Ashan Ranatunga* never really wanted his children to attend an international school. “There is this sort of superiority that international school kids have,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to encourage that.”
But when he discovered that his young son was struggling with a learning disability compounded by a partial loss of hearing, he thought that it was only at an international school that his son would be offered the kind of support he needed. And so, Ranatunga moved his son to a leading international school in the heart of Colombo.
The school promised smaller classes, greater attention to students and overall better support for children. His son did well in school, and Ranatunga was happy with what was being offered.
The first time Ranatunga noticed that something was amiss was when he ran into trouble while attempting to transfer his son’s school fees while he was travelling abroad, to the bank account provided by the school. “The money was not being credited, ” Ranatunga said, “and I was getting calls from the school asking why I had not paid the fees.”
An annoyed Ranatunga contacted his bank, which clarified that the transfer had been flagged as suspicious because a large amount was being transferred to an individual, and not an establishment.
“Of course I thought it was weird,” Ranatunga said. But given the good reputation of the school, and particularly the headmistress at the helm, Ranatunga held his peace.
However, other issues began to crop up later. A sudden influx of students led to larger classes and fewer teachers. “It began to be clear to me that many of the teachers were not even aware of my son’s condition,” he said.
An increased focus on prize-winning led the school to prevent students thought to be unable to score well from taking exams, for fear that the school’s overall performance average would be affected. Ranatunga’s son was one of the students held back.
“I began to be increasingly dissatisfied with the direction the school was taking,” Ranatunga said. And he was not alone. Several other parents had banded together and were planning action against the school. Not one for snap reactions, Ranatunga decided to move his son out to his sit his exams as a private student.
However, despite his disinclination to battle the school, he remains resolute in his assessment. “The first thing is, these schools should be recognised as schools,” he said. “It’s crazy that they are permitted to operate this way.”
Gaps In The System
“Of all the international schools in the country, Overseas [The Overseas School of Colombo] is the only one that is registered as a private school,” said Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka, a family physician licensed in both Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom.
Dr. Wickramanayaka made headlines in January, when she publicised an incident relating to her 11-year-old daughter, a student of Gateway [international] College in Negombo. She wrote about how her daughter and eight other students were made to kneel and had their ears pulled for forgetting to take their weekly English reading book to school.
Despite her complaints to the school, and renewed calls—this was not the first time she had objected to the way the school disciplined students—for a child protection policy, a transparent complaint procedure and compulsory child psychology training for teachers, her suggestions were ignored. Instead, she and her two children were ostracized and picked on, she said.
Even as she continued her battle with the school, taking her complaint to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the Ministry of Education, the Human Rights Commission, the Solicitor General, the Inspector General of Police and even the Prime Minister, the school responded by asking her to first transfer her children to another branch of the school, and later urging her to enroll the children elsewhere.
“For me, it is a matter of principle,” Dr. Wickramanayaka told Roar Media. Despite heavy opposition, she has decided to keep her two children at Gateway and continue her demand for justice.
While now on a mission to end corporal punishment through her newly-established organisation ‘Stop Child Cruelty’, Dr. Wickramanayaka also wants the government to take cognisance of the fact that international schools need to come under the purview of the Ministry of Education. “It was only when I took my matter to the Minister of Education that I learned that international schools are registered as businesses with BOI,” she said. “They are schools,” she said. “Educational establishments. They need to be regulated by the Ministry of Education.”
Power To The People
Dinesh Rajawasan disagrees with Wickramanayaka’s approach. Rajawasan’s daughter Saakya was thrust into the limelight in October 2018 when she was disciplined by the Colombo International School (CIS) for ‘unacceptable and irresponsible behaviour’ and a ‘disappointing attitude’. Sakya was taken to task for wearing trousers to school when it was ‘not the school uniform applicable to girls’ and for wanting to use the rainbow flag—synonymous with LGBT Pride—as part of her ensemble for the school’s 2018 Fashion Show.
“Saakya is very independent,” Rajawasan said. “So I let her handle it — and she did.” Saakya’s response to the school, in which she expressed her disappointment at the ‘cognitive dissonance’ of having teachers who have ‘always told us that they will support us in our choices’ being unable to support her when she most needed it, has been lauded.
Despite the setbacks Sakya faced after the incident—she was given demerit marks, detention, excluded from school extracurricular activities for some time and threatened with suspension should she not comply—Rajawasan refused to remove Saakya from the school. He also sees no reason to take legal action against the school.
“Those are archaic methods,” he told Roar Media. “There is absolutely no necessity for it. It only serves to satisfy the ego.” Instead, Rajawasan swears by people power and its ability to correct wrongs. “Especially in this day and age, with the democracy of social media at our fingertips,” he said.
Rajawasan doesn’t believe international schools need government regulation. He believes that it is bound to happen naturally. “Never underestimate the power of market forces,” he said with a laugh. “When this sort of thing receives widespread attention, it dissuades parents from putting their children in schools like this in the first place. All it takes is for one person to stand up for themselves.”
An Educator’s Perspective
For Shalini Wickramasuriya, an educational consultant with over 20 years of experience in the field, the solution is clear: international schools must be regulated by the Ministry of Education. “Just like the Ministry of Education has a separate unit for private schools, they must set up a unit to look into matters relating to international schools,” she said.
Although successive governments have intimated that they would regulate international schools [Bandula Gunawardena in 2013, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam in 2016 and the Cabinet of Ministers on the proposal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2018], there has been little progress. Instead, there have been more reports of excesses.
The absence of a body to look into matters pertaining to international schools means parents of international school children have nowhere to go when issues that need redressal crop up.
“The parents of local school children can go to the zonal education office, or the provincial education office, and if both fail them, they can take their case to the Ministry of Education. But the parents of international school children don’t have that option,” Wickramasuriya said.
It is not only on issues relating to corporal punishment or discipline that Wickramasuriya feels the government needs to be involved.
“There need to be guidelines, followed by an Education Act, set out for international schools,” she said. “For instance, there are no prescribed criteria for hiring teachers. This function depends entirely on the school’s budget. There have been instances when the school has hired teachers just because they speak English well — that’s not enough,” she said.
Wickramasuriya believes that there need to be set parameters for discipline, recruitment and qualification of teachers; requirements for spaces [such as whether a school can comfortably hold the number of children accepted, or it is adequately ventilated etc.] and other criteria. “None of this happens here,” she said. “In Sri Lanka, international school exist in a ‘no man’s land’— they are held accountable to no one.”
Perhaps the need of the hour is a middle ground. “We’re not asking for the government to be involved to the degree that they are meddling,” Ranatunga said. “International schools are better for the fact that there is less interference and less corruption. But there are evidently gaps in the system, and as a first step, I propose they are recognised as schools.”