Focus/Spotlight

Setting standards for private education

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa and Annya Forbes

Over the last decade, international schools are sprouting like mushrooms in Sri Lanka

But apart from a few leading international schools, the quality of education of some of the so-called international schools is now in question along with the lack of proper infrastructure facilities, academic resources, and teachers/trainers.

However, the biggest issue with regard to international schools is the lack of a regulatory mechanism that ensures the standards of these schools are maintained.

Education trade unionists allege that international schools are massive investments, trying to outdo one another with glossy advertisements and the beaming faces of smartly uniformed pupils on billboards, newspapers, and television are hiding a sinister truth.

They claimed, as businesses, these schools are striving for one golden goal, profit. These costly profit-oriented ventures do not always assure academic quality.

“Some teachers don’t even have proper educational qualifications and experience and also there is the question of proper accreditation. Parents are spending a great deal of money and putting a lot of trust in these schools for the sake of their children,” education sector trade unionists claim.

International schools were first established in the country midway during the process of the liberalisation of the economy in 1978 and were registered under the Board of Investment (BOI).

Most of them were centred in Colombo and catered to the children of the elite and also the rich. Parents, it appeared, preferred the categorisation “international”. Until the late 1960s; the private missionary schools coexisted with state-assisted schools. Some assisted schools opted to go private and the country now has 33 private autonomous schools and 33 state-assisted non-fee levying private schools.

‘Illegal schools’

Ceylon Teacher’s Association Joseph Stalin told The Sunday Morning that all international schools should be acquired by the Government according to the Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Special Provisions) Act No. 5 of 1960, and that there was no legal right for anyone to establish a school in Sri Lanka.

The concept of international schools was introduced to the country after 1977, and those institutions were registered as private tuition. At present, there are around 230 international schools in Sri Lanka and out of that there are around 86 schools that were funded by the Government.

According to Stalin, there were three different types of schools in Sri Lanka: State-owned schools which is the majority and fully funded by the Government, private schools where some schools are partly funded by the Government while some others were not funded by the Government, and the international schools that were registered under the BOI which were exactly like private companies; and those schools were highly focused on profits.

“There was no government policy for international schools and now the Minister is interested in developing those so-called international schools when there are lots of government schools which lack basic infrastructure like desks, chairs, and proper classrooms,” he alleged.

Stalin also pointed out that a number of low quality international schools were being established each year as the Government was not focusing on developing the quality of government-owned schools.

Examination performances

UPFA MP Bandula Gunawardena’s comment on international schools made headlines on the first week of January as he criticised the education authorities for giving the Advanced Level candidate student of an international school an island rank.

The student came first in the arts stream, defeating all government and private school candidates.

Gunawardena criticised the Education Ministry’s decision to mix the performances of private applicants with those sitting for the Advanced Level examination through schools.

According to him, international schools are not allowed to teach the local syllabus to their students, or send candidates to local examinations as only 78 semi-government schools were granted permission to teach the local syllabus. He further stated that the Government facilitates those schools to provide education, whereas the international schools were formed under the Companies Act.

“These institutions have started teaching the local syllabus illegally,” he alleged.

The MP’s comment was subject to much criticism, as many politicians, irrespective of the parties they belong to, said that all the children should have the same rights and therefore could at least enter into state universities.

Monitoring mechanism

In this backdrop, Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said that he would present a Cabinet Memorandum to regulate international schools to maintain standards in these international schools.

Accordingly, the Minister is going to appoint a supervisory board to monitor all international schools in Sri Lanka.

“We have already prepared all regulations and hope to implement it in mid 2019,” he noted.

Currently, there were around 300 international schools with 100,000 or more students, Kariyawasam added.

However, it seems like the education trade unions are not happy with the Minister’s decision. They claimed that Kariyawasam was trying to give legal recognition for international schools in Sri Lanka.

“Why can’t the Government absorb all these schools and manage them like other government-run schools?” Stalin questioned.

Public view

According to Sandra Fernando, a past teacher at Overseas School Colombo: “The students have been practically involved from the start of their school life till the end of it. Every single student who studies here has been to university in foreign countries. The fact that there is support, full-time involvement and participation from both students and parents, is a positive, and what a school should have. She adds that there is a sense of ‘direction’ as all students are fully focused.”

Sharmila Gamage (Colombo International School) expressing her personal view noted: “Academically, our school produces results. Both London O/Ls and A/Ls produce good results, and we credit our teachers because of this. However, the teachers give private tuition as well and the parents don’t mind paying extra for tuition classes. The students, who come from different backgrounds, have been nurtured with discipline and manners from the time they start school until they finish. The biggest problem of the quality of education is not from the students or teachers themselves, but from the staff management.”

She says the management is “absolutely horrendous”. The current principal is acting as a puppet, and the orders come directly from the Chairman. She also addresses that parents too don’t mind the way the school runs as long as the results are produced.