Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena is in the news again with yet another proposal that is likely to create controversy: a plan to scrap the Grade Five scholarship examination, popularly known as the ‘sishyathvey’ among school children and parents.
Gunawardena plans to abolish the test from 2016, which essentially means that there will be only two more scholarship examinations. Already, the proposal has generated much discussion and the issue is likely to gain more momentum as the ‘deadline’ approaches.
This is because this examination is seen by most parents-especially in rural areas which are educationally disadvantaged-as a gateway for their offspring to gain access to popular schools in Colombo, Kandy, Galle and other major cities.
"This is because this examination is seen by most parents-especially in rural areas which are educationally disadvantaged-as a gateway for their offspring to gain access to popular schools in Colombo, Kandy, Galle and other major cities"
Being a national examination conducted by the Examinations Department, the Grade Five scholarship examination offered every student in the country a chance to gain entry to the best schools, regardless of their geographical location and socio-economic background.
Indeed, there were many success stories of this nature where scholars from a disadvantaged region or background entered one of the ‘big’ schools and won high academic or professional accolades. Gunawardena however thinks otherwise and has dared to scrap this examination.
The critical factor in the importance of the Grade Five scholarship examination is the demand for ‘popular’ schools. However, Gunawardena believes the high demand for these schools will fade away by 2016 with the completion of the ‘one thousand secondary school development project’.
At least three secondary schools will be developed in every Divisional Secretariat division under this project throughout the country. With the completion of this program, equal opportunities would be provided for every child in the country, Gunawardena argues but that is likely to be disputed by many.
Sumithra Arachchige Don Bandula Chandrasiri Gunawardena however has never been shy of controversy. Prior to entering politics, he was known popularly as “Bandula sir”, a tuition master who specialised in Advanced Level economics who pioneered the art of mass scale tuition classes.
Now 60 years of age, Gunawardena rose from modest beginnings, schooling first at Hanwella Rajasinghe Maha Vidyalaya and then at Lumbini Vidyalaya in Colombo from where he entered the Vidyodaya (now Sri Jayewardenepura) University in the mid ‘70s.
It was at university that he was bitten by the political bug. Hailing from the Seethawaka region that was home to Philip Gunawardena of Boralugoda fame, his political mentor was Philip’s son Dinesh Gunawardena who was then determined to go it alone with his Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP).
The young undergraduate campaigned through the length and breadth of the Avissawella electorate on his scooter for Dinesh Gunawardena at the 1977 general elections but it was in vain: the United National Party (UNP) landslide meant that M.D. Premaratne, instead of Dinesh Gunawardena won.
Dinesh Gunawardena entered Parliament in 1983 through a by-election for the Maharagama seat, but with the 1982 referendum eliminating the need for general elections Bandula Gunawardena waited in the wings, committed to the MEP but becoming a successful tuition master and a film producer.
Few now recall that Gunawardena bankrolled the production of several ‘art’ films, among them Hansa Vilak, Suddilage Kathawa andSiri Medura. But the lure of politics was to entice him once more and Gunawardena entered Parliament from the Colombo district in 1989, representing the MEP.
Several years later, disillusioned with the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga he was among those who crossed over to the UNP. At the 2001 elections, he was elected from the UNP while Dinesh Gunawardena was returned from the opposition benches!
In the short-lived UNP government, Gunawardena, probably because of his training in economics, was appointed Minister of Rural Economics and Deputy Minister of Finance. After the UNP’s loss at the 2004 general elections, he eventually returned to the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
Since then, Gunawardena has been given difficult subjects to deal with. At first he was entrusted the portfolio of Trade and he was at the butt end of criticism whenever the prices of essential items soared. His convoluted explanations of economic theory hardly helped his cause.
It was a common spectacle to see Gunawardena being lampooned mercilessly in the print and electronic media with the internet being swamped with a rash of jokes, pictures and even video clips at his expense.
As a result, Gunawardena is rarely remembered as the man who introduced the concept of economic centres offering consumer items at wholesale prices. The centres were a success story but after the 2010 general election, Gunawardena was shifted from the Trade portfolio to the subject of Education.
Gunawardena was enthusiastic in taking over the Education portfolio citing his experiences as a tuition master but his detractors held this against him accusing him of being in the vanguard to promote private education.
His stewardship of the Ministry of Education has certainly not been a bed of roses, the most glaring blunder being the discrepancies seen at the Advanced Level examination in 2011 where the results of candidates at this career defining examination were bungled.
That incident prompted many calls for Gunawardena’s resignation but he weathered the storm and survived. At times, the spotlight has shifted away from deficiencies in his ministry because of the turmoil in the universities and the Ministry of Higher Education.
Most recently Gunawardena came in for some flak when he said that a family of three could survive on seven thousand and five hundred rupees a month. Following this, the media questioned his wisdom on economic issues and he was also portrayed as being insensitive to hardships felt by the public.
The Grade Five scholarship examination has been a popular phenomenon of the Sri Lankan educational system and an integral cog in the country’s free education initiative. It has also spawned a virtual industry of tuition classes catering to this test.
If Gunawardena, the tuition master turned Education Minister succeeds in abolishing this examination, it will be a revolutionary change. It would seem as if Gunawardena’s latest gambit is his most daring political challenge-if he can survive the fallout it will undoubtedly generate.