From the Education Forum to school toilets

Posted on November 28, 2007  /  1 Comments

From the Education Forum to school toilets
by Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi (reproduced from the Island, Nov 21 2007, Midweek Review)

No, nothing funny happened on my way to the Forum. Yet, November 15th was a bad day for me, as I attended the Education Forum, called forth by Dr. Sujata Gamage, at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, which I interrupted to attend, to hear Jayantha Dhanapala, a brilliant man of our times and place, address us on the good work of the United Nations. It was an aggravating sequence of events.

Dr. Gamage had invited Principals of three schools, all men, in Maradana, Vellavatte and Kotahena to speak on difficulties they faced in furthering the education of the children who attended their respective schools. One of them was quite young, perhaps 35 years or so and the other two somewhat older, closer to 50 years.

Failing homes and failing schools

The Principal of Asoka Vidyalayaya opened with the problems his students faced. ‘The principal and pervasive difficulty that my students face is economic and emotional….’. The other two from Arethusa Vidyalayaya and Kotahena Sinhala Kanishtha Vidyalayaya, who followed, had no other but more harrowing tales to tell. They poured out a litany of woes of their students. They did not speak of political interference or a shortage of teachers or facilities but of the economic and emotional deprivations of their students, which resulted from absent parents, broken down families, crowded living quarters and, of course, poor educational performance, pushing these young ones to the same cesspit which these schools were built to draw them out from.

Often only the woman earned in the household and for her labour she was beaten up by he lousy husband. Many marriages had broken down and not infrequently, both man and wife, had taken other partners and those left in the lurch were the children, often in the care of grand mother. Some had no guardian at all. To them school was all, shelter, company and not infrequently the source of the scanty meal they had for the day. Those who had a home lived in houses on 0.75 perches of land, which did not belong to them. They were members of large families, parents, older children and young ones all sharing the lives of one another in that little private home of theirs. Academic endeavour, forsooth! Others lived in 10×10 square feet rooms with access only to public lavatories and water sources. Many children chewed ‘babul’, a cheap narcotic imported from Pakistan, causing mildly soporific lethargy. In many cases parents were illiterate and some of them did come to the Principal pleading that their children be taught to read and write, which light to them had been denied. Many other parents protested near the perimeter of the school loudly questioning the need for educating children. Many children earned their own living, at times providing money for the household. Teachers in these schools were not simply teachers, but friends, counsellors and sources of financial help. Those advocating some sort of test to admit children to Grade I, look sharp, these children have not one chance in a million to compete with children from affluent families. Those who bad-mouth school teachers, take care not to become outright liars, when they meet some of the teachers in these schools.

Asoka Vidyalayaya is a big Type 2 school [with classes ending in Grade X1] with 2,500 enrolled, Arethusa Vidyalyaya as well but with about 700 students and Kotahena Sinhala Kanishtha Vidyalayaya, a Type 3 [with classes ending in Grade VIII] small school. Many stories were told of hardship, despair, generosity and even heroism.

The Principal of Arethusa Vidyalyaya was one day returning from an errand outside using an entrance other than the main. He accosted a young student loitering on the compound. The student was not a good performer at school. The Principal inquired what he was doing in the compound while his class was in session and received a satisfactory explanation. He noticed a bulging wallet in his rear pocket and expected the worst. There were Rs.700 in it which he promptly confiscated and asked the boy to come back with his father the next morning to reclaim his property. They turned up and the Principal learnt to his great pleasure that that money, the boy had earned by stripping a motor car engine [‘engimak palu gahala’. How expressive!] the previous evening. They were his earnings and it was not rare for the family to seek his help when they were desperate. There is an opportunity cost to sending these children to school, both to themselves and their families. It was heroic that this young man and his father still wanted school. Both his teachers and the Principal took an interest in the boy and the Principal expected that he would obtain at least 5 A’s when he sits for the GCE O’ Level examination later this year. This Principal also brought to light the reluctance of parents to send their children for extra classes free of charge when most other parents spend fortunes taking their children to bogus teachers who collect huge fees until they are found out to be quacks.

Many of these children come from homes on the banks of the canal that runs to the sea through this area and are desperately poor. Several teachers have donated five hundred rupees out of their own meager pay packets each month, so that some of the poorest of their students may not starve and come to school. Who gives them any recognition? Next time before any one mealy-mouths school teachers, think of these acts of generosity; these teachers are among those worthy of worship [pujaniyanam]. Such men and women lived not only in the past.

Kotahena Sinhala Kanishtha Vidyalayaya is in a mixed neighbourhood of Sinhala and Tamil speaking families and since 1983, the population mix has so changed that there is a far larger number of Tamils than earlier. The medium of instruction in this school is Sinhala and their whole life outside is entirely in Tamil. Consequently, there are special problems in teaching these students the elementary skills of reading and writing.

