Going to School from a Relocated Urban Community: Struggling for Education within Imposed Walls



Iresha M. Lakshman


Asela Ekanayaka


Rajith W.D. Lakshman

Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka; International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka; Freelance Researcher, UK


Iresha M. Lakshman, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Tel: +94-773473954, Fax: +94-112500452, e-mail: ireshalakshman@gmail.com


This work was supported jointly by the UKaid and IDRC under the Safe and Inclusive Cities (SAIC) program [grant number 107361].
Going To School from a Relocated Urban Community:


Struggling for Education within Imposed Walls

During the past few decades, relocation of shanty communities has become a developmental concern across the developing countries. After 30 years of internal conflict, Sri Lanka is currently undergoing rapid infrastructural changes particularly in Colombo. Relocating several shanty communities has been an inevitable consequence.

Free education policy of Sri Lanka advocates education free of charge for students in all government schools and universities. However, low-income communities face several problems in making the best out of this policy. Relocated children face similar and additional problems as a result of being relocated. The study which is part of a larger longitudinal study explores these issues based on information gathered through in-depth interviews from 17 relocated households (supplemented with survey data from the longitudinal study).

Several problems that negatively affect childrens education were identified. This raises the question of whether relocated childrens ability to make the best out of free education have really improved as a result of receiving more permanent housing from the Government. A permanent house is undoubtedly a promising initiative towards improving socio-educational opportunities available for these children. However, the study stresses the need for other forms of intervention to support these children gain full advantage of these houses.

Keywords: Development induced displacement; Relocated communities; Education of low-income children; Socialization of low-income children; Discrimination in schools


The Asian subcontinent is home to almost half of the urban population in the world and many of them live under impoverished conditions in shanty and slum communities of South Asia, South-East Asia, Latin America and Africa (Jack, 2006). Financial inability to acquire land pushes these impoverished communities to informal (and often illegal) settlements on uninhabited government urban land (McNamara, Olson & Rahman, 2016). Forced evacuation of shanty communities and their relocation to areas not necessarily preferred by them is one manifestation of urban violence across many developing countries. Urban displacement breaks and disturbs family and community relationships (Tibaijuka, 2010) that have, in some cases, been formed over several decades. Relocation of such IDPs adds stress on the host community as overcrowding creates issues of managing and sharing the existing limited infrastructural facilities (Tibaijuka, 2010). This then becomes reason for intensification of urban violence in these communities.

After 30 years of internal conflict, Sri Lanka is currently undergoing rapid infrastructural changes due to several developmental projects that are particularly urban-centred. Removal of shanties and slums and the relocation of such families in housing complexes constructed by the Government is a major consequence of such Colombo-centred development projects. These shanty and slum dwellers have lived illegally on Government land for over 100 years and in some cases three or four generations have lived in these illegal constructions.

The city of Colombo was estimated to have a population of 706,000 persons in 2012, of which 50% lived in substandard conditions lacking basic facilities. 900 acres of government land in Colombo is occupied by slum dwellers in railway reservations, canal banks and low-lying areas.The Urban Regeneration Project currently undertaken by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) intends to clear the low-income housing units scattered on the 900 acres by 2020. The evictees will be provided 68,000 housing units with each house being 450 square feet (consisting two bedrooms, a sitting room, a washroom and a kitchen) valued at four million Rupees. Public facilities like community halls and parks will also be provided for the inhabitants (Razick, 2014).

For Sri Lankan politicians, shanty and slum dwellers form a very important segment of voters in the Colombo district. Any political party that aspires to be in power is usually careful about how they handle and deal with these families. Evacuation of these shanty and slum communities have been an inevitable consequence of the developmental projects undertaken by the Government that was in power till 2015 since the end of the war. Several shanty and slum communities living in and around Colombo have been evacuated and moved into housing complexes or flats constructed by the Government. These housing units have been given to families by the Government for free or at subsidized rates[1].

Malpura[2] is one such relocated shanty community whose housing complex is situated in Wanathamulla where several similar housing complexes exist (see Figure 1). Malpura has been constructed in two phases. Phase 1 of Malpura has 56 houses and 60 families living in them. Phase 2 of Malpura has 60 houses and 70 families living in them. Many inhabitants of Phase 1 have previously lived in the same Wanathamulla area while many Phase 2 families have previously lived in Colombo 7, a place few miles away from the current location. Most of the families in Phase 1 have moved to Malpura in 2005 while those in Phase 2 have moved in during 2011. Phase 2, in many ways, is an improvement of Phase 1 where attempts have been made to rectify most of the construction errors of Phase 1. The inhabitants of Phase 2 have received their houses for free from the Government while the Phase 1 inhabitants have been requested to pay for their new houses. Inhabitants living in both phases of Malpura have not yet received a deed confirming their ownership to the house.

