As creating a more equitable world is a key component of our purpose for education, we were never fully comfortable with launching as a private school — price barriers in education exclude people.
On the other hand, it’s inconceivable that our public education system will pivot to offer Self Directed Education anytime soon — it hasn’t made it to national policy even in countries that have homed such schools for decades. Publicly funded Democratic Schools (there are a few elsewhere) may be a viable option (especially as it could give a better bang for taxpayer Rupees than conventional school) but even for that we’d need to have a few “schools” showcasing that the approach works (and, more problematically, policy-makers reconsidering what benchmark “works” is evaluated against).
Keeping our “schools” accessible
- Schools 4.0 Lanka will operate as a entity separate from the individual schools. It will operate as a not-for-profit (to keep at bay the inequalities that arise when owners try to optimize for profits rather than service)
- Each “school” will be operated as a franchise, typically owned by 1 or more parents. They will be Social Enterprises which will allow some distribution of profit to the entrepreneurs (who are taking a risk by investing their money) and the franchise agreement will guarantee parents a voice in the governance of the school (e.g. apart from adjustments for inflation, fees can’t be increased without a justification approved by the parents)
- Each “school” will be required to adopt a fee scale that makes it accessible to the community it operates in, and will divert a portion of its revenue to a “financial assistance” fund — access to this fund will be on the basis of financial need, not on academic performance. This is important because a diverse environment is a rich learning environment and socio-economic diversity is a reality that must be experienced (rather than sanitized like how conventional schools impose a standard uniform on everyone). We trust that parents who believe in our mission of a more peaceful, egalitarian and equitable world will endorse this approach 🤞🏽
- Each “school” will be supported (curating experiences, training of Facilitators, provision of software and tools, negotiating discounts for material and equipment, advisory services for marketing, finance, operations, etc) by Schools 4.0 Lanka as part of the franchise agreement between them.
We recognize that this will not go far enough to make it affordable to the under-privileged, especially those who struggle to pay for even the incidental expenses of free education (transport, tuition, stationery, opportunity cost of lost income, etc) — the only thing we can do on their behalf is to advocate for more public funding of education and that it be utilized for the benefit of those who need it most, including publicly funded democratic schools.
The background story
Sri Lanka has a proud history of public-funded education: “Free Education from Kindergarten to University” was introduced by the visionary yet pragmatic statesman Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara way back in 1947 (long story here), and aimed higher than the Jomtien Declaration of 1990; so by the time other developing countries started planning for universal primary education, we had already achieved their goals.
However, this was no utopia — there were cracks even prior to the large scale introduction of private schools and universities. As Eric J. de Silva wrote in the above-mentioned long story:
An unintended result that followed from free education all round, was a lowering of the quality of education that assisted schools had provided for a fee and the Central Schools had provided free of charge since their advent in 1940. Writing in 1969 J.E. Jayasuriya (Education in Ceylon Before and After Independence) said: “It was the undoubted intention of our legislators that a good education should be available as a matter of right to every child born in this country. It was not their intention that a good education should be given free to a minority of children, while a bad education should be given free to the large mass of children, but this is the reality of the situation even twenty-five years after the introduction of the free education scheme.”
As private schools emerged to cater to the “market needs”, strident voices spoke in defence of free education under the battle-cry “Education is a right, not a commodity” — (here’s why we think that’s an ironic slogan) but they have only succeeded in preserving the bastions, the battle has been lost: we must have the humility to accept that things have gotten worse since Jayasuriya’s review and that we have failed to fulfil Kannangara’s ambition of equitable access to education, where even within the “free” schools;
- 50% of admission points for school comes from living in proximity to the school. Most elite schools are located in expensive neighborhoods and have inflated their value further — so the poor are handicapped.
