Thursday, November 10, 2016

International schools: issues, problems, myths, and drivel

Patali Champika Ranawaka, at a convention held last week, spoke on private education and the Kannangara reforms. He spoke on international schools and argued that they should either be closed down or be integrated with the country. That is pertinent but certainly does raise some hairs.

He then implied that while we shouldn’t go on a rampage and shut down such schools in a hurry, nevertheless their proliferation must not be at the cost of (culturally and socially) castrating our children. That too is pertinent and that too raises some hairs.

This is not the first time this year that Ranawaka has expressed such sentiments on the subject. At a ceremony held at the BMICH last July, he spoke along the same lines, arguing that the need of the hour in Sri Lanka was a localised education system in English. He was concerned about the rapid and unchecked proliferation of international schools in the country and said as much, adding that such schools did not always provide the qualitatively superior education we as a nation should promote. Again, pertinent.

The most frequent allegation levelled against private education is that it hides inequalities and disparities between students under a fiction of equality. That is true. Merit is not the leveller, profit is. Ranawaka spoke on the SAITM crisis as well, and cautioned against the recent rise of private medical colleges, but for the time being his remarks on international schools merit scrutiny for the simple reason that while one doesn’t have to throw the baby with the bathwater when it comes to English medium education in this country, at times it’s difficult to distinguish between the baby and the bathwater when it comes to international schools.

There currently are two perspectives when it comes to these schools. The first is that they are not regulated properly and hence, tend to compromise on quality. That’s the administrative argument. The second, echoed by rabble-rousing nationalists, is that they uproot our children and more often than not impart an English education in an elitist atmosphere. That’s the cultural argument. The latter tends to privilege rhetoric over reason, while the former presents its own solution at once: regulate and subject such schools to the control of an administrative body.

I think it’s safe to say that the Board of Investment (BOI) is more concerned about profit-making entities than about the potential of such institutions to provide quality education. The simple fact of the matter is, it’s difficult to keep a tab on them: they are everywhere and they can be set up anywhere. It takes more time to set up a school under the Ministry of Education, after all, than it does to set up a company or business organisation.

In the end, naturally enough, when it comes to recruitment, selection, and pedagogy, teachers are very often behind their expected skills level and therefore, leave much to be desired. I am, of course, not talking about established international schools, which have (as Professor Rajiva Wijesingha once aptly put it) set up their own administrative systems and checks and balances that actually surpass their counterparts in the public sector by a considerable margin.

Does this absolve the public sector? I don’t think so. Ranawaka spoke for an education system in which economic, caste, and gender disparities were done away with. He forgot to mention ethnic and religious disparities (he should have), but that’s another story. He also argued for a system whereby the government and the private sector would hold hands (which is another way of saying that the government should personally step in and create a market for education). On the other hand, I don’t believe that this should be taken to whitewash our public schools.

And it’s not hard to see why. Administratively they are centralised and their authority is vested in the government. One need only flip through the archives to see how the likes of Professor Wijesingha faced difficulties when reintroducing the English medium to our schools. To the argument that we were doing our children a disservice by depriving them of access to the language, administrators (with probably the most intelligent of responses they could come up with) retorted that the elite managed to learn English while studying in the vernacular! In a context where bureaucracy was privileged and innovation (at best) was marginalised, hence, I think it’s safe to say that what ails our local education system is precisely what thrives in the private sector: flexibility.

Yes, quality shouldn’t dip. But is quality the preserve of the public sector? Not by a long shot. I mentioned Professor Wijesingha’s attempt at reintroducing the English medium here. I think the best example for how and why inefficiencies remain in the system is the way English is taught here. I argued in a previous column, or rather implied, that as a subject that language is probably the easiest to get through in the local curriculum. And yet, year after year, the fail rate for it never goes below 50 percent. The pass rate barely goes above 45 percent. Why?

Forget maladministration. I don’t think bad administrators necessarily compromise on good teachers. Good teachers, however, are hard to get. Time and time again, I have come across testimonies from students, of how teachers fudge it at their job, how they differentiate between those who can learn quickly and those who can’t, and how, in this process, the latter get marginalised. In a context where classrooms sometimes pack up to 50 students I personally don’t think one can expect miracles from teachers, but despite this I wonder: why is a language that’s taught “Our Way” so hard to pass?

The truth, not surprisingly, is unpalatable: either teachers are not adequately compensated or worse, they don’t care. Those who rubbish international schools tend to ignore the harsh truths rampant in the public sphere: unmotivated staff, desensitised children, and all those other realities which don’t exactly seem as paradisiacal as defenders of the sector tout them as. We’ve lost the “free” in free education, but instead of trying to regain it we are content in vilifying the private sector. Nothing could be more fallacious. Despite its varying quality standards, in terms of procurement of textbooks, administration, and efficiency the non-governmental education sector (or to be more precise, industry) are, I can say honestly, ahead.