[1] Maintenance cost of Rs.40,000 will be charged from all beneficiaries and that amount will be deposited in a committee account. As per the Apartment Ownership Act No. 39 of 2003, Sri Lanka, the maintenance and management of housing schemes and condominiums is a responsibility of the Management Corporation (MC). Members of the MC are the owners of the housing scheme and they have to bear the monthly maintenance cost. The monthly payment plus interest depends on the additional square feet area they consume in the new block (Fernando, 2007, p. 9-10).

[2]Fictitious name.


Figure 1. Map of Wanathamulla.

Note: The main map is that of Wanathamulla Grama Niladhari Division (GND). The inset maps identify the location of Wanathamulla GND within Colombo district, and the location of Colombo district within Sri Lanka. The flats studied in the larger longitudinal study are shaded in black; the white ones are more recent and are not covered in the study. The perforated line marks the border of a nearby slum area.

The current study is based on a portion of mostly qualitative data gathered in Malpura as part of a larger longitudinal research project. Although, internal displacement caused by conflict in Sri Lanka has been identified as a reason that disrupted the livelihoods of the displaced (Amirthalingam & Lakshman, 2015), it has not been found to be the case with this group of families displaced and now relocated in more permanent housing. Their livelihood activities and income levels still remain the same. For example, more than 60% of the households in the location still remain at below Rs. 10,000 per capita household income rate. However, geographical mobility of the families has dropped as a result of receiving more permanent housing. It is still too early to judge whether the shift to more permanent housing has impacted their level of education. According to information gathered from the community, the kind of communal life that they have to live in the new location is different to that of their previous location. The kind of freedom they had previously has been largely constrained due to the restrictions imposed on space. All in all, it seems that their living standards have got more strained as a result of relocation. It is in this backdrop that the current study intends to explore educational and related sociological issues faced by children in Malpura.

The paper discusses qualitative data gathered as part of a larger longitudinal study covering three locations, namely Jaffna and Colombo in Sri Lanka and Kochi in India. In Colombo, the survey covered over 800 households in four locations in Colombo that provide housing for families displaced due to development projects. Here, data gathered through in-depth interviews with 17 families living in Malpura is taken up for analysis. Interviews were mostly conducted with parents and other adult family members. Children were interviewed whenever parents allowed it and when they were available. The data was then analysed thematically to identify educational and related issues pertaining to education and bringing up of children in general. Qualitative data is supplemented with survey data from the longitudinal study.

Inequality, Education and Relocated Children

Unequal access to education due to class, gender and race has been a largely discussed topic by many neo-Marxist writers (Apple 2001, 2003; Bourdieu & Passeron 1990; Kazol 1991; Ornstein 2007; Willis 1977). Apple (2001, 2003), in his writings point out that the entire education system in the United States is formed to suit the likes and desires of the rich white social classes. Kazol in his 1991 book Savage Inequalities gives examples of how the poor black communities are made to live and study under deprived conditions in the US. Likewise, Ornstein (2007: 172) writes Of course, those born to privilege and wealth always have a better chance for a good education; thus the playing field for the lower strata has never been equal. Empirical research has also shown a positive relationship between family income levels and students academic achievement levels (Jordan, Kaplan, Olh & Locuniak, 2006; Reay, 2006; Stinebrickner & Stinebrickner, 2003).


Sri Lankan educational policies formed over several decades have, in principle, focused on equality for all. Educational policies brought forward by the Sri Lankan politicians since the early 1940s have aimed at creating equal opportunities for every Sri Lankan irrespective of their social class or caste standing. These policies were mainly in opposition to the class-based education system introduced by the British during the colonial period. Consequently, education has been and is offered free of charge from primary school till the completion of a university degree in all Government schools and universities in Sri Lanka. The inception of the free education policy offered many Sri Lankan children the opportunity of gaining access to education which was hitherto available only to those who could pay for it (Gunawardena, 1990; Jayasuriya, 1969). The policy did in fact offer such individuals the opportunity to reach social heights that were previously inaccessible to them (Jayawardena, 2007).

However, many deprived socio-economic circumstances of childrens family and school background have been reported to restrict access to education for many Sri Lankans in practice. A childs social class still seems to impact a childs ability to go to school and his/her level of academic achievement (Baker, 1988; Karunaratne, 2009; Little, 1999; Rupasinghe, 1990). Research has shown that children from low income families, of parents with low levels of education and from deprived school environments are most vulnerable. Children in rural/ estate communities and in low-income urban communities (such as shanty and slum communities) are among the most disadvantaged groups of children in this sense. Family background, school environment and childrens academic achievement seem to work in tandem to form a vicious cycle where low levels of one factor seem to automatically lead to low levels of the others. Free education has, to a larger extent, helped these vulnerable children to enter and remain in school. However, the quality of education and academic support received from family and/or community by these children still remain lower than that received by their urban counterparts who attend schools with better facilities and belong to higher rungs of the social hierarchy of the country.

