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What Next?

Grade Five Scholarship Examination


By R S Jayaratne —

Former Secretary, Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs.

Obviously as a grand finale to the multitude of recent statements on the Grade Five Scholarship Examination (GFSE) made by the Hon. Minister of Education, he has now announced that his Ministry recommendations on this subject will be submitted to the President shortly. He has also indicated that his Ministry is not in agreement with some of the recommendations made by the National Education Services Commission on this issue.

Over the weeks, the entire country witnessed the wide public concern on the recent announcements made, as reflected in the statements made to the media and later denied by the Minister himself, on the cancellation of the GFSE effective from 2016, According to him, the major reasons for this decision have been, firstly, its extremely competitive nature generating an unbearable mental stress on the children and their parents., and secondly, due to the examination turning out to be a stiff competition to gain admission to a few popular schools., the need for the present examination to be replaced with a simple examination and moreover, in view of the projected completion of the 1000 Super schools in all parts of the country by 2016, there will be no need to struggle for admission to the popular schools any further. Minister has further stated that his statements are based on a report of the National Education Services Commission.

Right now, Millions of parents in the country are awaiting quite anxiously if not nervously, the purported recommendations the Minister will shortly present to the government as announced by him.

At this stage, I do not propose to comment either on the statements already made by the Minister at different stages of the controversy or speculate on those yet to be made by him. However, as a product of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination and a Central School myself, I wish to submit, with all due respects to the Minister and his many predecessors of whatever political party they represented, that, they have not displayed a complete understanding, and, or have refused to understand or appreciate the basic concepts, of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination and free education system introduced in the State Council in 1944 due to the relentless efforts of few illustrious leaders such as Messers C W W Kannangara, A Ratnayaka. etc.. As we are fully aware, the system provided free education to all the children, rich and poor, through a network of Central Schools designed eventually to reach a level to be comparable with the facilities available in the popular schools. There have been limitations however, such as the shortage of adequate space, qualified teachers, equipment, facilities etc, which were due to be rectified within a short period of time. Despite these constraints , the Grade Five Scholarship Examination provided an excellent opportunity for bright children from all families, particularly from the rural and poor segments of our society, an access to higher education free of charge, which was the only opportunity for them to achieve any successes commensurate with their inborn abilities..

Moreover, Mr. Kannangara himself being a victim of poverty who had a rare opportunity to be a beneficiary of few scholarships awarded to him by Richmond College Galle, a fee levying school at that time, was quite convinced of the significance of scholarships as the only opportunity for the bright students from the poor families to secure full benefits of free education. As widely known, the pre Kannangara era had basically two types of schools, the village Swabhasa schools where education was free but without any facilities for English at all. The second category consisted of the private fee levying English medium schools such as the Colombo Academy (later named Royal College) and a few schools such as a St. Thomas’s , Trinity, Ananda etc with excellent facilities operated and maintained by religious organizations. These schools were accessible only to the affluent and the privileged. Due to his own experience, Mr. Kannangara had the strong conviction of the absolute need to provide similar facilities to promising children of poor families. As an initial step to achieve this objective, Mr Kannangara established 54 central schools in rural areas, approximately one in each of the then 54 state council electorates, with facilities to teach in the English medium from 6th Grade up to the Advanced Level in as many subjects as possible. . As applicable to all schools they too were provided with free midday meal as well. The schools were provided with whatever possible facilities and were staffed with not only the most qualified but also the most efficient and committed Principals and teachers, selected purely on their merit and performance and were to be assessed purely on their performance and examination results. Each central school was required to annually admit to the 6th standard a specific number of the 5th Grade Scholarship holders as well, who are successful at the Grade Five Scholarship Examination. They were provided with free hostel facilities or in the alternative a monthly allowance and an annual quota of clothing.

However, it is clearly evident from the very inception that while the successful launch of this scheme has been much to the delight of its initiators, yet at the same time to the dismay of some who resented it. The struggle Mr Kannangara and his supporters had to undergo to get the reluctant majority vote in the State Council for the Free Education Bill, and that their success was purely due to the universal franchise operational at the time, is well known..

The hard truth therefore , is that an influential section of the social and political elite resented the free education system from the inception, and this dormant antipathy was demonstrated by the well planned defeat of Mr Kannangara at the 1947 elections, and, the denial of the Education portfolio al least to Mr A Ratnayaka who was a strong supporter of free education. Moreover even when Mr. Kannangara was reelected to Parliament in 1952, he was not allowed to handle Education but instead was appointed the Minister of Local Government.. If the real enthusiasts of free education were allowed to function as the Ministers of Education, in the Parliament, the progress of education of this country would certainly have been much more impressive. However, compounding the fears of the opponents of free education, the country witnessed, commencing from mid 1950s the 54 Central Schools established by Mr. Kannangara, despite many problems, producing highly intelligent, intellectual and competent personnel of eminence most of whom were 5th Grade scholarship holders hailing from rural and poor segments of society, securing many high positions in the Academic, Administrative, medical, engineering, scientific and such other professional fields generating a tough competition to those coming from traditionally popular schools. However, this healthy influx was an asset to meet the increasing needs of quality man/women power for the expanding public and private sectors of our then newly independent nation.

