Due to the present economic upheaval, there have been numerous stories that have been recorded in the local press related to children leaving schools islandwide. This situation has emerged due to the inability of parents to cater to the high cost of education for their children. This trend has reached damaging proportions in the upcountry areas.
With the commencement of the Sri Pada season, Ramalingam Ramesh decided to bid adieu to school education due to his mother’s inability to manage his education cost-wise. Ramesh is the eldest in his family and he has five other younger siblings.
After his father was confined to their home due to an ailment the task of managing the family affairs was thrust on the shoulders of Ramesh’s 42-year-old mother.
After ending his school work Ramesh decided to sell packets containing items such as threads and walking sticks to devotees trekking the Sri Pada holy site as he did not wish to see his mother taking on the burden of nurturing his family all by herself.
Most of those who purchase these packets are parents who bring along their children to seek blessings of God Saman for them to succeed in examinations and other important events in their careers etc.
“I studied up to the G.C.E. Ordinary Level Exam. My mother was unable to spend any further for my higher education and hence I decided to end my schooling days. Even for the education of my siblings, my mother has to spend a hefty amount and she cannot undertake this challenge alone. That is why I too decided to help her out. Though I prefer to do higher studies most of the children in the estate sector have been forced to forgo it due to economic constraints,” explained Ramesh.
We also came across a few other children who had even given up studies in the estate sphere before Ramesh had done so but they all refused to air their views in public for fear of them being hounded by the authorities for having curtailed their school education midstream. However, some parents said though their children tend to skip school now and then they had not permanently forgone school education.
1,383 students enduring a similar fate like Ramesh
Number of students who tend to leave schools midstream continues to spike
The situation for parents in this part of the country had been further aggravated due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic a couple of years ago. Already it could be seen that scores of youths in the estate sector moving into jobs have shunned school education midstream and this has now become a major social issue.
During the past year alone in schools across the Nuwara Eliya District, a total of 1,383 students had bid goodbye to their school education. Though that has been the official number recorded, the number of students who tend to leave schools midstream continues to spike by the day due to economic woes faced by their parents.
It has to be mentioned that the education authorities had so far failed to implement a mechanism or a proper system aimed at preventing students from leaving schools on a daily basis. Among various other reasons prompting children in the upcountry sector to shun school education midstream are their parents not being sufficiently educated, parents having gone abroad, children being nurtured by either their grandmothers or grandfathers due to their parents having left the upcountry for employment in other areas and inadequate facilities at certain schools etc.
Among the reasons that have exacerbated the issue lately are transport costs having spiked, while during our journey to areas such as Hatton, Maskeliya and Nallathanni it was evident to us that students in their numbers had given up education due to the aforesaid reason alone. We also were told that some children tend to attend schools either once a month or once in two to three months as their parents do not have adequate wealth to tide over the increase in transport costs.
12 kg of tea leaves per book
Kali Ganeamma is a woman who is making a living as a tea pluckier but the severe economic situation in the country has dealt a hammer blow to her survival as well. Her spouse had left their house seeking employment in Colombo around one year ago but the bleak economic outlook had hindered their lives to no end.
She said “My eldest son is 18 and after sitting for his Ordinary Level Exam he decided to stay at home. My youngest son is bright and he passed his Ordinary Level with flying colours. Now he is doing the Advanced Level, but I am struggling to cater to his transport. He has to walk five kilometres to the bus halt and from there, the bus fare to his school at Nottingham College at Brunswick Estate is Rs 100. If he has to attend tuition classes at Maskeliya, that will cost another Rs 50. The amount incurred for private tuition classes per month is Rs 2,800. If a kilo of tea leaves is plucked we will be only paid Rs 50. If I am to earn Rs 1,000 per day then I would have to pluck 20 kilos of tea leaves. That is rather arduous hence only 15 kilos could be plucked per day. Now a CR book is Rs 590. If such a book is to be purchased then at least 12 kilos of tea leaves would have to be plucked. Some days I have no dough to be given to my son and on such days, he is forced to walk at least 14 kilometres on foot and such is our predicament.”
5 kg of tea leaves to get to school and back
Chandramohan Sandya (R) with her sister
Sixteen-year-old Chandramohan Sandya is looking to sit for her Ordinary Level Exam this year. She said out of 37 children in her Grade 11 class at least five do not attend school at any given time due to economic woes.
Perumal Ganesan is a 58-year-old who is unwell. Unlike in the past, he is unable to work diligently in his estate nowadays. His son Ganesan Raguwaran had gone to the Gardmore Tamil Maha Vidyalaya and had sat for the Ordinary Level Exam last year. But, Perumal said his son had failed in both English and Mathematics papers. As he has no money to spend on tuition classes for his son even if he wanted to take the exam again, Perumal had instructed his son to seek some form of employment in the estate.