The families in the relocated community discussed here have once lived in shanty communities whose children form part of the above vulnerable group. Being relocated has given them more permanent housing and helped eliminate one feature that defined them as vulnerable. It is anticipated that better living conditions arising out of better housing would have a direct or indirect positive impact on their level of education. Writing about the challenges encountered in relocating the urban poor, Tibaijuka (2010, p. 4) states that the movement of people to non-camp, urban settings is further exacerbating the vulnerability of the already resident urban poor. A situation which exacerbates the vulnerability of the host community is sure to add similar or more strains and stresses to the lives of the newly settled. Buscher and Heller (2010, p. 21) also wrote of the future of displacement being clearly urban and clearly fraught with challenges which includes poverty, well-being, sanitation, education and so on. Among these issues education is of primary importance in finding durable solutions to the plight of urban IDPs (Fielden, 2008, p. 9). It also has the ability to empower the urban relocatees with the capacity to aspire higher living standards (Ensor, 2010, p. 25). Pitknen and Takala (2012), in their discussion on transnational migration, also explains how education becomes a crucial factor in the development of migrants.

For urban residents living under impoverished circumstances, even obtaining basic requirements such as education, health and livelihood seem more challenging than for their richer unban counterparts. These challenges include overcoming different forms of violence experienced at different settings of their socio-economic life. Moser (2004, p. 5) identifies five categories of violence prevalent in urban areas, namely political, institutional, economic, economic/social and social. A manifestation of institutional violence is described as physical or psychological abuse by health and education workers (Moser, 2004, p. 5). Research shows that the urban poor including IDPs and relocatees are subjected to various forms of violence because of their low socio-economic status which creates difficulties for them in trying to obtain what is rightfully theirs. Ensor (2010, p. 25) in her study of urban violence in Egypt writes, for the urban poor, school fees, uniforms, books and other school materials maybe unaffordable and transportation maybe too time consuming and unsafe. Al-Khalidi, Hoffman and Tanner (2007, p. 30) point out the above expenses as a reason that obstructs Iraqi urban refugee childrens prospects of going to school. Likewise, in Columbia the average number of years of education is claimed to be around five, although 11 percent of IDPs have not even attended school for one year (Carillo 2009, p. 531). In the case of Sri Lanka, free education along with related welfare policies such as free textbooks, free uniforms, free mid-day meals and free health clinics have contributed towards controlling the negative impacts of poverty on childrens education. However, many other factors such as academic support received from family/community and quality of human and physical facilities available at school still seem to play a role in determining the level of academic achievement of children from low-income and/or low social class backgrounds (Karunaratne, 2009; Udagama, 1999). The Ministry of Defence and Urban Development of Sri Lanka (2013) which deals with the relocation of slum communities in Colombo claims that childrens education in urban areas is affected by poverty, ignorance, and illiteracy of parents. The improvement of educational prospects for the urban poor is stated as an objective of the relocation initiative in the same article.

The vicious cycle formed between childrens family background, school environment and academic achievement discussed above seems difficult to break if conditions pertaining to even one of the three factors do not improve. In fact research with children on long-term welfare programs suggest a reversible relationship between income levels and some aspects of childrens academic functioning (Morris & Gennetian, 2003). Educating these low-income children is an imperative, given educations capacity to empower disadvantaged groups. As Ensor (2010, p. 25) points out education has the potential to empower urban refugees to maximize their options, compensate for their disadvantaged position vis–vis local citizens and build a more secure future. Fielden (2008, p. 36) also points out that education is of primary importance in finding durable solutions to the plight of urban IDPs. The Sri Lankan policy of urban relocation has, as one of its hidden objectives (see above), the need to break the vicious cycle through improving access to and the quality of education offered to children of urban relocatee families as a means of improving their living conditions in the long run. More permanent and legal housing for free or at subsidized prices seems to be only an initial step towards this broader objective. Frequent change of schools due to residential mobility of low-income families moving in search of low-cost housing has been cited as a major obstruction towards successfully educating children from such families (Crowley, 2003; Pettit, 2004). The children of Malpura, for the time being, seem safeguarded against such disadvantages thanks to the permanent houses awarded by the government.

Impact of Relocation on Education

Data for the study was gathered through in-depth interviews with 17 families living in Malpura. There were 12 Sinhalese, one Tamil and four Muslim families in the judgmental sample studied. Data revealed several factors that seem to have an impact on childrens education in Malpura. Some of these factors were similar to those encountered by anyone living under impoverished urban conditions while others were unique to their status as urban relocatees. The analysis pays particular attention to the latter and identifies two broad categories, namely factors affecting 1) access to school and social position within school, and 2) social and physical context of home.

