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Pushed to perform, dreaming of escape

a year ago

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  • The dilemma faced by rural students that exceed the Grade Five scholarship exam
By Uditha Devapriya  At 19, Mithila looks younger than his age would suggest, with eyes that reflect a contemplative soul, and a voice underscoring a youthful ardour. Though born in Matara, he has been living in Colombo. He aspires to form a band of his own one day, but stuck with his Advanced Levels, he finds it impossible to convince his father, who moved to an apartment in the city to live with him, of his dreams.  As a result, he hides those dreams from him. With the help of a senior student, he scrounged up some money to buy a guitar, which he concealed from his family. Mithila wants to live in Colombo, but typical of his dilemma, he isn’t so sure; a few years ago, he had his sights on his hometown, Matara.  “I want to buy a big house, take my parents there, live with them, provide for them, and play the guitar,” he told me, an almost dreamy glimmer in his eyes. It says a lot about how much he yearns to stay away from home, yet can’t let go of it, that he admits he prefers Colombo, but does not want to live here. It also says a lot about his complicated relationship with his parents, particularly his father, that he does not want to tell them about his great love now.  “I’ll show them that I can ‘do music’, then they’ll know,” he grins at me, eyes full of pain.  Two years younger than Mithila, Nethum nurses a different ambition: to be a scriptwriter and a director. Unlike most of his friends from his school’s Sinhala Drama Society, he isn’t enthusiastic about acting. He also shares very few of their movie and television preferences, and is an ardent follower of Western cinema.  Believing that most of our producers, writers, and directors work with and churn out inferior material, he wants to make a difference in the local film and television scene. To that end, he hopes to write and direct a Netflix series one day, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. Yet, again, his parents haven’t taken too well to the idea. As a result, he wants to live away from them after his Advanced Levels.  Both Mithila and Nethum had studied in their villages until Grade Five. As is compulsory for Government school students, they had then written their Grade Five Scholarship Exams. The two of them had obtained exceptional results and thereby obtained entry to one of the island’s leading public schools. Located in Colombo and admitting only the highest scorers from the exam, that school had opened a new world and a new life for them.  But their shift to the metropolis brought with it challenges and travails they had not dreamt of. As much as it improved their parents’ standing at home, it also heightened expectations and put pressures on them to achieve more. In Sri Lanka, one is only said to have achieved anything in life if one passes the Ordinary Levels and Advanced Levels well and enters a conventional stream at university: more often than not, either medicine or engineering. This was what Mithila’s and Nethum’s world was expecting of them: to keep standing out from the rest. If they failed to do so, then, in the eyes of village elders and peers, they had failed.  This obviously would not have been the intention of those who proposed and conceived the Scholarship Exam. First held in 1948, the exam endeavoured to achieve two objectives: the admission of poor students to popular, elite schools, and the provision of bursaries to those students.  While central colleges had attained elite status in the 1940s and 1950s, over time, they lagged behind more popular institutions around Colombo, Kandy, and Galle, with the result that students from an overwhelming majority of the 11,000 or so schools in the island compete for slots in those institutions annually today. Apart from building up pressures and bottlenecks, such a state of affairs has led to stratifications of class: it is very often the more affluent from disadvantaged communities in regions outside Colombo who, by way of access to study material and patronage networks, manage to obtain higher marks.  Such stratifications materialise at different levels. Most studies of disparities in our schools and universities have assessed those stratifications horizontally; that is, between provinces, districts, and regions. A 2017 study, for instance, noted that while 95% of national school students sat for the exam, only 79% of provincial school students did so, illustrating clearly how horizontal inequalities have become entrenched. The study also noted that of those who obtained cut-off marks, only 36% qualified for the scholarship bursary scheme.  Many of these rifts can be appraised through statistical analysis. From such analyses, one can establish certain connections: for instance, the link between economic inequality, the availability of science facilities, and the percentage of students studying Arts subjects for their Advanced Levels and at university, within certain regions. These clearly show the relationship between education and employment. They also show the disparities between those who excel at the exam and those who lack the wherewithal to even write it. However, this is just one level of analysis. Having interviewed several scholarship students who entered elite schools through outstanding results, I am only too aware that inequality remains a multidimensional phenomenon. Based on my interviews, what I have been able to ascertain and conclude is that most of those who obtain top results for the exam hail from families who are relatively well off in their villages. Mithila’s father, for instance, happens to be a contractor for a company, while Nethum’s mother is a teacher at the village school, and his father, a security guard at a hotel in the city. These are by no means lucrative professions, yet they ensure a sense of status enjoyed by very few in their communities.  Nevertheless, however stable that sense of status may be, it is rather tenuous and insecure. Grade Five scholars who hail from outstation areas tend to be looked up to, but also looked down upon, by peers and elders within their community. On the one hand, entry into elite schools is set up as an ideal every child is pushed into achieving; on the other, the few who enter them are constantly tested, pushed, and elevated into achieving more. In other words, it is a sword that can cut either way, for both scholars and their families.  The moment these students “slip up” – through less-than-satisfactory Advanced Level results – locals disparage them and more problematically, their families.  “Look at that boy,” a mother of one high-achieving scholar complained to me. “He went to Colombo, but now every other child here who stayed back went to university, and he has not.”  Intriguing as these attitudes may seem, they are a gauge of the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s rural middle-class. Moreover, problematic as this state of affairs is, it has been complicated by the interests, ambitions, and preferences of the scholars themselves. Most of those who enter elite public schools from distant communities bring with them what I call a “rural baggage”: a worldview and a physique different from urban dwellers who attend such institutions.  One of Mithila’s friends more or less confirmed that when he pointed out to me that “at our school, those who came from villages were constantly being called into literary and cultural societies and cadet troupes”. In Nethum’s case, his interest in the performing arts had been ignited by childhood encounters at home, as had Mithila’s love for music. These had proved to be an advantage for them at their new schools. However, in the long term, that leads to a confrontation I hinted at in the beginning: while their interests take them to clubs and societies through which they fine-tune their talents, their parents and other elders tend to discourage such endeavours, fearing that these might turn them away from their Advanced Levels and from the careers they have idealised for them. Yet the fact that elite public schools compete among themselves over extra-curricular activities pressurises these kids to up their game in those clubs, thus fulfilling their parents’ fears and distracting them from academic pursuits. It is a cycle that never ends.  Sociologists of education, in Sri Lanka, have so far not delved into these encounters and confrontations. I believe they must be examined, for two reasons: one, while horizontal inequalities in our education system can be and have been appraised, vertical inequalities have so far not, and two, they offer a rare insight into how the predominantly Sinhala and Buddhist upward aspiring rural middle-class thinks and behaves. “I am happy I entered my school,” Nethum confidently tells me. “But I will have to leave behind all that when I return home.” Enamoured of the life he has grown used to in the city, he dreams of a world beyond his village. It is just about the same story with Mithila. Living between two worlds, these scholars find themselves belonging to neither. For educationists and social scientists, they represent an interesting cross-section of our world.  (The author is a freelance writer who is presently studying international relations at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies [BCIS]. He can be reached at

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