operate private schools and having those students have the right to sit for public exams and be eligible for admission to public universities. The fight for vouchers too need to happen.

  6. We’re back where we started. It is accepted that Sri Lankan public education has much room for improvement. Expecting private schools to fill the gaps is not the solution. I understand that wasn’t what you were implying, but it is a likely consequence. I’m not arguing against private schools. If one has the means, the choice should be available. I’m with you there. It is just that money shouldn’t be the differentiator, that “extra mile” as you say above, between a quality and mediocre education. If the public education system is broken, it needs to be fixed because it is the only hope for the poor.

    The reasons you give for Norway and Iceland not being good examples are valid, but not for what I meant them to be. I believe they are good examples of what can be achieved with a well thought out education policy, because I also believe their pot is large partly due to their investment in education. The factors barring Sri Lanka from emulating them can all be boiled down to the lack of education. Corruption, poverty, ethnic violence, religious prejudice, gender bias, the feed-me mentality, you name it, they’re all rooted in ignorance (the opposite of which is admittedly beyond the generally accepted academic kind of education, still achievable along that path). It’ll take selfless leadership and a few generations after change is initiated, to get ourselves out of this mire.

  7. If Asheley thinks our education system is going to deliver a new kind of citizen, he/she is dreaming. Same if he/she thinks that our countries are going to have ‘good’ politicians and ‘good’ public servants. Politics and government service both have become ways of capturing public resources, and only rapid economic growth will make that incentive go away. Preaching will not work.

    I am not implying private schools should fill the gap, I am insisting they should, and they should have the freeedom to charge fees..

    Just what does Ashely mean by saying the choice should be available but money should not be the differentiator. THe government taxes and spends it on schooling. If Mahabodhi Society wants to start another Musaeus College in Matara or somewhere, how are they going to get the money if they don’t charge tuition. THen take the case of a woman from Kamburupitiya who goes to middle east and decides that the best investment for her money is not to buy jewellery that she ends up burying in the back yard to prevent robberies but to wishes to send her daughter to a good school that opens middle clas doors to the child. Sujatha Vidyalaya or another popular school is going out of the question for her. Entry to those are already captured by the middle class and the girl is not the type to cram for 5th grade scholarship exam. What is she to do? Wait for utopia where politicans serve and public servant do their duty? Why should not she have a choice. The poor has many faces and pocket-books of varying sizes.

  8. “If Asheley thinks our education system is going to deliver a new kind of citizen, he/she is dreaming.Same if he/she thinks that our countries are going to have ‘good’ politicians and ‘good’ public servants.”

    It looks like you were hasty in your reply 🙂 You should read my postings again.
    I said our current system won’t, but a good education system will. In fact that is the most fundamental goal of education, tought by Aristotle. Leave aside the classics, there is a vast amount of modern literature on that premise, but then you as forum coordinator are probably already familiar with them. If by chance you aren’t, I suggest starting with

    Investment in Learning
    The Individual and Social Value of American Higher Education
    Howard R. Bowen
    ISBN: 1-56000-888-1
    1996, Transaction Publishers.

    Regarding the rest of your rebuttal, I have nothing further to say than what I’ve already said.

  9. I guess that’s it for now for this debate. See you at the next one! 🙂

  10. hello guys i want to know about free education system of srilanka when it was start and what are the benifits and also about Current literacy rates


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