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Small Schools Close, Increasing Drop Outs in Sri Lanka
By Feizal Samath, Inter Press Service
  COLOMBO, Mar 24 (IPS) - Dozens of small government schools across Sri Lanka are set to close this year under a new scheme to maximise the use of limited financial resources, while the students are to be transferred to other schools. But, according to some educationists, the children are more likely to drop out instead.
  The government's 'School Rationalisation Programme' intends to shut down schools with few students. A senior Education Ministry official said the government was finding it difficult to pay for the upkeep of some 2,650 schools with less than 100 pupils each.
  ''The whole idea,'' according to the official who declined to be named, ''is to provide quality education and at the same time give maximum resources and benefits to all students.''

  To the affected students and teachers alike the government's plans, implemented this year, are counterproductive and contrary to its commitment to the Education for All (EFA) goal. The numbers of drop outs will only grow, they fear.

  The United Nation's childrens agency UNICEF has expressed concern over the falling enrollment rates in Sri Lanka. More boys than girls are stopping school -- a trend only prevalent in Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia region.
  ''Earlier this year I was asked not to admit new students to grades one and two and to send them to another school. One boy who enrolled there has already dropped out after just three months saying he couldn't afford it,'' says the principal of a village school of 25 children due to close.
  The principal explained that though education was free in government schools, poor students cannot afford the other ''hidden'' costs that students are compelled to pay like contributions for a sports meet or bus charges. ''This is one of the main problems. When they have to incur these costs, however small, they (students) opt to drop out of school,'' the principal, who has over 30 years of experience in schools across this island nation, said.
  His school has been targeted by the mayor to become a vocational training centre. ''Politicians are interested in their political career not on the social needs or welfare of the community. What happens to these 25 children if the school is closed? They may not want to go to school again,'' he says.
  This has happened to schools like Subodhi College at Wellawatte in a Colombo suburb which shut down earlier this year. The school, in rundown premises overgrown with weeds, had a total of three staff members and six students. For years it had received no funds, apart from staff salaries. There was no teaching as a result. The children played all day while the teachers, if they were present, drank tea and chatted.
  The school was closed under the government's new scheme, and the teachers transferred to other schools. The students were offered admission in nearby schools, a local education official said, but not one has come forward.
  While the abandoned school is now being eyed by a local government politician for one of her grandiose projects, six more children have joined the ranks of school drop outs in Sri Lanka.
  Sri Lanka, with an admirable literacy rate of 90 percent, has a schoolgoing population of 4.3 million. The country's education policy is committed to providing a primary school within two kilometres of the home of every child in the six to 10 age group, and a secondary school within 5 kms of children over 11 years.
  Education authorities say they are willing to release funds for providing basic facilities and teaching aids to schools as long as there are sufficient numbers of students enrolled.
  Yet parents complain that they are forced to send their children to schools far from their homes due to the lack of facilities in village schools. As a result there is a serious problem of overcrowding in the bigger schools with 45-55 students packed into classrooms that should be between 20 and 30.
  ''It is a Catch 22 situation. Parents don't want to send children to schools with limited facilities while education officials don't want to upgrade these schools unless there are sufficient students,'' one official observed.
  K.C. Wijesinghe, a director at the Colombo education office, said the new scheme will maximise resources and make effective use of not only school buildings and space but also teachers.
  All primary schools with just a few students will be asked to close and students absorbed into other schools within a radius of one km, while small secondary schools will close only if there is another school within a 4-km radius where students can be admitted, he said.
  The school in Oruthota village, about 33 kms north of Colombo, is famous for producing doctors, public servants and school principals. Yet it closed this year due to a shortage of students. In the early 1980s, there were 400 students on the rolls. When it closed, there were only six.
  Sixteen- year-old Asoka Priyadarshini, a student who completed her O-level examination last year, is furious over the closure of the school which is right next door to her home. ''It is a vicious circle. Because facilities were not being improved parents stopped admitting children. Some parents including mine appealed to the education officers to improve the facilities at the school. But it was too late,'' she said.
  Now her mother has to take her two siblings to a school which is five km away every day. ''The village school was closer and much better,'' Priyadarshini laments.
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