|Sunday, 4 August 2002|
The uniform blues
by Anjana Gamage, Umangi de Mel and Jayanthi Liyanage
The Education Ministry's decision to introduce a new system of
distributing material for school uniforms, has roused a hornet's nest,
with parents complaining of the procedure being laborious and time
consuming, and politicians warning of a greater and more visible class
divide at classroom levels. By issuing uniforms only to those who apply
for them, the Government aim to slash excess expenditure and wastage and
make sure that the uniforms reach the hands of students who really need
them. While the aim on malpractices is laudable, the question that is
being asked is why has the procedure become such a hassle. The 'Sunday
Observer' speaks to the implementing officials,school principals and
The new system of distributing uniforms to the Government schools, introduced by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, Education and Cultural Affairs, will come into effect from mid 2002.
The new procedure, which allocates uniforms only to the students who apply for them, requires each parent or guardian to submit an application on behalf of each school-going child to his respective Divisional Secretariat (AGA Office). The application should state the child's name, school, gender, permanent address and category of uniform and be recommended by the school principal. Grama Niladhari recommendation is not required. The 300 AGA Offices islandwide are expected to submit the application data collected at their offices to their respective District Office (GA Office).
The island's 25 GA Offices will hand over this information to the Ministry which, in turn, will direct the AGA Offices to issue ration coupons for the uniforms. "By August or September this year, each student will be able to obtain his coupon from the AGA Office or his Grama Niladhari and collect a packeted uniform from the co-operative society or the co-operative wholesale outlet (SATHOSA) or the Salu Sala closest home," Thilla Nadarajah, Addl. Secretary to the Ministry said. Previously, all government school students received uniforms and the distribution was carried out in the school.
Uniforms are graded in 19 categories. Eg. male/female; pirivena/school;
Junior/Intermediate/Senior; culture categories. viz. robes for pirivenas;
white shirt-blue shorts for Junior males; white shirt-white long trouser
for Senior males; white skirt-blouse for Intermediate females; white frock
for Senior females, Muslim attire for Muslim females.
S. Thilla Nadarajah, Addl. Secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Education and Cultural Affairs.
There are several reasons why we implemented this method of distribution. Principals have told us that when students are absent from school for several months, the schools have no facility to store their uniforms whereas the co-operative stores have storage facilities. The Principals also face difficulties in transportation as many schools do not have vehicles, but all co-operatives have lorries. Schools only open from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm on weekdays whereas the co-operatives are open to customers till late into the evening and even on Saturdays, making it more flexible for the students to collect uniforms.
Since this is the first time we have started this new method, understandably it is yet to be streamlined.
However this year's experience will enable us to have solutions for the
difficulties the public and the government officials faced. Next year, we
can start collecting application early, probably through the Grama
Niladharis. We are open to suggestions from the public to make this
distribution procedure easier.
"The new method of distributing material for school uniforms was introduced to minimise malpractices and to stop wastage of funds", Education Minister Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku explained.
Stressing on the need for such a change, he said the previous procedure where a thousand million rupees worth of uniform materials was distributed to 4.45 million schoolchildren, through school principals, had led to large scale wastage and malpractices.
"It was found that even those who completed their A/L had been granted material for uniforms", he pointed out.
Commenting on the current uproar over the new distribution procedure he admitted that certain lapses do happen when introducing a new procedure. "We came to know that the circulars had not gone on time.
According to the circular, applications were to be distribute on July 5th but it happened only on July 12th," he explained, adding that some of the receiving officers had taken a long time to process the applications before accepting them. He also admitted that some parents had been turned away by the officers, because they had not received the ministry circular.
The minister said the uniform materials were provided for the year 2003 and not for this year.
He also stressed that he had advised all education officials and government agents to ensure the implementation of the new procedure without any lapses. "And I have asked for all the statistics of the new system to be handed over to me before August 15", he further stressed.
Under the new system the ministry has made arrangements to distribute the material through village co-operatives and authorised dealers.
In future parents will be given a special coupon by the District
Secretaries to claim their quota of free material.
"An unwanted matter has come up with the new school uniform distribution system and it will highlight the gap between the poor and rich students", warned the Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse.
Describing the new distribution procedure as laborious, he said it was a hassle to parents. Unlike the past, now they have to go through provincial councils, Gramasevakas, and Samurdhi animators.
It is a long procedure", he said. He also alleged that the application form were being sold for Rs.10, instead of being distributed free." This is absolutely unethical and many more doors will open for the misappropriation activities", he warned.
"In the past, the distribution system went smoothly, and didn't cause any difficulties for parents.
The material was directly provided to the students by the respective
principals, he said and added " With the introduction of new system,
the parents have to obtain leave from their respective working places to
get the material".
Hema Bandara - Teacher
"It is a terrible nuisance to have to go from the Gramasevaka to the Divisional Secretariat. Each student has to have two forms which will be signed and approved by the Principal, imagine the amount of forms that have to be signed by the Principal... and a school accommodates at least 3000 students. And it doesn't end there. The 6000 forms have to go to the provincial AGA, who has to sign a stack of `uniform' coupons from each school in the province. Isn't it a mess? What is sad about it is that even the most poverty-stricken person who can't afford to waste time in the `Uniform' queue, will be compelled to give up hope of receiving what their children truly deserve.