However, it appears that, probably due to the hidden resentment for this development by some of groups which transcend politics, many an obstacle have been created both overtly and covertly to at least curtail the proliferation of the rural educational revival. This is evident in the abolition of English as a school subject and a medium of instruction in mid Fifties under some pretext, and in most of the haphazard and piecemeal series of so called educational reforms implemented by successive governments over the years commencing from 1961.and further amended again in the years 1963, 1972, 1995. The nature of such reforms, the purported reasons for them and their consequent effects on our education system have been dispassionately detailed out by Prof. Lal Perera one time Vice Chairman of the National Education Commission. (Arunalu- A Publication by the Central College Past Pupil’s Association of Srilanka 2007).

In the above context, it is clearly evident that despite Mr. Kannangara’s policy with sincere objectives, to provide access to free education from kindergarten up to the University to all the citizens , through the establishment of Central schools in every electorate does not seem to have continued in the same spirit thereafter. Although a few Secondary level schools known as Central, Navodya and National schools have been established during the past few decades, it does not appear to have proved a complete success due to many reasons such as unequal spatial distribution and facilities, the paucity of buildings, relevant equipment, and competent teachers etc and, in addition due to the serious deterioration of school administration in many instances, which is a subject by itself for a separate discussion.

Accordingly, over the years, we have painfully witnessed the distortion of the Kannangara concepts, under the pretext of reforms quite oblivious to the main concepts of the free education system of which the GFSE was a key component. As stated by many national minded intellectuals, the relevant authorities should al least now, consider a comprehensive re evaluation of the present education system through a broad national dialog among the relevant stake holders including prominent apolitical educationists, representatives of the teaching profession, parents and those benefited from the Kannangara reforms before the finalization of any further educational reforms policies or programmes. This will certainly be in the larger interest of the country since such an exercise is a necessary prerequisite not only to be fair by our younger generation, but also as an essential input to meet the present and future challenges of our nation.

My current effort however, is to discuss or at least open for discussion the two specific areas which are presently gaining wide public concern, namely the scope of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination and secondly, the availability of sufficient number of Secondary Schools island wide with full facilities to accommodate all the students successful in the Grade Five Examination and provide them with a complete Secondary Education, Unless these two fundamental requirements are met, it is impossible to prevent their immediate and long term ill effects on a majority of our children particularly those from the rural and poor segments of our society.. This concern for unending experiments or ad hoc remedies at the expense of our innocent children is worst confounded with the recent announcement alleged to have been made by the Minister that he is not in agreement with some of the recommendations of the National Education Commission itself.

With regard to the scope of the present Grade Five Scholarship Examination, the Minister has already confirmed that it will be replaced with a simpler test which will not generate undue stress on the children. To recollect my own experience as a student sitting for the originally designed 5th Grade Scholarship Examination in 1948, there were three simple question papers, one to test our general intelligence, (30 minutes) and other two to assess our competence in Arithmetic and our mother tongue respectively (50 minutes each). ) There was neither any excitement about the examination which was held towards the end of the third term nor any special coaching for it, and the students were tested without any disturbance to their normal studies in the class. In retrospect, I now realize that the education authorities then have been certainly guided by the dictums of the likes of Albert Einstein who had declared "Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think" in their quest for intelligence rather than book knowledge through the then Grade Five Scholarship Examination. This should be the objective of the GFSE for the present and for the future as well.

Over the years, this simple examination has been subjected to various changes, resulting in the present GFSE which has been torturing the students from the Grade 2 onwards. I strongly urge authorities to obtain the services of relevant education specialists, child psychologists, representatives of teachers and parents and such others in the formulation of a simple examination carefully designed to indentify the inborn intelligence, the general capabilities, talents and the potential of the 5th Grade students, In the reformulation of the scope, the structure and the conduct of the 5th Grade examination, it is also most important for the authorities to be mindful that this competitive examination is held to serve two major purposes, firstly, to select a certain number of bright students to be admitted to Secondary Schools and simultaneously, to identify from among them, such children coming from families below a prescribed income limit to be awarded the 5th Grade Scholarships, It should also be mandatory for all the Secondary Schools in the system to ensure that the admissions to their Grade 6 classes will be exclusively from the selectees from the 5th Grade Examination consisting of the 5th Grade Scholarship holders as well as the other children passing the Grade Five Scholarship Examination or its replacement. Another aspect of the present crisis, according to the Minister himself, is that the present Grade Five Scholarship Examination has turned out to be a competition to enter a few popular schools, whereas many such popular schools are unable to admit the selectees due to their 6th Grade classes already being full. However, he overlooks the well known fact that by the time the results of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination are announced, the slots in the 6th Grade of many popular schools are completely or nearly full with the children promoted from the respective Primary Schools attached to some such popular schools, and also with the ad hoc admissions due to political or other pressures. Instead of making a serious effort to resolve this basic anomaly preventing a maximum number of students successful at the Grade Five Examination to obtain their rightful admission to the popular Secondary schools, it is unfair for a Minister to propagate the idea that there is no need to try to seek admission to popular schools from 2016 since the 1000 Super Schools will be functional by that time.