Access to Education and Social Position within School

In Sri Lanka the legally approved practice of assigning a school for a child at the age of 5 is by distance from (permanent) residence to the school. However, proof of ownership of residence must be submitted at the time of applying for a particular school (Ministry of Education, 2011, 2013). This was the main concern of many parents/adults interviewed during the study. Some children were admitted to schools while they were still shanty/slum dwellers. Malpura Phase 2 residents have been able to admit their children to schools with better human and physical facilities or the so called National[3] schools because of their previous residence in Colombo 7 where there are several NSs. Although they did not possess title deeds to claim ownership of their previous shanty houses, they have been able to admit their children to these schools with a bit of political influence. However, this is difficult for Malpura (particularly Phase 2) residents in the absence of such strong political and social networks in the new environment. Inability to produce title deeds during school enrolment exacerbates this situation. The importance of obtaining title deeds to ensure financial and physical security has been highlighted in other settings of development-induced displacement and relocation (Connell & Connell, 2014).

Enrolling ones child in a NS seems to be considered the key to a life better than that enjoyed by many Malpura residents. Nadee[4], a mother of two young children (8 & 3 years) said Well, I like to see my son go to a big school (meaning NSs). If I enrol him in a nearby school it would be very troublesome as all these children (in Malpura) will be there. The move to Malpura has deprived many relocatees of this association to some of the leading schools in Colombo. Therefore, many children who were admitted to school after moving to Malpura had to settle for schools of lesser quality/standards. Chen et.al (2015) discuss how migrants in China are disadvantaged in terms educational opportunities by way of giving them access only to schools with lower levels of resources.

A mother of three, Rani said My youngest daughter (7 years) could have easily got a NS. But our houses in Colombo 7 were already demolished at the time of applying for schools for my daughter. Likewise, Bandus son (who is a father of two) also said I couldnt get my son admitted to NS because we had to leave Colombo 7 and come here. Of course Bandu has been able to educate his three children in leading schools located in Colombo 7 as they were admitted to schools while they were still shanty dwellers. Relocation has affected the educational opportunities available to his grandchildren.

Some children in Malpura have not been able to enter the desired school even when they met the residence criteria. The case of Davids children reflects such an experience. Being a Phase 1 resident David has lived in Wanathamulla even before moving to Malpura. He has managed to enrol his eldest son in a NS using his previous address. But his youngest sons application for the same school and other NSs has been rejected from his Malpura address which is only few yards away from his previous address.

Children from this same block has got NS college, my sisters son who lives in the next house was accepted by the same college. But we couldnt. We dont know why, may be our misfortune. If you have politics, all will be fine. I am UNP[5]. My son did gymnastics in the NS college gym. But still they refused to take him in.

A similar case was that of Lechchamis three grandsons. Of the three boys, the second and the third were admitted to school from their Malpura address. The second son received NS college, but the third sons application to the same school got rejected. Factors other than residence seem to be playing a role in allocating schools for children here and political influence was a common factor mentioned by many parents.

In addition to political influence monetary contributions to the school also seem to be a necessary condition for enrolment into the school of choice. Soma, a grandmother of two school-going grandchildren revealed that her son had to make a monetary contribution to the school to get his child enrolled there even when they met the residence criteria (the school however is not a NS). She added that this became necessary as they do not have proof of ownership to the house or are not registered voters at the new address. All respondents from Phase 1, including Soma, were already concerned and worried about the payment they have to make in order to claim ownership to the house. In all the houses visited, the overdue payment for the house exceeded Rs. 100,000. It seems unfair to further burden these low-income families with financial contributions to the school particularly when the child meets the residence criteria. The true essence of free education seems neglected.

Phase 2 children who were admitted to school from the previous location, where the distance to school from home was not much, now had to spend more money and time commuting to the school. This was a grievance of Phase 2 parents. According to Rani,

Schooling from Colombo 7 would have been very convenient for my daughter. Distance to school is the biggest problem we have regarding education. It is because of the distance that I had to leave my job and attend to her completely.

She added that the trip to and from her daughters school cost only around Rs. 8.00-9.00 daily from her previous residence. But now she spends around Rs. 25.00-30.00 daily for the same trip. Nilu, a mother of three whose youngest child is the only one schooling at the moment had the same concern about her daughters education. This new expense added to their lifestyle after relocation may have an impact on children who are economically worse off than Ranis or Nilus children in the long term, as suggested by authors writing on similar communities in other countries (Al-Khalidi, Hoffman & Tanner, 2007; Ensor, 2010).

