Focus/Spotlight

Schools in the heart of Colombo – Lacking basic facilities

By Sarah Hannan

Many expect schools in Colombo to have all the required facilities, but there seem to be few schools that are situated in noncongenial environments, where the buildings have not been maintained and the number of students attending the schools keeps dwindling each year. A few weeks ago, one such school was recognised in several media reports as well as social media platforms.

Situated in the heart of Colombo, Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Sinhala Vidyalaya, Colombo 2 has only 130 students that attend the school from grades one to 11.

The school’s Principal Saumya Prathapage, speaking to The Sunday Morning, stated: “This school has been in existence for over 100 years and today, we conduct classes from grades one to 11 in a four-storey building situated in an eight-perch property. Most of these children come from poor families and can hardly afford one decent meal per day. When they attend school, we try to give them a meal, for which the teachers and I pitch in money. We prepare the meals at the school premises itself.”

Producing exemplary citizens

Although the school is situated in the heart of Colombo, the school lacks a staff room and does not have computer facilities or sufficient sanitary facilities. Many of the teachers, understanding the social status of these children, are dedicated to providing them a decent at the very least education so that they would turn out to be exemplary citizens of the country, Prathapage revealed.

She also noted that some children tend to stay after school until their parents return from their labour work as the environment they live in is not safe. The school therefore doubles as a daycare centre for the children, at which the teachers volunteer in their spare time.

“When I started my stint in this school, the environment was too hostile; there were addicts and dealers who would loiter in front of the school premises. That threw off the children from attending school, but over the years I have made sure that such persons do not loiter around the school. We are doing our best to make the school premises a more desirable and safe place for these children,” Prathapage noted.

Lack of students

We asked Colombo Zonal Education Office Director G.N. Silva the reason behind the neglect of these schools. He said: “The main issue is that not many children attend the school nearest to their neighbourhood. Parents always try to enrol their children in national schools and famous schools. Moreover, many families have been relocated to the suburbs due to development work and those children are now attending schools in areas such as Kolonnawa and Mattakkuliya.”

Silva also pointed out that in the case of the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Sinhala Vidyalaya in Colombo 2, the children that were living around the neighbourhood were not from Sinhala-speaking backgrounds and were not Roman Catholic. Therefore, many of these children were most likely attending schools elsewhere.

He also noted that there are about 10 schools within the greater Colombo area which are considered to be noncongenial schools. Given the limited space of the school, Silva also noted that such schools cannot be expanded, nor can the administration close down such schools.

“The children that attend these schools hail from poor families that live in shanties; given their social status, they will never be able to gain entry to national schools or the famous schools. Therefore, we need to keep these schools functional,” Silva noted.

Lack of government funds

When asked about the budgetary allocations to such schools, Silva stated that it differed depending on the number of students and the upkeep requirements of the schools. While schools do put forth requests indicating their requirements through the Zonal Education Office, Silva noted that the requests are not always fulfilled.

He also stated that Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Sinhala Vidyalaya too had requested for funds to renovate the school building. While the Ministry of Education was supposed to allocate Rs. 4 million for renovations, towards the end of 2019, the Ministry did not have sufficient funds.

“Many development projects initiated by the Education Ministry have come to a halt due to lack of funds. Some schools are yet to repair their broken walls and derelict buildings, but the biggest obstacle is funds. The Government alone cannot attend to these requirements. Therefore, we encourage interested parties to contribute in any possible manner,” Silva stated.

He also stated that if any corporate sector institutions are interested in developing these schools, they should obtain the necessary permission from the relevant zonal education office.

When we contacted State Minister of Education Services Ranjith Siyambalapitiya’s office for clarification on the lack of funding for the schools, we were told to get in touch with the Western Provincial Council’s Department of Education.

We spoke to Western Provincial Council Department of Education Secretary Sirisoma Lokuwithana who stated: “Every year we allocate a considerable amount of funding for the upkeep of these schools. While we understand that there might be a lack of certain facilities, it is impossible to say that the schools are in a neglected state. Most often, the case is that the school authorities do not inform us in time to attend to these maintenance needs.”

Lokuwithana also pointed out that recently, there was an incident where a school in Modara had complained that they did not have toilets for the students to use. When the Council’s Education Department had visited them, they had observed that there were sufficient sanitary facilities, but the students were unable to use it because a tree had fallen across the entrance to the toilets.

All attempts made to reach Minister of Education Dullas Alahapperuma for comment failed.