Therefore, in addition to the change of the scope of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination, the government should ensure in very clear terms, the ready availability of adequate specially identified Special Secondary schools including the popular secondary schools and the admission to all their Grade 6 classes to be restricted to be exclusively from the selectees from the Grade Five Examination. Moreover such schools should be located in every part of the island, complete with all the facilities comparable to those in the popular schools.

In order to accomplish the difficult task of operating the maximum number of state of the art Secondary School network, it would be essential for them to be confined only to the classes from Grade 6 upwards. For this purpose they should not maintain Primary sections and there should be a separate network of well maintained Primary schools presenting their 5th Grade students to the Grade Five Examination for admission to the island wide network of quality Secondary Schools. The Past Pupils Associations who are interested in maintaining Primary sections in such Secondary schools should be educated on these arrangements based on the broad national interest.. This, perhaps may be the only sensible way to, at least reduce rather than to completely eliminate the present competition and rush to enter the few popular schools. In the island.

I am not an educationist myself, yet it is my personal experience in my private and public life, which compels me to contribute to the growing consensus that our education system needs a comprehensive review if we are to genuinely provide fair and equal opportunities to all our children both rich and poor, to receive the best of education. This is a fundamental need not only for their personal welfare but most importantly for the future political, social and economic growth of our country. It is well known that among many factors, the availability high quality manpower, is a pre-requisite for the growth of productive public and private sectors of a country and also serves as an essential prerequisite to attract local and foreign investments.

Born as the eldest of three sons in a rural farmer family myself, I am proud to be a product of a Central School to which I was admitted in 1948 on the results of a Grade Five Scholarship Examination, and I owe to my school and the Kannangara Free Education system the entirety of my educational and professional accomplishments in life.

My family depended on the produce of a few parcels of land for our sustenance. I had my primary education at the Gampaha Buddhist School, which annually presented a few 5th Grade students to sit for the Grade Five Scholarship Examination conducted towards the end of the year, the results of which were due only in a few months time.

In the meantime, my father, despite his meager resources had taken a decision to get me to sit for the admission test annually conducted by Ananda College Colombo, a fee levying school then, for admission to the 6th Grade of the College. I still do not know the rationale for his decision except my vague recollection that he had the acquaintance of few teachers of Ananda College during the brief period when a part of the College was temporarily relocated in Gampaha during the second world war. Having passed the entrance examination I was admitted to the Grade 6 of Ananda College Colombo in January 1948, and I faintly recall that the fees were Rs.12 per term. I had to travel to the College by train and the season ticket cost me a further amount of money. In addition to the need to get up very early in the morning and the long walk to the Gampaha railway station, and the long time taken for travel both ways was a big strain on me. Most importantly, despite my tender age, I soon realized quite painfully that the cost of my Colombo education had become a huge strain on my family’s very modest income, which probably would adversely affect the education of my two younger brothers as well. Within a few months I began to fell increasingly guilty, and regretted my father’s decision realizing that our family would face a severe financial crisis including the mortgage or the sale of our tiny parcels of land, if I were to continue in Ananda College. It was almost at that stage that is after about six months of Ananda schooling, my father received the good news that I have won a Grade Five scholarship to enter the Galahitiyawa Central School located much closer to my village. My young classmates at Ananda were sad when I was leaving, but I was sad as well as happy.

The scholarship and the new school was a blessing both for me and my family, and it was most fortunate that the School had an excellent Principal late Mr. S J A Rodrigo, a strict disciplinarian and at the same time a kind, understanding and a father figure to all the students as well as the staff. He virtually took off from where Mr. Kannngara completed his tasks and within his school turned the latter’s dream to a reality. In addition to his duties he also tought Mathematics to Senior classes and volunteered to conduct afternoon classes when needed to ensure a thorough preparation for the examinations. However, quite implicit of the step—motherly treatment to the Central Schools after Kannangara era, Galahitiyawa Central School, despite its establishment in 1944, received an adequate building and qualified teachers to commence the University Entrance classes (GCE Ad, level) only in 1954 that too only for five arts subjects due to the Education Department reluctantly appointing only five teachers including two of our eminent past pupils Messers Somapala Gunadheera and M C Mathupala, who took an extraordinary effort to groom the students for the examination.

I was fortunate to be the first student from the school to enter the University of Ceylon (now Peradeniya) and was thrilled to meet after almost ten years, some of my former classmates at Ananda College joining along with me. I ended up my University days as an Assistant Lecturer of the same University before entering the Srilanka Administrative Service on the basis of an Open competitive examination.

I apologize for this modest personal account, which would have been avoided if not for its perceived relevance to the subject under discussion.

To be continued on Monday

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