The location Wanathamulla carries many negative social connotations as it is popular for its shanty areas and the delinquent life style of some residents. The reputation of the location seems to disadvantage Phase 1 children for whom relocation has not really changed their residential address. Indrani says that the discrimination they have been experiencing for a long time due to place of residence has not really changed because of their new housing. She claims that the reputation of the area which is not very good still matters when they try to enrol their children in NSs.

Schools discriminate against us during enrolment because of our residence. Reputation of people from these areas is not very good. I found out from my sources that my youngest son was selected for NS. But his name was pushed to the waiting list by the school management. I spoke to several people and finally managed to get him admitted to that NS.

She claims that schools are reluctant to admit their children as these children are perceived as coming from deviant backgrounds. Karunaratne (2012) describes how teachers are particularly discriminatory against children who are from low socio-economic backgrounds with parents engaging in various delinquent behaviours.

Low income levels, put under even more pressure due to relocation, were another factor hindering a childs social position in school which may also affect him/her academically. Although free education abolished the payment of school fees per se, there seem to be several kinds of payments, such as the previously mentioned financial contribution that has to be made to the school. Indrani, a single mother explained their financial plight;

We live under very deprived conditions. How can we pay such an amount (referring to the backlogged payment for the house)? We have to pay so much for the schools and I have four children. I have to find advertisements for my youngest son at NS for a school souvenir. If we cant find advertisements we have to at least send money to school. If not, the child will be discriminated in school.

Education, though free in principle, seems not-so-free in practice making room for discrimination based on economic standing. Some children in Malpura receive external financial support. For example, Padmas children receive scholarships from the Government and Davids childrens educational expenses are sponsored by his two sisters. Financial difficulties at home also seem to affect childrens aspirations and thereby their education. David and his wife said that they would like to see their children complete a University Degree. However, their eldest son said that he plans to do a job as soon as he finished General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level)[6] examination. With both parents unemployed, the financial difficulties in Davids house are quite obvious to anyone who visits them. Davids sons desire to do a job seems to be a result of the poverty he experiences.

Frequent health issues have also been cited as a common tendency among low-income families which is likely to negatively impact childrens educational opportunities (Orthner, Jones-Sanpei and Williamson, 2004). This was the same for Malpura children. A similar housing complex (see Figure 1) was being built at the time of the study in the block adjoining Malpura. The construction site adds more dust to the environment which is already quite dusty given its urban location. Kamalas eldest daughter is a victim of the dust and is now on medical treatment for respiratory diseases. According to Soma, overflowing sewages and the unclean environment might also be causing diseases, particularly dengue. Shabeens second son and Kamalas youngest daughter have missed several weeks of school due to dengue. Pets in the neighbouring houses also seemed to be creating health concerns. Shabeen complained that their neighbour had a dog which was the cause of many germs on the floor. She was convinced that her daughter got sick because of such a germ and the germ carrier was the neighbours dog. Lechchami had a similar concern about her grandsons health;

These people have dogs. They have pigeons. My second grandson has wheezing and the fur from these animals is not at all good. The doctor asks us if we have pets at home. We know where the problem lies, but what can we do?

Missing few days or weeks of school due to ill health would mean a greater loss for these children who have no or limited means of getting academic help from their families or the community to catch up with what they have missed.

Apart from Soma who explained how her grandchild was discriminated due to their low financial status during enrolment and Indrani who explained the possibility of such discrimination during school activities, none of the parents or children spoke of situations where school teachers or administrators discriminated against them during the teaching- learning process. It is possible that they were hesitant to speak bad of teachers given the very high social position culturally attributed to teachers in Sri Lanka (Karunaratne, 2009). Previous research has indicated the possibility of teachers being extra harsh on students from low socio-economic backgrounds such as those who live in shanties (Karunaratne & Chinthaka, 2012) or are displaced (Amirthalimgam & Lakshman, 2012). However, classroom observations and interviews with teachers would be essential to acquire proof of this kind of discrimination. In the absence of such research techniques, it seems difficult to conclude about the physical or psychological abuse described by Moser (2004, p. 5) in the schools attended by these relocatee children. Some parents in fact said that the teachers paid special attention to their children because they were either very good with their academic work or were outstanding in some extracurricular activity (see below).

Social and Physical Context of Home

The interviewed Malpura residents considered themselves fortunate to have received these houses from the Government. However, several problematic factors that negatively affected their childrens socialization while being shanty dwellers still were a concern for many parents. This area of the study carries significant policy implications as better housing facilities alone does not seem to have solved the communitys issues of educating and socializing their children. In certain cases the parents felt that their plight in terms of socializing their children has worsened after relocation. In their previous location they seemed to have had a stronger sense of community as they knew their neighbourhood well. As Padam put it they could tell people off if they were up to no good in their previous location. That sense of community has weakened now as they are no longer with the same neighbours they had in their previous location. Indrani said, we had control over what happened around us in our previous house, but here we are afraid to raise our voice against the troublemakers.