Let’s not forget, after all, that international schools cater not to the elite (and I will come to this presently) but to those who a) are generally affluent (all in all, from the middle class, subject of course to preferences framed by social background) and b) are not able to get their children into local schools. It’s about demand and meeting that demand. It’s about business as well, but in this vast, interminable, and globalised world of ours I doubt one can generalise by saying that such schools should be banned. And as for the argument that quality dips: of course it does, but I don’t see the kind of rampant corruption, nepotism, and rush to get one’s offspring admitted by hook or crook that I see elsewhere.

Now take the cultural argument. In a context where anything with the “international” label tagged on tends to cast aside the “national”, it makes sense to surmise that international schools follow a curriculum far removed from that of our country. However, going by the logic of those who love to hate these institutions, what is it exactly about them that their critics take to task?

On one level I think it’s the language. More often than not, these critics echo their visceral distrust of English (in general) in their even more visceral distrust of international schools. On another level, it’s history: the latter are decidedly more recent and hence, less endowed by a history to make them immune to attack. About 10 years ago, for instance, a newspaper could see it fit to editorialise the issue by claiming superiority for established schools, in effect implying that the so-called cream of the crop in the country’s social, economic, and political spheres were and continue to be produced by them. In other words, international schools are culturally uprooted because they lack a tradition of their own, not (as it should be) because their more established counterparts elsewhere inculcate local values in their students.

So it’s not even a question of history, it’s a question of tradition! If it’s about inculcating traditional values, these critics should be fixated and more concerned about the lack of facilities in the Madya Maha Vidyalayas and the deplorable deficits in academic achievement between Colombo and (among other districts) Moneragala (the latter of which consistently ranks low in several economic and social indicators). They are not.

The truth is that they are captivated by tradition, not history stricto sensu, and in their irrational phobia of international schools on the basis of culture (or the lack thereof) they forget one key point: that these institutions provide an opt-out point for those with cash who couldn’t enter the local stream, as much as the outstation local school provided an opt-out point for those without cash. Same problem, different solutions.

Forget all that. I still don’t buy this cultural argument. What is there about the “cream of the crop” that makes them nationalists? What is it about the cream that warrants praise? A perusal of history will convince anyone that (and I say this at the cost of simplifying an already simplified argument) culture was not the product of the “cream” but the “outsider”, the vilified villager trashed as unrefined and uneducated by the same elite who came from (supposedly) superior institutions. No, I am not ranting, because perceptions tend to explain those who subscribe to them and the elite (real and imagined), going by this, are (almost) as uprooted as those they love to deride as, yes, culturally uprooted.

The only reason why the second argument would make sense is that international schools don’t teach history and the vernacular languages. In other words, they promote the kind of snobbery that established schools used to in those dark, colonial days. That is true. The solution, however, isn’t to insist on their removal (we are sadly not the frogs in the well we used to be, and because of this accursed reality called “globalisation” we have to have the cake and suffer it when it comes to English) but to regulate. At any rate, the international schools rampantly growing in every nook and corner of the country don’t operate on Cambridge and Edexcel but rather operate on the local curriculum, so (as I implied before) those trashing such institutions forget that they don’t always teach the Englishman’s syllabus but in fact teach the same subjects that state schools do.

There’s a person who teaches English at a school in Kurunegala. His name is Wilbert Ranasinghe and he starts his class at five in the morning. He is so thorough with his subject that all his students, and by all I mean ALL, speak, write, and read the language almost perfectly. No, they don’t speak with an accent and no, they don’t consider the language as the exclusive possession of a few for a few, but they use it as they would a kitchen utensil: for the moment, for its use, and not for the privileges it (apparently) brings.

Meanwhile, their more established counterparts in Colombo and the metropolis (by which I include those in international schools) struggle with a language they are taught from their infanthood, and along the way fail probably the easiest paper in the entire local syllabus. An irony of fate, I believe. No, not because the one lags behind the other, but because the latter, despite their inability to wield English, consider themselves to be the elite, those who have a say in the cultural discourse and take it as their monopoly.

I think we are focusing on the wrong issue(s). We’ve confused tradition for history. We think we know which institutions breed and perpetuate culture when we don’t. We are so entranced by tradition that we don’t (or rather, can’t) know who will breed that culture: not the elite (the new or the old) but the outsider.

Yes, I am raising some hairs. But the sooner we turn away from the dichotomy between the state and the private sector in education (and this goes for private universities as well), the sooner we’ll be able to concentrate on disparities in the former. The quickest way to bring that about, common sense should dictate, is heeding what the likes of Ranawaka have been telling us all along: not to close such institutions in the private sector, but to bring them closer to “our way of life.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is less about complete erasure than about regulation. And regulation, while we’re at it, needs reason. Not rhetoric.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at