by Shamala Kumar
On Thursday, July 12th, the day of FUTA’s all island signature campaign, a colleague and I walked through Kandy town to speak with people and ask them to sign our petition to save public education. We were a bit wary of the whole task, not sure if we would be chased away, scolded… who knew.
We were both aware of the negative publicity the FUTA campaign was getting from the government and felt that most people would only be exposed to the government’s version, sponsored by government TV channels and newspapers.
We were determined, however, to engage with the people and present our case, to convince them that the public education system needs their support and that without their support it would be destroyed.
We wanted them to see that here was a treasure on the brink of destruction. We wanted to connect with the people of Kandy town.
What we found, however, was not what we had expected. We did not have to convince or make our case; we were not scolded and were certainly not chased away. What we found were people who were already connected, engaged, and angry – not with us but with the state of education. ‘Give me more petitions, and I will sign them’ was the angry proclamation of a three-wheeler driver.
What we found was that we had joined and become engaged in a struggle that had begun, for most people, years ago. We had just let these problems with the education system slide, not realising that our problems are not isolated, but the problems of our country and our people.
We met all sorts of people eager to tell their stories of frustration. Many people could not continue with school even up to Grade Eight, even though school is compulsory up to this grade in Sri Lanka. Their reasons were many, but the crux of it was a disengaging education system and an unsupportive social system.
We spoke with a woman, the sole earner in her family, with an income of Rs. 8,000. She spent Rs. 2,000 to send her son to an international school. In the State education system, she could only send her son to the village school as she didn’t have the ‘points’ required to admit her son to a better school. The village school had few teachers, no principal and poor resources.
The school had the reputation of catering to the poorest children in the community and she did not want her son included in that category. The village school, once a center of the village, was now a place of shame. We know that the number of children going to such schools is rapidly decreasing as parents opt to send their children to town schools in spite of steep transportation costs and long travel times.
We found that school was seen as a source of problems, rather than a source of sustenance, by many people. We listened. The stories of the mounting costs of education, the lack of trust in educational institutions and the services offered by these institutions, and the general feeling of hopelessness were deafening and heart wrenching.
Yet, one man spoke of how a community rose and protested when they learned that his village school was to be closed. The school survived. It was on that day that I realized that we were not fighting for Universities, that this was not FUTA’s struggle, that we were not the transgressors, but that this was the struggle of most people. We had finally rallied behind them, we had finally connected, we were finally engaged.
(Shamala Kumar is a member of the Peradeniya University Agriculture Teachers Association (PUATA), a member association of the Federation of University Teachers Association)