All parents interviewed complained about the social environment of Malpura which was not considered suitable for raising children, let alone educating them. These concerns regarding the socialization of children indirectly had an impact on the childrens education and future prospects. Farina, a mother of two complained that the noise coming from the neighbourhood and the nearby construction site makes it very difficult for the children to study. She further added that the obscene language exchanged between site workers and sometimes among neighbours makes it a terrible environment for a child to study. Davids eldest son also said that he went to the library about three or four times a week to study, avoiding the noisy neighbourhood.

The problem of noise and obscene language seemed to affect families in the ground floor more than those on higher floors of the housing complex. Both Menike and Farina who lived on the second and third floors said that the children could study in their rooms without being disturbed by the noise. According to Kamala who lives on the second floor,

There is not much noise, particularly at night. Its quite peaceful at night and my youngest daughter doesnt have trouble studying at night (the daughter agrees). Sometimes you hear arguments and fights on the road, then we open the window, look and close (whole family laughs).

Shabeen, Feroz and Nilu had similar comments about noise and obscene language. Nilu and Feroz were not happy about the loud music played by some families and in parked three wheelers which bothered their childrens studies. Nilu sometimes requested such families to not do so while Feroz opted to keep quiet. However, according to Nilu she or anyone else dared not warn the three wheel drivers as they were not really inhabitants of Malpura and were capable of aggressive reactions.

Siripala, a 32 year old father of one son described the difficulties of bringing up a descent child in this environment.

We are surviving with great difficulty. The only thing we couldnt do is education. So we want to educate our children. But it is very difficult in this environment. There is a set of boys here its all filth that come out of their mouths. They start with mother and then theres a whole list of words. We can go on like this till our son is about 12, not thereafter.

In fact the so called set of boys gathered right beneath Siripalas bedroom window where his son sleeps and studies. The impact of environment on children has been established through a research on low-income black children in the US (JBHE Foundation, 2003). There is a possibility of the child internalizing these indecent or delinquent behaviour patterns when exposed to them regularly over a long period of time. This is a crucial issue of socialization which will have its impacts on childrens education too. Nadee too explained this in similar words; All our children get to see here is adults drinking arrack (Sri Lankan alcohol) near the playground or young people shouting in filth. It is difficult to raise children in this environment.

Majority of parents attempted to restrict childrens movement in the neighbourhood in order to avoid them getting involved in bad company. This trend of parents prohibiting children from playing with neighbours has been identified as a common measure taken by families who move into low-income neighbourhoods which are considered dangerous (Pettit, 2004). The presence of drug abusers and drug dealers seemed to be a concern for all parents. Indrani said:

We are not happy here because this place creates a lot of difficulties for our children. Its not helpful for their education. No one comes to stab us. But all this filth and harsh words are difficult to put up with. Its a bad influence. There are children who hit their mothers for things that they are unhappy with. We dont say that these houses are bad, but you cant house people from all over the place here. Drug addicts and loafers are all here. My children can play only if they go to school. I dont allow them to play outside here.

Soma spoke of a drug dealer and how such dealings were not done inside houses in their previous shanty community:

There is a house upstairs where the owner lets people use the space for abusing drugs and he takes money for giving the space. All kinds of people walk in a queue to that house. Sometimes we see school boys go too. There may have been drug sellers in our previous neighbourhood too, but it was never done inside houses. We dont even send our children out of the house now. This place is not suitable for raising children.

The children did not or were not allowed to make friends within the community because the parents were cautious not to send their children out of the house. Shabeen and Nilu were the only parents who said that their children study and/or play with children of the same age from the community.

Research by Coley, Morris and Hernandez (2004) confirms reasons for these parents cautious behaviour in trying to restrict and monitor childrens behaviour within the community. The research confirms a causal relationship between out-of-home parental supervision and childrens/adolescents problem behaviour in low-income communities. This kind of parental supervision can also be considered an expression of parental love and care. There is research claiming that children from low-income families manage to do well academically and social-psychologically when parents provide affective (warmth and nurture) and structural (rules and consequences) support to their children (Conger & Conger, 2002). The restriction can be interpreted both as affective and structural support given by Malpura parents. However, the data gathered in this study does not provide grounds to claim that the children in the sample are actually doing well academically because of the affective and structural support.

Restricting childrens movement within the community may however have detrimental impacts on social integration of Malpura residents in the long run. It is sure to hinder the formation of social capital or a network of trusting relationships (Brisson & Usher, 2005) within the community in the long term. This may lead to worse issues of social integration, socialization and community level support for future generations. A similar concern about low-income American communities is raised by Orthner, Jones-Sanpei and Williamson (2004). Some form of intervention to bring these children together for academic and/or extracurricular reasons under a supervised environment seems feasible in addressing this potential long term issue. Such an intervention will give parents confidence about the safety of their children and also give children the opportunity to form friendships that may form long term social networks.

