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Removing Labels- International Schools can be used as ‘ Oases of Unity’

Monday, 15th of July 2019

The name Goolbai Gunasekara reverberates as one of the pioneers of international school education in Sri Lanka. Many generations of students were privileged to flourish under her guidance. She has been literally ‘ seasoned ‘into becoming the veteran she is today through the influence that she received from early childhood. Goolbai was moulded in a family background which was closely supervised by famous educationists Dr.Kewal and Mrs. Clara Motwani. She is no novice by any means, given that she has an Honours Degree in History, Honorary Doctorate in English and a host of prestigious prizes and awards that came her way throughout various stages of her life. Meeting her I was struck by the wisdom she exudes, gained by years of experience as a beloved educator with unique liberalistic views.

The illustrious Businessman, planter and Entrepreneur, Mr.W.P.Perera, was the Founder of Asian International School and having met Mrs. Gunasekara, he must have been most impressed with expertise that radiated from her in the field of education for he requested her to take over the reins of the newly instituted Asian International School after just one meeting.. The symbiotic business partnership was a resounding success from the start and AIS enjoyed an immediate surge of popularity as its reputation grew almost daily in strength. Her social life earned her tributes, through the press as well as multiple organisations.

Goolbai Gunasekara had the prestige of earning the ‘Woman of the Year in Education’ title which is awarded by the Zonta Club; an honour which was once previously held by her own mother. She was Chairman of the Inner Wheel Clubs of Sri Lanka is still often asked to be a speaker at various educational organisations, clubs and Social service associations. Her wisdom and experience makes her one of the most admired icons in the world of Education. Goolbai Gunesekara believes that International schools provide a link that connects many communities under one institution. Her liberal views made her openly challenge opposing contradictions, in a subtle, effective and pleasant manner. She graciously agreed to share her unique view on the importance of International School Education in the current context of society, and gave me a brief snapshot of her journey in becoming one of Sri Lanka’s best known educators.

Q What does it mean to be the ‘Founder Principal of Asian International School?

It means quite a lot, since I consider this period to be one of the happiest times of my career. I was fortunate to have Mr. Perera as my Chairman. He was a genius, with a strategic entrepreneur’s mindset, and working with him was a pleasure from the start. Trust acted as the centerpiece of our long relationship. Everything connected with the school was brought under me (except for finances of course) . British Curriculums and syllabuses, managing libraries, laboratories, handling Sports, buying equipment, managing the office, dealing with new students and parents was all my business. My duties were never written down.

They were understood! In short, I was accountable for everything that was connected with the school…from drains to roof, from front gate to back gate and everything in between! I remember being in school at 6.45 a.m. each morning so that I could check on the minor Staff and ensure the school was in readiness for another school day. This is something every Principal should do when starting a new venture. Just check on everything. One teacher recently told me that seeing me walk down the corridors towards her class was her worst nightmare.

Of course she said it affectionately as she was one of my best teachers. The new intake of students and teachers had to be carefully monitored and the help of Senior teachers was used. Standards of teaching had to be maintained as AIS was one of the first few International Schools after the Colombo International School was founded by Mrs. Moir. Throughout the early days, Mr. Perera and I were eager to ensure that our students had an Asian mindset and to remember they were in Sri Lanka. They were studying a western syllabus so we encouraged oriental values as far as possible. This is why AIS was seen as an ideal International School for students with an oriental cultural background to attend.

Q What were the major challenges that you had to overcome during your tenure?

Every day was a challenge, but every hurdle was a new learning experience. Fortunately I was a Principal’s daughter and I had seen my mother meet many of the challenges I now faced. So I knew how to deal with them. Finding the best teachers was a challenge. A perfect balance was needed to be attained. Our students expected the best as they were paying high fees. We encountered a few early problems of course, but the enthusiasm of my Staff at that time was a great plus point and one that helped enormously in the new venture.

Q What was the nature of the International School Education system that prevailed in early years, and how has it evolved?

The education system during the time that AIS was first established was quite straightforward. Mrs. Moir started the first one and it was she who brought the International School system to Sri Lanka. After this, Pres.J.R. Jayawardena granted full authority for schools to be started but they could not be brought under the existing Education Act. So they were registered as private organizations. We were registered as businesses and International Schools are still businesses. This has not changed since then. International schools are viewed as Corporate entities. Although International Schools can compete with Local Schools in Sports, drama and a few other points of contact, the students from these schools cannot enter the Universities of Sri Lanka, I feel this is a pity.

Q Has the perception towards International Education changed?

International Schools are an oasis of unity in Sri Lanka. All communities study in them. Schools that are included in the TISSL group (The International Schools of Sri Lanka) are multi-cultural and ethnically diverse. All cultures and ethnicities ranging from Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher to Parsi, Sindhi Bohra and Memmon exist in perfect harmony within the walls of these schools. In Sri Lanka such unity is badly needed at the moment and International Schools like AIS, CIS, Stafford Int. Wycherly, and others provide it.

