Child Soldiers of the South: Story of the brutal Grade-5 Scholarship War

Daily Mirror

We celebrated the World Children’s Day on the first of October. A few days later, we celebrated the conquests of the child soldiers who went to the Scholarship battle and emerged with high marks. No requiem for the tens of thousands who fell by the way side, wounded , exhausted, bleeding; those who failed the exams. Nothing on the disappointment, embarrassment or the blow to the self confidence such failures would have on the fallen combatants of such a tender age. This, in addition to the absolute drudgery they had to undergo for months and years getting ready for this ‘war’.   

Sri Lanka was infamous for child soldiers of the murderous LTTE; Well, in the South, the brigade of soldiers aged nine or ten, who are being trained for a highly competitive exam on which a lot depends for the parents and teachers, undergo immense harassment to fulfil a dream of their elders who see them as horses in a horse race to pull off feats that the adults in their youth could not do.   Impact of high pressure exams 

Educationists as well as child behavioural specialists and psychologists are in unison in denouncing the devastating effect such highly tense exams could have on the growth of the children, their mental status not being the least of the concerns. Yet one does not have to be an expert to realize that a nine or ten-year-old should be in the playground, tree house or doll house playing, relaxing and enjoying childhood instead of spending hours on end in tuition classes cramming target questions and answers. It is not necessary to detail the extents some parents go to in ensuring their ‘horse’ wins the race or at least makes it to a podium finish.    

Admittedly our education system fraught with multiple anomalies and unequal distribution of opportunities for a good education, prompts parents to prepare their children for the Grade-5 Scholarship exam to get them admitted to a popular or a better school. The exam is seen as a vital component of class movement in an intensely stratified social order. Yet the manner in which this whole set up works and the cutthroat scramble it has come to, makes it an exercise physically, mentally and psychologically unbearable to most of the children. The happy and vibrating faces of the top few candidates on TV suppresses the thousands and thousands who fall short of the mark and the devastating impact it might have on a child’s self confidence for further studies.   

Macabre scenes

If the predicament of the young ones aged nine or ten is pitiful, that of ones even younger , borders on the macabre. From kindergarten some children are bred, like broiler chicken to be harvested at the scholarship exam. Some pre-school and nursery teachers, being versed in child psychology and growth needs of these toddlers who emphasize on improving their immediate physical faculties and contact with the world to which they ought to be ushered, are met with the wrath of the parents; they insist that the toddler be taught characters and numbers instead of how to use all fingers in synchronization or to develop hand, eye coordination. The bombardment of tender heads with exam material starts at such young age. Hampered natural growth which needs play time, leisure, relaxed observation of the surrounding environment, interpersonal skills and basic life activities are considered nonsense at the altar of the examination craze.   

We complain that modern life is ruthlessly competitive and values such as inter human relationships, solidarity, compassion and mutual respect are at an all time ebb; yet does not a distorted education system, pitting tender ones against each other at such an age, a bugle call for the entire bunch to go at each others throats at the prime of their lives amount to a grim start of an ultra competitive world outlook? That ours is not an education system at all but an exam preparation system, compared to holistic and balanced education some countries offer their future citizens, is an understatement.   

The move in 2014 for scrapping the Grade-5 Scholarship examination altogether, based on the advice of child psychologists, behavioural experts and educationists on the grounds that it was too much of a burden on the children and submitted by the National Education Commission, as with so many progressive suggestions, met an embryonic death. One only hopes the present Government would revisit this issue in addition to its highly superficial and cosmetic gestures of changing uniforms.   

In addition to these types of high pressure examinations, reality-shows on popular TV stations involving children too could be abusive, exploitative and stressful to the children; in any event they are not in the best interests of the children, who as minors before the eyes of the law are entitled to enjoy.   

Children as propellers of the class movement

I believe these are clear cases of exploitation, harassment and abuse of the rights of the children and legally reproachable acts. Any invocation of objective judicial evaluation whether the scholarship exam or reality competitions of the said nature are for the good of the children will prompt answers to the negative and could be legally restrained.Yet hardly anyone seems to be bothered about seeking judicial intervention. The NCPA which boasts of being the guardian of children does not seem to consider these acts and systems as abusive, exploitative or detrimental to the children. They seem to think that abuse and exploitation is confined to the obvious physical and sexual.   

Some concerned child rights groups have voiced their disapproval of these activities and expressed willingness to litigate on behalf of the children. It will not only restrict children being harassed in subtle ways but at the same time create a social dialogue, causing disapproval of the same, organically from civil society.   

Society needs to realize that children are legally recognized as minors and unlike adults many activities related to them should be done in their best interests. The Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) is emphatic on the best interests of the child. The District court is the guardian of minors and has the competent jurisdiction to determine whether the welfare of the child is at the helm of any activity involving them. Even a practice such as a competitive exam which hinders the natural growth of a child, which includes a lot of play time and leisure in terms of Article 31 of the CRC and which fails to meet the best interests of the child need to be shelved.   

Our children have suffered enough in the North as child soldiers during wartime and they are suffering enough at the hands of depraved paedophiles and abusive adults as such we should not tolerate child soldiering in the South, during peace time, and in pursuance of frustrated goals of their parents, elders and commercial exploiters.   

Celebrate Childhood

Yet I congratulate the dear children who returned shining colours at this year’s Grade-5 scholarship exam as well as those (not their parents) who could not make it but in all aspects are as healthy, brilliant, bubbly and talented as the victorious ones.   

I congratulate you, children, merely on the ground that you are children; playful, happy and wide eyed. Nothing else matters. What else do you need?   

Children should not be used as propellers of upward social mobility or class movement in a highly disparate social structure. Let elections, public policies and armed uprisings deal with those maladies.   

Children are not horses to run races their parents failed to finish on the podium.


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