These are but three schools in Colombo city and such schools are not uncommon, from what I have understood. Why are they so neglected? Where are the politicians to speak about them, quite apart form championing their cause? Where are the human rights activists, who roam the earth looking for injustices to people, when these young lives are blighted so needlessly? Where is the counselling that can save so much of their lives?

Build school toilets or save cattle?

Earlier in the week, the Ministry of Education very kindly let me have figures on the number of schools without toilets of any sort. In 2006 of 9,714 schools, 4,784 or nearly half had no urinals for students, 3,893 had no toilets and 6,283 or 2 out of 3 schools had no water. Dr. G.B.Gunerwardhana, a former Director-General of the National Institute of Education, once related a story of a Director of Education who was irate that a Principal had permitted bushes to grow wild on either side of his school. The Principal let the ire simmer and said he coolly, ‘We have no toilets in the school. My girls use the bush on the right which is more wildly grown and the boys the one on the left. The morning after the day you give them toilets, we will plant flower beds on either side. They should grow well.’ Many of our children learn at school to use any place as a toilet and we must not get cross when drivers park their vehicles near homes and urinate there in public! That is what they learnt at school. I had been bothered in my mind the whole week about this situation.

As I left the Forum, these were a few things that stayed in my mind confused by anger at myself, at my friends an acquaintances who interest themselves in education and of course our effete journalists. They write about teaching English and science in schools, old pupils build opulent sports complexes for their schools, we spend enormous effort in selecting students to Grade I in ‘good’ schools and keep a stony silence on the problems of these children and schools in poor urban neighbourhoods and thousands of schools, have no toilets.. Sirasa TV occasionally commendably raises questions about poor facilities in schools but never have they drawn attention to the problems of children in these blighted neighbourhoods and the heroism of some of their teachers. Not all teachers are heroes, true enough, nor are they all, all devoid of nobility of mind.

Schools in blighted urban centres are not strange phenomena. But journalists in other places where I have lived for long periods of time never let go from the pubic mind that they owed a special effort to give these children, whether in Bushwick, the Bronx or Harlem, a chance to win in the competition. The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Chicago Tribune and other national newspapers make it their responsibility to highlight the problems in these schools almost every moth. I have lived here now for some 10 years and the Educational Forum on 15 November was the first time that I heard any one speak in public on these problems.

A celebration of UN

UNDP had very graciously invited me to a celebration of the anniversary of UN and the central attraction was Jayantha Dhanapala’s address on the occasion. I left the Forum in progress at 4.15 and walked the 200 metres to UNDP Regional Centre on Independence Avenue, to calm my mind from the anger I felt at our failing. [The Centre is different from the better known UNDP office at Thummulla and serves the South Asia region as a whole.] The opulence of the Centre added fuel to my anger. The auditorium was cooled to unbearable in my tunic shirt, almost every man wore tie and jacket, there was a screen for Power Point slides and many other features, telling me that this was a world that did not touch the other where I had got angry, earlier in the afternoon. Soon there was on the screen a graph neatly rising from left to right showing expenditure on publications rising to $20 million in 2006. I quickly calculated in my turbulent mind the cost of building toilets for schools that were without them in 2006. Toilets cannot be kept clean without water and assuming that all schools without toilets also had no water, how much would it cost to build the facilities for 3,894 schools?

Neglect of elementary sanitation in schools

To provide water you need a well, a manual water pump, pipes to carry water an overhead tank to provide gravity flow to toilets, an adequate room with squatting pans and a urinal for boys and a septic tank. . We need two toilets, perhaps for every 200 students, as all these are mixed schools. I have been advised by a builder that rthe cost of two toilets with squatting pans, the boy’s with a urinal as well [Rs.200.000], a common septic tank [30,000], a well 10 metres deep [Rs.10,000], a water tank on a metal tower, 10 feet high[ [Rs.30,000] and water pump and other supplies [Rs.5,000], a total of Rs.275,000 My own judgment is that it is far too high an estimate, but I have no guide to go by. Lets us assume that we need toilets for 5,000 schools because several schools may need more than one set because they have students more than 200 in number and that each set costs Rs.275,000. Now we can build 5,000 toilets and water supply for Rs.1, 375 million, that, for a some $14 million over 5 years. The World Development Report on Poverty cost over 12 million dollars to produce, UNDP Human Development Report, perhaps 3 or 4 million dollars and there are myriads of booklets to be produced eliminating which in any one year, leaving no one less wise, would give the money to build the wells and toilets in these 5,000 or so schools. If money of this nature can be found, imagine the 5,000 opportunities for our idling 108 ministers to open them!

I have heard of a generous Sri Lanka national who has agreed to free cows from death at butchers and keep and care for them. This is of course laudable and would earn him, in this land of Buddhists and Hindus, accolades from everyone alive and even of those elsewhere when he eventually gets there in the ripeness of time. In my scale of priorities, however, I would rather build toilets for children than free any number of cattle. And if I must burn in hell for my preference, I would prefer hell obtained by building toilets to that heaven which saving cattle would deliver me into.

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