There is a perfect mix of all communities with each intake. Admission is not based on race or religion. It was like this when I was a school girl more than half a century ago.. The composition of International Schools are to be identified Perceptions need to be accurate. There are 3 categories of International schools out of which only 2 do international exams. They are Schools which teach in accordance to the British structure and sit for British examinations. Schools which teach both local and British syllabuses and consist of students that follow one or the other examination. Schools which follow the local examinations in the English medium. The Department of Education is mainly concerned with the last category, since it is exclusive to the local syllabus.

The success of the first category is evident through examination results. The uniformity of the exceptional results makes one wonder as to why the Department of Education feels the need to ‘monitor’ these schools. The Elizabeth Moir School, Colombo has achieved the highest Ordinary Levels results in the world, amongst all the countries which face the Edexcel Board examinations. International Schools nurture potential candidates who are destined to lift the country into the new world of Information and Technology. We must remember that 90% of all Computer Data and IT skills are taught in English, except for a few minor exceptions.

English proficiency is vital if one wishes to be tech-savvy. High standards are required. English fluency must be achieved if one wishes to cope globally. An ongoing concern is is the reputation given to International schools for being ‘elitist’. That is further from the truth as one might think. Most of the students are from a solid middle-class backgrounds and are notnecessarily wealthy landowners, businessmen or investors. These schools cater to professionals as well as those from a variety of businesses. A significant portion of the wealthy population still prefer to chose government schools like Royal College, Ananda College, Visakha etc to educate their children.

A few years down the road, a student from Mahanama Colllege (as I remember) bought the late-President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s bed for four lakhs. So the criteria of money is not a very fair one. Some parents feel that International School education is too expensive, but they send their children to expensive tuition classes nonetheless. The aggregate tuition fees paid during the course of the years taken to face the final local exam is sufficient to fund the fees of an average International School. Of course children of International Schools often take tuition themselves but this is more due to competitive parents rather than poor teaching.

Generally speaking high standards are set by the teachers which eliminate the need for additional tuition sessions. If given the opportunity, what changes would you make within the Education System of the country? As I mentioned earlier, I do not feel the government needs to ‘monitor’ international schools as they are reaching excellent standards by themselves…. well beyond expectations. But for local education what I feel is that there should be an emphasis on consistency. What happens now is that there are various changes made each time the government changes, and the usual trend is for the local education systems to change with each new political regime.

This is a disaster in the long term. New methods are implemented and before we see the results of the old systems. These change again and again. So what we need is for a group of non-political people to have a system of Education which will continue whatever the change of governments. Every Government Party should agree to this and it should be totally non politically administered. The other concern is the teaching of religion as a separate subject in schools. This divides us further, Students have to separate into separate classrooms when the environment should be more concerned with multicultural co-operation. There are 2 ways in which I would approach this matter, if I was given proper authority.

One option is to implement a curriculum in which students have to study the basics of all the religions. The syllabuses should be broadbased and acceptable to all. This system could be implemented term/semester basis. Through this understanding of each religion would our children not learn tolerance?. On the other hand, I would prefer to take the bold move of eliminating the subject from the curriculum altogether. Religion is a sensitive topic, and I feel that it should be taught by the family not by a school The failure of teaching religion is clearly seen. Crime rates are rising by the day and what they learn at school seems to have no influence on the child of today. Parents must bring the children up with the values that they wish them to have. They should not leave it to the school. 

Q What is the message that you wish to give the society?

Here I would like to address parents directly for it is they who must focus on their child’s upbringing. Parents today are keen to foist all this off on the school. Religion, culture, good manners, ethical behaviour and codes of conduct are all parental obligations to be taught to their children. There will comes a time when a child will demand the latest material gadgets –the newest toys, the latest phone models, the most modern computers …..even the latest fashions in clothes will be on their lists of ‘must haves.’ Parents must learn to say no.

Start instead to teach moderation. Then of course their demands for food. Let them learn to eat simply. The food of the country is so healthy. Fast food is popular but not the best thing for growing kids. Do not cater to their taste buds demand. I once came across a parent who buys a large Mars bar for his 5 year old son daily. As a result the child is unusually hyper-reactive due to the appalling sugar content in his blood stream. Children these days are highly prone to diabetes, cholesterol and obesity. The aftermath of these illnesses are long lived. Prevention is better than cure, therefore I urge all parents to strictly monitor what the child consumes.

Do not eliminate the pleasures of the occasional fast food binge but limit them nonetheless. Lastly I would stress that parents must communicate with their children on a daily basis. Family meals together – specially dinners together make a family feel connected with each other. My own knowledge of world topic and events was listening to dinner conversations of my parents. A dysfunctional family will affect a child’s future thoughts and actions. Regular interaction between parents, children and their siblings must be maintained. Observing religious activities together is another great bond.

“The family that prays together stays together” is a well known quotation. So if breakfasts together is a bit of a stretch at least concentrate on family dinners. Going back to International Schools, Goolbai Gunasekara has clarified the injustice of the ‘labels’ that hover around them. The insight that she has provided would hopefully remove the wrong perceptions and views that people hold about an International School education and would help parents who are making decisions for their children at this moment.

Randheer Mallawaarachchi

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