Fighting nepotism in schools is good for children and parents

BY Goolbai Gunasekara

The principals of Sri Lankan schools generally send their offspring to the very schools they head. From personal experience, I can say that this places a great strain on both children and parents, and it’s an unhappy scenario.

Here is a personal record of this…

My mother headed three Buddhist girls’ schools in Colombo and a Hindu counterpart in Jaffna. But because she was an American (and a child psychologist into the bargain), she realised the dangers of a child attending her mother’s school – for there are many drawbacks to such a situation.

Other than for two years of my school life at nine schools (in the three countries where I studied), I was fortunately not under my principal mother.

And here are some of my personal experiences during the time I was her pupil…

Acutely conscious that teachers would hesitate to discipline her daughter, my mother made it exceedingly clear at her very first staff meeting that I was to receive absolutely no special treatment. My first experience was at Jaffna Hindu Ladies’ College. Travelling made it hard for Mother to send me to another school. And I was 11 at the time.

The question of favouritism never arose as the Tamil girls were clever and hardworking, and my own attainments paled in contrast to theirs. English was still the medium of instruction; and even here, I was well trounced by those brilliant Tamil students.

History was the only subject in which I barely managed to do better than them; and even in this case, my mother checked the papers of the two girls who came second and third. Reluctantly, she conceded that I deserved the annual prize.

I was not a happy being. But I loved my Jaffna school and classmates as well. Of course, I lost out elsewhere too! I had been training in Bharatanatyam under Kunchini in Colombo; and when girls were being chosen for a competition among Jaffna schools, I naturally hoped for a place.

But I hoped in vain. I was good enough to be part of the team but Mother forbade it. Watching rehearsals was painful indeed. The others in my age group didn’t have my three years of training and I knew I deserved that slot.

My next experience was when Mother headed Musaeus College. As usual, she gave the teachers her spiel at the first staff meeting. It worked too well. Teachers now tended to be overly strict.

Here are some examples…

Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake was a friend of Mother’s and he dropped by her office one day (those were the days of such informality) to ask her students to sing at the Independence Day function at the Town Hall.

Some 50 students were needed; and although I had a reasonably good voice, I wasn’t allowed to be in the chosen choir. Mother shot down the suggestion from one of the teachers that I be given a place.

Next was the operetta The Enchanted Isle, which was extravagantly produced with a full orchestra, and professional music and dance teachers. It was the hit of Colombo. I made such a fuss that Mother allowed me to audition. And I got a tiny one-line part.

The coup de grâce came when I managed to win two prizes at the end of the year. The history prize I expected; but in English, I had come first by one mark. Mother gave the prize to the girl who came second. By now, even my father took my side when I kept saying: “Send me to another school!”

“It is discrimination in reverse. We must either send her back to India or a different school,” he told Mother.

Accordingly, I was sent to Bishop’s College, which was a welcome change after the past two years of being under my mother. But one must face facts. No parents ever thought I was favoured because I was the principal’s daughter.

It happens too often in schools these days. I know of many instances and parents can silently – and not so silently – fume.

In one case, a reputable and large government school had a highly influential vice principal (VP). The principal herself didn’t have children in that school so the VP’s niece was unfairly chosen as head girl.

“Didn’t you mind?” I asked the runner-up. She laughed and replied: “It was expected.”

Nepotism is the order of the day – not only in politics. It is sad that even in schools, principals allow this to happen. It is an insidious business and one that eventually boomerangs on the child.

When he or she goes out into the world, they would find out soon enough that actually, they hadn’t faced fair competition and may find it difficult to compete on an equal footing. And feeling outclassed because one has had a favoured school career is appalling.

My sensible mother had one more rule. She never sent her two daughters to the same school in case one outshines the other. Do we have such far thinking educationists in schools these days?