Friday, January 30, 2015

Desegregating our schools - a must!

No school is free from religious bent. No school is free from ethnic bent. The truth is that we have institutionalised racial and religious divisions in our schools so much that to do away with them won't be easy. That is why they will continue. Always. That is also why desegregating them isn't the answer. There are other ways. Other means. But one thing remains clear: there must be reform. Period.

Sri Lanka follows the Oxbridge model, in spirit at least. This means that our schools, whether national or not, are geared towards producing students who can cope with Oxbridge-styled universities (here or abroad). Leaving aside international schools (which run parallel with the UK system) national, semi-private, and private schools are focused on an outdated form of the British model, which, to put it simply, has moved on.

In other words, our schools have deepened ethno-religious divisions based on an outdated system. Naturally enough, this cries out for reform. Changing the system, then, goes hand in hand with changing the ethno-religious divide. Or to put it more simply, changing the one obviously implies changing the other. They go together. They are not mutually exclusive. Simple as that.

But how to reform and where to begin? That's the real question. I have argued that abolishing any form of religious (or ethnic) consciousness in a school isn't the answer. I still stand by this. In Sri Lanka, home to four major religions, it anyway will be an unpopular move, opposed not just by education "czars" but pretty much by every stakeholder involved in a child's education (including, I must add, the child himself).

The answer lies elsewhere, hence. Not too hard to find.

A quick recap of history is in order here. When the British created a primary and secondary education system modeled on their curricula, they made religion a prime factor. Inevitably, this alienated other religions, other communities, until alternative schools and curricula were found.

Take the Sinhala Buddhist community, for example. Until the Panadura Debate, which heralded the Buddhist revival and the establishment of schools by the Theosophical Movement, they had to convert in order to gain admission to missionary schools. That's something which continues today. Something that no-one has really noted or observed.

It's surprising to know that Theosophical schools (referred to as BTS schools) did not exclude children from other communities initially. They were not "Buddhist only". As Professor Sudarshan Seneviratne has observed, they took in every ethnic community that had been excluded from Christian missionary schools. They were more multicultural than schools today, more tolerant and hence near-perfect models. Times have changed, though.

My point here is the ethno-religious divide in our schools began with the onset of Christian missionary education. This continues even today, albeit more subtly. Those who decry one form of "segregation" in (predominantly) Buddhist schools, however, fail to take note of this. They also fail to take note of the fact that discrimination against other faiths need not always be present when a child is being admitted, that more subtle (and easy to miss) forms of discrimination can be and are also present.

For the sake of argument, though, let's start with admissions. Very many faith-based schools have set percentage quotas to exclude children who practise certain faiths, in particular Buddhism. The argument is that since these schools "belong" to a certain religion, it is necessary to favour it. That's rubbish. Even a cursory look at their demographics makes it clear that students practising other religions proportionally exceed those practising the excluded faith. The move pleads "equality" but smacks of "anti-Buddhism".

That's just one point. There are other schools, however. Schools that deliberately exclude other faiths, that don't even admit a single child practising another religion. And one can't really blame them, given how communally schools that exclude their community think and act. Not that this absolves them, of course.

But I'm digressing here a little.

My point is clear. Until and unless every national and (semi-private) school is regulated, we can't hope for reform. The ideal to reach is multiculturalism (and not secularism). It won't be easy, I admit. We are talking about more than 100 years (if not more) of ethno-religious consciousness, institutionalised so much that we can't merely remove it. We are after all talking about removing it from every aspect to a child's education. That's tough, and hardly attainable in a matter of years.

Yes, it's difficult. But it must be tried. There must be something wrong, after all, with an education system that hinders a child from gaining what his school offers because of his identity. Reform is needed in a system that discriminates against different faiths, that creates rifts and layers within the same school to privilege one identity and rubbish every other.

A child's education shouldn't reflect identity. It should reflect capability. And talent. Our education system doesn't recognise this. That is its biggest defect. Sadly.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at