Among the colonies of the British Empire, Ceylon, as it was then known, was far ahead of its neighbours with regard to its primary and secondary school systems. Small both in size and population, there had been no freedom struggle involving the masses. Thus, by 1931, the British government felt confident enough to grant universal adult franchise and a substantial degree of responsibility for governance, under what were known as the Donoughmore Commission Reforms. Indeed, seven of the ten ministers in the executive were Ceylonese, with portfolios including education and health care. By 1945, the administration had adopted additional reforms providing free education from kindergarten to the university level. In his concluding remarks marking that occasion, C W W Kannangara, then the minister of education, said: “It is my belief that this is a pearl of great price. Sell all that you possess and purchase it for the well-being of the nation.” Today, there is a general consensus among professionals and academics that they would not be where they are if not for the lasting reforms set in motion by the leaders of that era.
Policy changes included, among other things, the provision of more schools. Noteworthy in particular was the establishment of a system of 54 Central Schools in the provinces, and a stage-by-stage transition replacing English with Sinhala and Tamil (also known as Swabasha) as the medium of instruction. The switch to Swabasha took place from grades one to five during the 1940s; by the mid-1950s, it had become the medium of instruction from grades 6 to 12, finally reaching the universities during the early 1960s. It must be emphasised that Tamil-speaking students (Tamil and Muslim) had the same rights as the Sinhalese students, both with regard to free education and the right to education in their own language. This right has been firmly adhered to in spite of subsequent changes making Sinhala the only language of the administration. Education has, however, lagged behind in plantation areas where the hill-country Tamils (those of Indian descent) laboured.
Meanwhile, the older colonial-era secondary schools were called colleges – a misnomer that has survived – as Lanka did not have an affiliated college system of the kind that prevails in India. There were wide disparities among the secondary schools, with the denominational schools in the urban areas, especially Colombo, Jaffna, Kandy and Galle, better equipped and staffed. The quality of education provided by the state improved with the establishment of the 54 Central Colleges following the reforms of the 1940s. These denominational schools were mostly run by Christian missions, though the Buddhist and Hindu boards later became involved as well. The American missionaries landed in the Tamil north early in the 19th century, founding the Batticotta Seminary in 1823 and later the Jaffna College. The following year, they also founded the first boarding school for girls in Uduvil, Jaffna. This marked the beginning of the development of schools among the Tamils, eventually making Jaffna second only to Colombo in education, including proficiency in the English language. Indeed, the advances made by the Jaffna Tamils created tensions that ultimately led to the Sinhala Only Act of 1956. The challenge facing schools in Jaffna today is to restore the standards that prevailed until the 1970s, deeply affected if not decimated by 30 years of war.
In addition to the Central Schools, the island also had denominational schools receiving state grants, which eventually came to be known as assisted schools. When free and compulsory education came into force in 1947, these schools were given the option of joining the free education system, meaning that they would receive assistance but come under some degree of state control, or remaining completely private and charging fees. Most of the religious denominational schools entered the government scheme, and were entitled to state assistance, while providing free education. A handful of Christian schools did, however, choose to stay out of this system.
In 1961, the state nationalised all denominational schools under private boards. The private institutions that opted out of the assisted-schools system in 1947 continued to remain private and fee-levying. Fifty other schools also opted to remain private during this new round, all of which were, once again, Christian schools, mostly Roman Catholic. The difference was that these schools were obliged to not charge fees to remain private, something that was practically impossible in economic terms. This takeover of schools by the state in 1961 constituted one of the major radical reforms in the post-Independence years. It certainly set the balance right, taking decisions about the appointment of teachers and the admission criteria for students out of the sectarian hands of the religion-based school boards. Caste and creed no longer counted. All the same, in the process, education became a monopoly of the state.
