Grade Five Scholarship: A level playing field for every child | Sunday Observer

Grade Five Scholarship: A level playing field for every child

There has been no official announcement yet, but it appears as though moves are under way by the Government to scrap the Grade Five Scholarship Examination. Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam is on record saying the Examination would be made ‘optional’ and no less a person than President Maithripala Sirisena has said this is being done following a proposal made by him.

The basis for the decision has not been formally unveiled though Minister Kariyawasam has argued that the Examination places undue stress on children as young as ten years. Ithas also been pointed out by some that those achieving academic success later in life are not always high performers at the Grade Five Scholarship Exam.

The Grade Five Scholarship Exam has been in existence for decades and was one of the pillars that sustained the concept of free education first mooted by C.W.W. Kannangara. Kannangara, it will be recalled, set up ‘central schools’ or ‘madhya maha vidyalayas’ which were modelled on Royal College, Colombo. The rationale was to create centres of excellence in education in every region.

Since then, thousands of students have benefited from the Grade Five Scholarship Exam. It created a level playing field and provided every child in the country with a chance to compete for an opportunity to further his/her education at Royal College or Visakha Vidyalaya or a similarly highly sought-after school.

This must be viewed in the context of the value placed on a good education in Sri Lanka and also the extremely corrupt school admission procedure. Various governments have tried to eliminate bias and corruption in this process but not a year goes by without a principal of a major school being caught accepting bribes to admit students to their institutions.

Therefore, for millions of families- those which cannot afford to bribe school principals, families which do not have parents who are Ministers and parliamentarians and families who cannot count a parent who is an old boy or an old girl of a prestigious college- the Grade Five Scholarship Exam is the only opportunity to have a ‘fair go’ at entering an elite school.

Over the years however, the number of these ‘prestigious’ schools have remained more or less static. In Colombo, arguably only two schools have entered this elite circuit in the past fifty years- D.S. Senanayake Vidyalaya and Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya. The population in the country meanwhile has grown exponentially.

This has resulted in the Grade Five Scholarship Exam becoming extremely competitive. Children as young as six or seven years are being groomed by their parents to study for the Exam. Tailor-made tuition classes are held and these young children toil day in and day out possibly from Year Three or Year Four to prepare for the Year Five Exam.

Of course, it is not an ideal situation. Inflicting such pressure on young minds would be detrimental to them and would virtually rob them of their childhood. However, is scrapping the Grade Five Scholarship Exam, the solution? Would it not tantamount to throwing the baby with the bathwater?

Minister Kariyawasam has said the Grade Five Exam is nothing more than a ‘memory test’. Educational experts are unlikely to agree. The Examination incorporates aspects of memory pattern, general knowledge and language skills. The Minister has said it will be replaced by ‘entrance tests’ for popular schools.

We cannot see how that would address the problem. There was a time when many popular schools such as Royal College had their own ‘entrance’ examination. Deprived of the Grade Five Exam, students would have to study not for one, but several ‘entrance tests’, one for every school they wish to gain entrance to- because they cannot be certain of passing the test for a particular school!

Therefore, the solution is not to scrap the Exam, but create more schools that measure up to the standards maintained at Royal College or Visakha Vidyalaya. It is not something that could be achieved overnight, but would require years- possibly decades- of careful planning and proper implementation.

Until such time, the Grade Five Exam would offer a window of opportunity to every parent and child to aspire for a place in the country’s top educational institutions. It is a great boon to millions of underprivileged children. As those attending these top schools would testify, it also creates a wonderfully cosmopolitan environment in these schools instead of being a haven for the privileged few.

Sri Lanka is a developing country. As such, it faces numerous social inequities. These inequities are often the source of mass discontent. It was these inequities that led to two unsuccessful and bloody insurrections in the South and a deadly and protracted terrorist war in the North. So, every effort must be made to protect the mechanisms that create equal opportunities.

The Grade Five Scholarship Exam, along with the A/L Examination which offers every student the equal chance to vie for a place in a state university, the free healthcare system and a democracy that offers a vote for every citizen, are all mechanisms that ameliorate the angst of the deprived in society.

Take them away and the Government will be concocting a recipe for disaster. Besides, we do not see any scientific basis for the argument that the Grade Five Exam does not choose the ‘crème de la crème’. A systematic study that analyses the later academic performances of those who succeeded in the Grade Five Exam, compared to those who did not, has yet to be released.

We hope the so-called decision to scrap the Grade Five Scholarship Exam has not been finalised yet. Even if it has, it cannot be irrevocable. Let sanity prevail and let the status quo remain, at least until our education system has progressed to become one with more equitable resources across the various regions.

What the great Kannangara has put together, let no mediocre Kariyawasam put asunder!