Given the social environment in Malpura, the general attitude in the community towards education is not a promising one. For example, it was common to see many children staying at home during weekdays without attending school. When inquired the reasons for not attending school, reasons such as avoiding cleaning activities undertaken during the first few days of the term, unavailability of the three wheeler/van which takes children to school and morning tuition classes were stated. This shows a tendency among parents to think very loosely about the significance of going to school for a complete education. In the absence or lack of parental monitoring there was ample space for children to get involved in activities that were not conducive to education. Although parents were keen to educate their children, many were ignorant as to how best to educate their children. A majority of individuals in the survey sample of the longitudinal study had gone only half way through secondary school or lower (Table 1). This is an indication of the general attitude of the community towards formal education; an attitude not in favour of or conducive to formal learning in school.

Table 1. Level of education of Malpura residents.

Educational qualification No. and % of individuals
Never been to school 4 (1.91%)
Primary level education 27 (12.92%)
Secondary level education 103 (49.28%)
O/L passed 50 (23.91%)
A/L passed / Diploma / Certificate level 22 (10.53%)
Undergraduate level 2 (0.97%)
With degree 1 (0.48%)
Total 209 (100%)

Note: Based on survey data of the longitudinal study.

Some children who received ample support from parents and teachers have managed to achieve high academic standards. Teachers seem to have played a crucial role in this regard, particularly in the case of academically promising children. Indranis eldest daughter (who got through the General Certificate in Education- Ordinary Level[7]), Farinas son (who got through Grade 5 scholarship examination), Menikes eldest grandson (who is an award winning drama actor and studies drama for A/L), Padmas children (daughter already a university student and son got through Grade 5 scholarship examination and O/L) were among such children. These children seem to have gained confidence through success and this confidence seems to have been supported and uplifted by the community, family and school. Although data was not collected from schools for the study, the above parents described how their children would not have succeeded academically if not for the support they received from their teachers in school. The community too seems to be acknowledging these children as having better academic abilities. Siripala sent his son to Indranis daughter for academic help. All participants identified the above mentioned children as being bright or as having better future prospects. This acknowledgement from the community seemed to help boost the childrens confidence and thereby encourage further academic success.

Sometimes parents attitudes towards education were not one that encouraged children to reach higher levels of education. Some parents were keen that their children educate themselves to a level that would help them find a suitable job. Nilu, whose sons have got through A/L and are now employed in the government sector, said that she wished the same of her daughter. She added I dont really mind if she doesnt go to university. Shani too wished the same of her sons. Some parents also encouraged their children to engage in extracurricular activities and not so much in academic work in order to be better qualified for a job after A/Ls. Feroz and her husband encouraged their son to engage in sports and cadetting in school as they wanted him to join the Sri Lanka Army after finishing his A/Ls. They are confident that their son would be able to scrape through his A/Ls and qualify to join the Sri Lanka Army. Parents attitude towards higher education formed ambitions forced on the children.

Some other parents who encouraged their children to engage in extracurricular activities did so with very different intentions and in many cases such children seemed to be ahead of others in terms of academic achievements. The positive impact of extracurricular activities on academic performance and several socio-psychological aspects of development in children and in adolescents have been confirmed through empirical research (Broh, 2002; Cosden, Morrison, Gutierrez & Brown, 2004; Covay & Carbonaro, 2010; Feldman & Matjasko, 2005). Indranis eldest daughter, for example, was very much involved in performing Kandyan dancing. Padma, whose son is currently preparing for his A/L is also the captain of his school house. According to Padma,

He is the House Captain in school. So hes very busy with sports meet work these days. But he still does his studies well. Yesterday we all had to go for a funeral, but he stayed at home and studied. He also went for his tuition class this evening.

David believed in the right balance between sports and education and encouraged his children to engage in extracurricular activities. As a result, his eldest son was a member of the school cadet team and the youngest was a member of the gymnastic team. He also believed that keeping the boys involved in extracurricular activities would keep them out of trouble and out of bad company in the neighbourhood. He said We encourage them to do sports as a means of keeping them away from bad things. It has worked. My eldest son doesnt even smoke a cigarette. His wife added Teachers talk only good things about our (eldest) son. No one says anything bad about him. Its all good.

Discussion and Conclusion

The study explored the educational experience of children living in a relocated community in Colombo with particular attention on the educational and related sociological issues they face. The community under study, Malpura, comprises former shanty and slum dwellers that have been displaced and relocated due to developmental projects undertaken in Colombo. Qualitative data through in-depth interviews with 17 families living in Malpura was analysed.