Laxman Gomes - Principal, Royal College, Colombo
"The Government has introduced this concept to avoid wastage. Every year, a large quantity of uniform material is wasted because, the year 11 and 13 scholars, as most of them are boarded here, leave Colombo soon after their examination. And they don't bother to come back for the uniform material. Now that is immense wastage. But the new procedure allows those pupils to collect the material from their home town. And also, only the students who are really in need of the material will get it since they have to apply. Unlike in the past years, not everybody will get the material automatically. But the difficult task is left to the parents. The new procedure is an effortless one for the school authorities, but demanding on the parents.
Vipulasena Rajapakse, Principal - Anuradhapura Central
"Almost every student has applied from our school. The majority of our students needs the material as they are the ones who really deserve it. But the problem is that students from remote areas like Kebithigollewa and Welioya, have to travel 30/40 miles, just to hand over the forms to the AGA's Office. And since these parents find it difficult to spend the sum of money, they have to even reluctantly, give up on the idea of free uniform for their children.
Roopa Amarasinghe, Principal - Girls' High School, Kandy
The new procedure has enabled the needy to receive the material. The people who really need the material will have to apply. And it spares us the extra work load in storing and distributing the material. True, it is a bit hard on the parents and I think it would do them good if the AGA Offices could extend their working hours.
Anula Mohotti - Teacher/mother
From a teacher's point of view, it is a big relief on the school authorities, but as a parent, it really is a nuisance. And the AGA Office is stuck with never ending queues outside. There are many categories such as, JBS, SBS, JBB etc. to sort them out takes long hours and requires limitless effort. It is a fine mess.
Renuka Premaratne - University Lecturer
The new system is a real mess. True, the people who don't need the material will not apply, which will help cutdown wastage. But people who can't afford to take a day-off to wait in the queue will eventually lose interest even though they are the ones who really deserve the material. If the idea is to prevent trickery, well, I don't think the new system serves the purpose either. The one who cheats will always find means and ways of doing so. Our country is like the dwelling place for those and they always go scot free. People are not honest. The bursary is a good example; the ones who are able, end up getting the funds and the meek, get nothing.What they should do is to make the children aware that it is for the deserving only.
Lakmali Kandegedara - Student
I think the new system is just another beginning of unwanted havoc. According to the new procedure, it is the `needy' that receive the material. But who wants to be singled out or highlighted as a poverty-stricken soul who can't afford to lose the `free' material? Believe me nobody, no matter how poor they are, want others to discover the fact that they are in need. I know quite a lot of people who actually could do with extra help like this, but don't want to apply simply because they do not want to be classified. That is my main point. And as far as I know, a lot of parents are wage earners and have small children, can't afford to lose that daily wage to the free uniform material. Can the new system be called `productive'?
Swarna Kanthie de Silva
A mother of three school going children aged 15, 14 and 7 said: "With the burden of day-to-day life this is another extra headache for us. Parents were not given enough time to complete and hand over the applications and we had to stand in long queues to hand it over. It is a waste of time, and I would like to request that the old system be re-introduced".
M.P.E. Rukmani, Divisional Secretary, Colombo
Collecting applications from parents was a major work of responsibilty for our office. We had to assign extra staff from other sections as there was a daily arrival of about 10,000 parents, specially in the mornings. We were open daily till 4.45 pm and not a single parent was turned back to come the following day. Central Colombo and North Colombo which come under our purview has a large population and we collected about 42,000 applications from students residing in these two areas. You have to understand that we go by the applicant's residential area and not by the location of his school. We understand that the Divisional Secretaries will be issued with ration coupons to be handed over to the parents who applied. If a family has eight school-going children, all eight will get uniforms, provided they have all applied. The uniforms can be collected from the co-operative societies. We have to hand over the information we collected to the Ministry of Education before August 15.
Kumari Almeida, Photo-journalist, Ja-Ela
I prefer the previous method where the schools distributed the uniforms. It is very difficult for us working parents to adjust our working hours and take leave to go to the Divisional Secretariats. My husband and I work in Colombo and live in Ja-Ela so we come under the Gampaha Divisional Secretariat. My husband had to take one day's leave and on that day, he had to go to the Div. Secretariat thrice, as the queue of parents was very long. Luckily, when he went the third time, a friend in the queue had taken him through. We have three school-going children, in Years 7 and 2 in different schools, and since each child required a separate application in duplicate, I took photo-copies of the application published in the newspaper. At the Divisional Secretariat, the copies of applications were returned. We still have no idea how the uniform coupons will be given to us.
Zureikha Lye, Company Manager, Dehiwela
The new method is good. It will ensure that the uniforms will go to the students who genuinely need them. There are well-to-do parents who can afford to buy uniforms for their children and the government can cut down their portion of money and allocate it for the needier students. I have one son doing O/Ls at Royal College and although I did not apply for uniforms, my son is now asking me to apply. I appreciate that because it shows that he understands the value of the whole procedure.
W. Thillekeratne, Sales Assistant, Pettah
My employer pays me on a daily basis and I lost two days of wage since
I had to wait in queue for both days at the Divisional Secretariat to hand
over applications of my four school-going sons. The first day, I waited in
the queue until noon and came back with applications as the queue was too
long and I was needed at the shop where I work. I feel it would be easier
for parents if uniforms can be given in schools as was the previous
Produced by Lake House