- 25% of admission points are awarded if a parent was a past pupil; each school decides the criteria for awarding these points — it’s legal to award some points for donations and in practice this is a key motivation for alumni to “give back” (“forward”, really) — one leading school says they do not consider the contributed amount, and that Rs. 10 gives as much points as a million, which may level the playing field just a little. But still, if you benefitted from being educated at an elite school, you have the chance to keep the benefit within the family… and even if you didn’t make it the first time, you still have a 2nd chance via your offspring.
- The next chance to get in to a good school is the Year 5 scholarship exam. While this is touted as the last hope of the poor child, a 2019 study by IPS (of the 2018 scholarship) showed that only 22% of Year 6 admissions to National Schools were from the Scholarship (and that drops to 13% if we exclude schools that don’t have a primary section at all). And at good provincial schools the corresponding number for the latter is only 3% — and even for this, the majority of those who succeed come from high-income families — because they’re likely in a school with better teachers, and they can afford tuition (group classes or even individual home visits, while the poor can afford, at best, mass classes).
- The gap between the most- and least-resourced schools continue to grow… not only in terms of staffing (what class is the Principal from, i.e. SLEAS (Education Administration) / SLPS (Principal) / SLTS (Teacher)? do they have the required teaching cadre and are they qualified? do they have Development Societies and Corporate Sponsors to pay for coaches who earn more than any teacher or administrator can imagine?) but also infrastructure — on one hand we hear of schools that don’t even have running water, while others have their own swimming pool. Of course it doesn’t make sense that no one learns to swim until every other problem is fixed, but this degree of inequality is insane!
And when you compare against private schools, the discrepancies widen further; when a service is available both for free (usually funded by taxes) and for a fee, it is natural that those who pay believe they are entitled to more than what is provided to those who do not, and the private enterprises providing the service must show a greater value-proposition than the competition (both public and private) to “attract customers” — and the aggregate result is that we have schools stratified in ways that increasingly mirror stratification in society (more expensive and exclusive schools provide better facilities and teachers, to those who can afford them). Fortunately, we haven’t yet become “perfectly” stratified; there are still children from poor families who make it to schools catering to children of the rich and powerful, but, of course, you will not find children of the rich and powerful in the schools catering to the poor.
And all this is not even the only “education” money buys. Let’s take our own middle-class experience as an example:
- Our son is not likely to miss out on opportunities (in formal school or elsewhere) due to needing to work, lack of nutrition, or lack of healthcare (and if we had a daughter, she wouldn’t miss school because she couldn’t afford menstrual-wear). On the contrary, we have the means (via domestic aides and/or appliances) to free ourselves and our child from much domestic work, giving more time for connection, education and leisure.
- Growing up in an English-speaking environment, he will have greater access to the collective wisdom and art of civilization (although we will need to balance this by curating narratives of the oppressed and/or indigenous).
- If not for the pandemic, our son would’ve been celebrating his 5th birthday in China, and that would have been the 21st country he’s visited (we manage that on a middle-class income by cutting-down on other expenses like dining out, local holidays, fancy cars, etc) — giving him a broader appreciation of the world and a head-start in developing “Global Competence”.
Education (both public and private) has become a race (private education promises, and often delivers, a head-start), where there are a few winners and many losers — usually winners don’t see a problem to be fixed (“the others failed because they just didn’t try hard enough”) while losers, even when they recognize that the system failed them, often don’t have the power to change the system.
We are part of the minority who see deep flaws in the system even though we succeeded in it (Sifaan has a 1st Class Honours Degree in Electronics & Telecommunications Engineering from the University of Moratuwa, and was the batch-top in the 1st year; Dileepa won the Gold Medal for Best Student in the inaugural Post-Graduate Diploma in Marketing by SLIM). Even though we are not “filthy rich”, when the wealth of our Economy was doled out to its citizens, we were served with a larger ladle than most.
We recognize our privilege: building “schools” for Self-Directed Education in Sri Lanka is how we choose to exercise our privilege and utilize our talents to benefit society at large, especially those who are less privileged than we are.
Unless we can find philanthropists (individual or corporate) we will need to charge fees to realize that ambition.