The system again changed in 1977, when the right-wing United National Party government, led by J R Jayewardene, came to power, bringing with it a commitment to a market economy and private enterprise. Jayewardene, although the father of all of the country’s subsequent constitutional woes, did have one noteworthy benign act to his credit: he restored government grants to those schools that had chosen to remain private in 1961, thereby winning the allegiance of leaders of the Christian minority. Beyond that, in spite of his two-thirds majority in Parliament and the excessive powers he bestowed on himself as executive president, he was not able to privatise education as much as he would have liked. The state’s monopoly of education had become an entrenched and sacred system that no government dared to touch.
All the same, the Jayewardene government provided a way out by permitting the establishment of so-called ‘international’ schools. As a result, and as is evident today, a variety of schools, numbering about 87, with the tag ‘international’ mushroomed, with about 54 of them in and around Colombo. With a few exceptions, none of these schools had anything international about them, with most basically being business enterprises catering to the rich. The notable differences between these institutions and the prevailing school system was that the former did not come under the purview of the Ministry of Education, charged exorbitant fees and provided instruction in English. In some, French was the second language, while Sinhala and Tamil were optional. The point to note is that the students coming out of these schools are comparable to pre-1956 English educated elites, whose proficiency in the national languages was weak in what had now become a country in which 99 percent of the people were monolingual. With a curriculum geared to preparing for foreign exams, a new class of citizens, linguistically and culturally divorced from the masses, was being created in the country.
Part of the education system are the infamous ‘tutories’ or coaching classes, doing a substantial part of the job that should be done in schools. After school hours, and especially during the weekend, students flock to these tutories, to be taught by individuals outside the formal education structures. This parallel system of instruction, as distinct from education in its fullest sense, has had adverse consequences, with cramming geared towards passing examinations taking precedence over a general and a value-based education.
Even as the nature of secondary education has a direct impact on performance in higher education, the state of the universities had a direct bearing on the school system. University graduates without teacher training were deemed fit to be teachers. With unemployed graduates an embarrassment to every government in power, such individuals were periodically dumped into schools as teachers, and continue to be thus employed even today. In truth, university education came late to the country. A University College had been founded in 1921, paving the way for the University of Ceylon in 1942, which took a place among the best in Asia for its first 25 years. At this level, too, the results of the radical reforms of the 1940s were evident by the mid-1950s, when rural youths entered the faculties of humanities and the social sciences in sizeable numbers. Overnight, the universities had to adapt to changes in the medium of instruction, without any planning or training of lecturers. Senior academics in the universities had to attend classes in Sinhala and Tamil, in order to be able to teach in those languages, resulting in many eventually leaving the country.
Today, there are 15 universities where classes are taught mostly in Sinhala or Tamil. In the medical, science and engineering faculties, instruction begins in the national languages and eventually transitions into English. Where instruction is in English from the very first year, as former Professor of English Ashley Halpe states, “The majority do not have the ability to follow courses conducted in the English medium effectively – it is significant that 40 percent of the supposedly elite students in the faculties of medicine and engineering who enter with extremely high scores fail their first exams at their first attempt.” As such, the country has paid a heavy price in not retaining English as the language of instruction in the universities, with a drop in standards in content, curriculum and overall education. Students memorise notes taken at lectures and from handouts in Swabasha and regurgitate the information at examinations. Libraries and reference books in English are rarely used, and very few books are available in Swabasha. Indeed, English is taught but without noticeable results. Ideally, the first year in all universities should be devoted towards intensive English classes; but with a Sinhala-nationalist climate dominating the country, English has been referred to as a kaduwa, a sword that kills. As such, most of the products from the faculties of the social sciences and humanities have generally been referred to as ‘unemployed and unemployable’.