Retired principal Palayanandi Mohan aged 62 had strived to address this situation to the best of his ability for a number of years but to no avail. He said a majority of children in the estate sphere tend to attend schools only till Grade 5 and that thereafter due to the acute nature of the financial situation, they are compelled to forgo education.
Many to school without having any meals
The principal of Olton College at Samimalai S. Prabakaran had this to say. “Another issue that had stalled the education of children in this sector is the high cost of stationary. Also, the transport costs had added to it. The parents of these children cannot tide over such immense costs. There are also children who tend to go to school without having any meals and this is another issue that has to be addressed.”
This was also mentioned by a teacher of New Gardmore College Thewa Manohari. She noted that last year alone out of 47 students who had applied for the Ordinary Level Exam only 37 had sat for it. This is a perfect example to suggest the growing tendency of children to shun school education midstream, she opined.
Prof. Wijey Sandiran
Prof. Wijey Sandiran of the Peradeniya University who had received his initial education in the estate sphere and then followed higher studies to broaden his horizons also shed some valuable light on the pressing issue.
“If a proper estimate is done the precise number of children who do not attend schools in the estate sector could be determined. But, no one is interested in delving into this matter seriously. If a certain school is short of staff and if teachers do not perform their duty up to expectations then what is left to talk about this country’s education? To date, no attention has been paid to preventing children from spurning school education in upcountry areas midstream. Due to the economic upheaval at least 60 per cent of children head to schools in this part of the country having forgone their breakfast," he said.
Food or eduction ?
"Following a survey done by us on the cost of living factor of estate sector people several important details emerged. A sum of at least Rs 83,000 is required monthly for the day-to-day survival of a family of four here. At least Rs 56,000 needs to be earned for food alone. They also tend to spend 70 per cent of their salary on food and though it is claimed that their daily wage is Rs 1,000 even that is not given in full. An estate sector worker at best could earn only Rs 21,000 to Rs 24,000 per month as their salary,” he added.
The survey also proves that there is a prevalence to employ uneducated children for jobs in these estates as there is a scarcity of personnel for such work in the sector.
More children forgo school in the upcountry than other areas
“Hence there is also the suspicion whether certain estate sector bosses are behind a sinister move to force children of estate sector parents to forgo school education and work in their factories instead for minor wages. In comparison to the Nuwara Eliya District, the number of students who had shunned school education in the Matale and Kandy Districts is at a much lower level. The amount in Kandy has stood at 131 while the number in Matale has stood at 42. This alone further underscores the fact that the issue of students leaving schools midstream in the estate sector compared to the other parts of the country is at a higher level.”
A recent survey conducted by the IRC observed that seven per cent of children in the upcountry areas had bid adieu to school education midstream.
Education Director of the Central Province Amarasiri Piyadasa also aired his views. “Before the pandemic in the previous survey done in Nuwara Eliya District, it was revealed that 995 minors had forgone school education. Of that number only 50 were Sinhala children. They were sent to schools but they had shunned it again. They tend to forgo it after Grade 5. The reason for it is acute poverty. It has been observed that thereafter, these children tend to seek jobs of any sort. Also, as a result of schools being shut down indefinitely due to the pandemic that also stalled the education of these students. The increase in transport costs and stationery has also put paid to these children’s education. Presently the Education Ministry is implementing a programme whereby all schools in the sector are monitored via the setting up of compulsory education committees.”
Piyadasa’s remarks were also echoed by Nuwara Eliya District Secretary Nandana Galaboda.
Senior Lecturer of the Peradeniya University Sobana Rajendran also mentioned the following:
“The true facts regarding children who forgo education do not tend to come out. It is only known that a certain child had left school after his name is removed from the school registry. Some tend to go to school only twice a week. They cannot be considered as having left school. Some while going to school tend to work in the estates in the afternoon. And when they tend to get paid they think of shunning school work and opting for jobs.”
An NCPA official said only 16 complaints had been received regarding those who had left schools in the Nuwara Eliya District. This official added that 163 complaints had been received of children of schooling age being used as domestic helpers during the past nine-month period.
Dr. Kumari Thoradeniya of the Peradeniya University said 4.4 per cent of children tend to fall pregnant in the country while that number tends to increase to five per cent in the Nuwara Eliya District. As per the Provisions in Section 39 of the Education Ordinance of 1939 and as per the 1997 Number 1 compulsory education order circular issued on 18 November 1997 the Education Ministry has stated that all parents have to send their children to schools if they are of schooling age.
This has also been underlined in another circular issued eight years ago. But, what was evident from this journey was that this situation cannot be addressed solely via the issuance of circulars or by officers. A programme has to be launched at the State level to look into its root cause and to remedy the situation once and for all.
Photos: Ruwan Harshanath
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