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The story of the National Schools
(a page from an unwritten book on Politicization of Education)

The Island of 13th October turned the spotlight on the shortcomings of a National School, namely Aluthgama Maha Vidyalaya in the Kalutara district. This is not the first time the media have drawn attention to such scandalous shortcomings in what are called National Schools. In fact, I have heard or read about much worse cases than this.

The term National School or Jathika Pasala, as far as I am aware, came into usage in the mid eighties, and the criteria laid down by the Education Ministry for selection of National Schools in 1985 read as follows:

(a) The total school enrolment in the school should be 2000 or more.

(b) The school should have a well-established collegiate section with a sufficient number of students in the science arts and commerce streams.

(c) The A/L results of the school should indicate a reasonable academic standard.

(d) The buildings, furniture, equipment and other facilities should match the student numbers of the school.

(e) The school should be in a position to obtain adequate financial support from the school development society, past pupils’ association and other sources in the community.

(f) The school should be generally accepted by the community as one of the best in the region.

Not more than 18 schools were identified to be called National Schools at the time, and these were very well-known schools in the country including a few in the provincial capitals.

With the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987 the responsibility for the supervision and management of all schools, other than the National Schools described above, passed on to the Provincial Councils. The responsibility for supervising and managing the National Schools remained with the central Ministry of Education.

The criteria laid down in 1985 seem to have been strictly followed during the early years as would be seen from the fact that the number of National Schools increased by only 5 over a period of 5 years, bringing the total to 23 by 1989. In the meantime, the criteria laid down in 1985 were revised in 1990 to read as follows:

(a) The school should have 2000 or more students.

(b) The school should have 200 or more students in the GCE A/L science classes.

(c) Of the number of students appearing for the GCE A/L examination during the previous three years, one third should have qualified for admission to universities each year.

(d) There should be adequate buildings, desks and chairs for all students.

(e) There should be adequate facilities for teaching technology related subjects.

(f) Laboratory facilities should be adequate to meet the requirements of all GCE O/L and A/L students.

(g) Annual income from facilities and services’ fees should exceed Rs.15,000.

(h) Residents should consider the school to be one of the leading schools in the locality.

(i) The school should have an effective School Development Society.

(j) The school should have an active Past Pupils’ Association.

Politicians step in, rationality departs!

It did not take much time for the term ‘National School’ to become a status symbol within the school system, and the prospect of being administered directly from the centre, located at Isurupaya in Battaramulla, became a much sought after privilege! This is where politicians stepped in to get more and more schools in their electorates upgraded as National Schools to gain mileage for themselves even if it meant a mere change in the name-board of the school, and the Ministry of Education happily granted its approval in contravention of its own criteria!

Thus we find the number of National Schools going up to 37 by 1992 and then skyrocketing to 165 by 1994. With a General Election fast approaching, it was not too bad an idea for politicians to get a couple of schools upgraded in their electoral districts if it could help to net in some votes. The Badulla district (a district for which I have a special fondness as I had the good fortune to cut my teeth as CCS cadet there in 1960) registered the largest increase from just 1 in 1992 to 27 in 1994, for reasons that would not be too difficult to find! It was Sir John (Kotelawala) who said if you have the spoon in your hand, do serve yourself well!

When politicians take-over micro-level management decisions, rationality departs with the result that the number of National Schools increased in geometric progression (to use a Malthusian expression) during the period 1994 to 2000, and reached the figure of 317 by the latter year. The declaration of a school as a National School required only a nod of approval from the Minister of Education, as the officials were there merely to carry out his directives and not to question why. Tragically, politicization had by now almost totally devoured the education system.

This is what the National Education Commission had to say commenting on the situation that existed in 2003: "……… the new category of a limited number of National Schools created in the early 1980’s using strict criteria to identify schools with very good facilities and offering quality education, has become meaningless and distorted with the indiscriminate addition of schools that do not conform to these criteria. Currently 40 of the 323 National Schools are 1C schools (without Science education at GCE Advanced Level) and one National School is a Type 2 school with classes to GCE Ordinary Level only" (Proposals for a National Policy Framework on General Education in Sri Lanka, December 2003).

Hardly had the ink dried on this and a few other home truths that the above report said about the way the education system functioned, those who said so were sent home by the then President, and the Commission itself re-constituted! What price politicization?

(The writer welcomes comment and the expression of any dissenting views, in particular.)

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