The study identified two interrelated categories of factors that affect the education of children in Malpura, namely factors that impact access to school and social position within school, and social and physical context of home. Issues of school enrolment, distance to school, low-income levels, lack of academic support from family or community, and health concerns were identified as having a direct impact on childrens education. Issues pertaining to social environment, and parental and communal attitude towards education were recognized as factors pertaining to social and physical context of home.

Potential threats from the social environment were a concern to all parents and they had developed their own mechanisms of resilience to this issue. Many parents restricted their childrens free movement in the community while others encouraged their children to engage in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities ensured that childrens attention would be focused on matters outside of the community and children would have little or no time to mingle with bad company in the community. These mechanisms, though useful for resolving the parents biggest and most immediate concern, are not very conducive to the development of social ties among community members in the long run.

The findings of this study confirm the already established positive relationship between income levels and education in Sri Lanka. However, the social environment that is experienced by Malpura residents seems different to what they have experienced in their previous shanty location. Malpura seems to mix people with similar income levels but of different interests. The same people when living in their shanty community have been in control of who enters their territory and have had long standing relationships with at least the several families that lived around them. Malpura residents cannot control their territory or chose the people with whom they want to share the houses around them. In Phase 2, although residents have been given the houses of their choice, this mechanism has not necessarily given them the opportunity to select their neighbours. Added to this is the increased possibility of trespassing by individuals engaged in questionable activities that can make the community very non-child-friendly. Malpura residents will need several years or decades to make this their territory. At the moment everything seems to be working against this possibility. Many residents interviewed are waiting till they get the deeds to their houses so that they can sell the house and move out of Malpura and its bad environment. Restriction of childrens free movement within the community will not facilitate social integration between members of the younger generations. From the data gathered, it is difficult to say if this environmental factor actually has an impact on the childs academic achievements. However, it certainly is an important sociological issue that concerns the well-being of Malpura residents and its long term existence as a community.

The free education policy in Sri Lanka does give everybody access to a school and minimum facilities to remain in school. However, literature shows that low-income groups are still disadvantaged in many ways. Offering more permanent housing to former shanty or slum dwellers is in fact a promising initiative in attempting to improve educational standards and opportunities for low-income children. This is essentially a first step towards breaking the vicious cycle formed between family background, school background and academic achievements. The permanent house has organized space (e.g. rooms for studying) and is more convenient (e.g. attached bathrooms). These housing conditions would undoubtedly contribute towards improving family background of these children. However, further governmental or non-governmental intervention is necessary to supplement this initiative in order to break the vicious cycle and to link permanent housing to improved education levels among Malpura children. Scholarship schemes, educational support programs such as homework groups, direct intervention in school decisions which may discriminate against low-income children and community activities to promote stronger social ties are recommended.

The research recommends that future research dealing with the education of relocated children conduct its activities not only in the community but also in the respective schools attended by the children. School-based discrimination and inequality has not been addressed in this study even though previous research suggests such possibilities in Sri Lankan schools based in low-income areas.




This work was supported jointly by the UKaid and IDRC under the Safe and Inclusive Cities (SAIC) program [grant number 107361].



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Table 1. Level of education of Malpura residents.

Figure 1. Map of Wanathamulla.

[1] Maintenance cost of Rs.40,000 will be charged from all beneficiaries and that amount will be deposited in a committee account. As per the Apartment Ownership Act No. 39 of 2003, Sri Lanka, the maintenance and management of housing schemes and condominiums is a responsibility of the Management Corporation (MC). Members of the MC are the owners of the housing scheme and they have to bear the monthly maintenance cost. The monthly payment plus interest depends on the additional square feet area they consume in the new block (Fernando, 2007, p. 9-10).

[2]Fictitious name.

[3] These schools will be called NS/NSs hereafter. A National school has 2000 or more students, A/L science classes with a total of 200 or more students, percentage of students eligible to enter university at the A/L examination of the preceding three years is 331/3% or above per year, availability of sufficient buildings and furniture for all students, availability of sufficient facilities for technical subjects, availability of sufficient laboratory facilities for all students in A/L and O/L classes, annual income from Facilities and Services Fees to be over Rs.15 000, acceptance of the school by the community as one of the best schools in the area, the school should be supported by a strong School Development Society and an active Past Pupils Association (Ministry of Education and Higher Education, 1998).

[4] Fictitious personal names have been used.

[5] United National Party. According to David, he has been politically victimized because he was a UNP trade union activist. He has lost his job at the Ministry of Transportation in 2004. He has been sacked on the grounds of medical reasons as he suffers from a difficulty of walking. Therefore, he thinks that his political beliefs have disadvantaged their children in finding suitable schools even when they met the residence criteria.

[6]A/L hereafter.

[7]O/L hereafter.