A 6 Year Old’s Fight for the Right to go to School

It’s the weekend, and *Nipuni, sits at a table in the living room of her home situated in the outskirts of Colombo, diligently at work on her schoolbooks. For a 6 year old, Nipuni takes her education very seriously; besides she has a lot to catch up on having been admitted to Grade 1, approximately three months after classes had begun for her peers.

Nipuni’s application to be admitted to a National School closest to where she lived was rejected, in spite of having met the requirements set forth by the school authorities. Her parents had very good reason to believe that Nipuni’s application to Grade 1 was rejected because she was a Christian.

The said school that was once under the administration of the Catholic Church was taken over together with several other schools by the state in 1960. It was one of the many faith-based schools that were taken over by the State, by way of legislation through the Assisted School and Training Colleges Act of 1960. According to Section 3.2 of No 5 of 1960, No 8 of 1961 and No. 136 of 1963 of the Circular of the Ministry of Education, which was reiterated in Circular no. 2011/18 (Sinhala version of Circular no. 2011/18 / Tamil version of Circular no. 2011/18), all schools that were managed by Religious Organizations, are bound to maintain the percentage of the religious ratio that was present when the school was taken over by the state during the period of 1960-1961.

As reflected in the rejection of Nipuni’s application, the said school however, didn’t appear to follow this stipulation. When the NCEASL met with Nipuni’s parents, they spoke to us in detail about the “point scheme” under which the school functioned. “Though we had all the necessary documents that they required, we were not awarded the relevant points for the documents that we presented” said Nipuni’s father. Appeals following the decision were of no avail, with the school authorities, adamant that there was no place for her in the school.

Nipuni’s parents were desperate and spoke to anyone who they felt would be able to give them a fair decision. “Because the school didn’t respond to our appeal, we met with government ministers, officials, and even tried speaking to the catholic priests and the catholic bishops but nothing worked out”,  they said, recalling the wearying experience. When they failed to receive an answer, they resigned themselves to send their daughter to a private school, which they could ill afford. Nipuni’s father had even made arrangements to secure a loan from his workplace, while his wife decided to take on a job to supplement her husband’s income and meet the needs of her daughter as well as that of her son who is still in primary school.

They had almost given up hope, when Nipuni’s father heard from his colleagues of the NCEAL’s Religious Liberty Commission and the assistance and advice it provided to those who were discriminated as a result of their faith.

Though grateful for NCEASL’s willingness to come forward and help them, the family were reluctant to take any steps that could be perceived by the community they lived in, to be confrontational. Being one among the few Protestant Christian families in the area, with Nipuni’s father serving as a Christian ministry worker, the family were quick to draw the attention of their neighbours. All of which were not welcome. “They call us Bible People! They think that if we renovate our houses or even if we get a vehicle, that we are getting funds from abroad” exclaimed Nipuni’s father. Besides this, the reaction of their Christian friends, to the action that they were considering, discouraged them further. “They told us that as Christians we shouldn’t take any legal action and that it could lead to problems for my daughter later on in the event the school accepts her. I was confused as to what I was supposed to do”

Baffled by the conflicting opinions and advice, Nipuni’s father met the Legal and Advocacy Coordinator of the Religious Liberty Commission of the NCEASL. Following the meeting, Nipuni’s father began to see things more clearly. He realised that it was not only his right but also his duty to ensure that his daughter had a fair chance at gaining admission to the school.

The NCEASL sent a letter to the school principal, highlighting her right to education in the said school and inquiring the reasons as to why the child was denied admission, despite having met the requirements of the school. This letter was sent during the first week of January. The school was asked to respond in ten days. The case was also brought to the attention of higher government and religious authorities in the area.

Following NCEASL’s intervention, Nipuni’s parents had the rare chance of meeting with the Principal of the said school. During the meeting however the Principal stated that admitting Nipuni to the school was not a possibility as the allocated number of children had been already admitted to the school. She went onto say that the matter now lay in the hands of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education, who Nipuni’s father then met with, said that they would take approximately three months to look into her case, and provide an answer to the school.

After a long wait, the Ministry of Education then informed them that all the relevant documents had been sent to the school to reconsider Nipuni’s application, and it was now up to the school to admit her to school.

Having met the Principal following this news by the ministry, they were told that the school would admit Nipuni to the school as per the instructions of the Ministry regarding her case. The family’s countless visits to the Principals office and the Ministry of Education had finally come to an end on the 26th of March 2015, when Nipuni was admitted to school.

Interestingly, following his daughter’s admission to the school, another Christian student who had been denied admission to the school along similar grounds, was soon admitted. “There was another parent whose child wasn’t admitted to the school for a similar reason. I told him about the letter I sent and asked him to be patient and encouraged him saying that our children will be admitted soon” said Nipuni’s father, with a broad smile on his face.

Nipuni and her parents have even more reason to be grateful for NCEASL’s assistance. Nipuni’s brother was also rejected from the local National School, for similar reasons as his sister. Not having learned of the assistance and advice offered by the NCEASL, they admitted their son into a private school, seeing no other recourse. “We were in a desperate situation when we couldn’t admit Nipuni to the school; we were facing so many problems and there was no one to help us resolve it. When we heard that NCEASL was helping those faced with such problems, we were very happy and became hopeful. It was because of NCEASL that our daughter was admitted to the school, if not we would have given up all hope”, said Nipuni’s father, extremely grateful for the NCEASL’s intervention that secured their daughter’s education.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source.

Related Articles

Teachers Sponsorship Programme: Making way for FoRB in Education

Faith Denied Admission

Keeping Religious Freedom in School

Leave a comment