The politics of language, thus, has been played out with adverse effects in the field of education. The initiators of educational reforms in the 1940s rightly decided that a child learns best in her or his mother-tongue. Moreover, since the country did not have the requisite teachers, it would have been impossible to provide education in the English medium to the students in the whole country. Put it another way, it would have been impossible to provide mass education that raised literacy rates. But the failure lay in not effectively teaching English as a second language at the school level, or retaining English as a medium in the Universities. If English had been effectively taught as a second language in the schools, more students would have found it feasible to follow courses in English at the University level. India is a good example of school education in the mother-tongue, accompanied by English at the higher level. Indeed, the level of English is poor at the undergraduate level. But by the time students reach the Masters, Master of Philosophy (M Phil) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) levels their ability to function in English becomes adequate if not good. In Lanka today we have several University academics with local PhDs who cannot present papers in English and participate in international seminars. Nor do they have proficiency to use English as a library language and keep up with the latest international books and journals in their field.
While the advocates of Swabasha often make comparisons with Japan, where the medium of instruction at all levels is Japanese, they fail to note that Japan, from as far back as 1871, had a policy of sending students to England, the US, France, Germany and Russia in fair numbers, and had launched a policy of translating books into Japanese. By the 1980s, Japanese publishers were releasing books in Japanese translation almost at the same time that they were released in English or other European languages. Instant translation and interpretation is big business in Japan, and Japanese editions in translation of best selling books were about half the price of the English ones. Lanka does not have the resources to do things the Japanese way, so the comparison is not useful. With some recognition of the problem, attempts are now being made to rectify matters by providing courses in English in the older universities, like the ones in Colombo and Peradeniya.
A matter of paramount importance is encouraging proficiency in the English language island-wide. This would include training colleges for teachers, and special colleges in every district for intensive English courses for students who have completed GCE Ordinary and/or Advanced Level courses. A return to English as the medium of instruction in certain specified subjects in the higher classes at the secondary school level, especially in the sciences, is an option that can be examined. But then the country does not have the teachers to implement this. This can only be done by allowing a free flow of qualified and experienced teachers from other countries, for example, India, as happened from the 1920s to the early 1960s. At that time, the task was to develop teaching in the sciences. Today, the mission will be to teach English as well as certain subjects in the English medium. The much expressed view that all Sinhala students should be taught Tamil and all Tamil speaking students Sinhala, desirable as it is, will not take place. Wounds inflicted by a long war and prejudices deliberately cultivated over the decades have created a mind-set in both communities that will not make this feasible. English as a second language is an achievable target given a clear five- to ten-year plan with adequate resources allocated for this fundamental task. Successfully implemented, two vital objectives will be achieved; it would provide a mode of access to knowledge while at the same time function as a link language in the pursuit of unity in diversity.
The children of ‘56
In all of this, the ramifications of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 cannot be overstated. The leftwing 1971 insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s (JVP) against the government was, in one sense, a revolt by the children of 1956 who felt that the promises made and aspirations aroused in that year were not fulfilled. The expectations of jobs, upward mobility and a rise in the status of deprived rural youth did not happen. Soon after the uprising, the four universities of that period were closed for a year, and two campuses were converted into detention centres for insurgents. During 1988-89, the upsurge of JVP violence in the campuses was marked by assassinations and ruthless murders. The state retaliated with unprecedented violence against Sinhalese youths, and campuses were closed more often than open.
In adopting the Sinhala Only Act, Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike unleashed forces that could not be tamed by himself or his successors. These forces changed the course of Lanka’s history. There were no doubt positive dimensions in the reforms of 1956; but the year is best remembered, at least by the minorities, as the watershed that marked the end of any prospect of a united Lanka with equal rights for all its communities. Sinhalese nationalism rode triumphant and Sinhalese majoritarian rule was firmly entrenched in the country. Eventually, the Tamils responded with their own brand of destructive Tamil nationalism.
These changes had a tremendous impact on education in the country. It was the intention of those who introduced free education to provide competence in English as a second language to marginalised rural students. However, the aroused Sinhala nationalist passions led to the dethroning of English as the language of the administration in 1956, effectively bringing an end to the teaching of English in schools. Schools became monolingual, while classes became rigidly compartmentalised into linguistic streams, few accepting both Sinhalese and Tamil students. This had a disastrous effect on the country and its politics. Ideally, in a postcolonial society that is multi-religious and multi-linguistic, conscious policies directed towards social cohesion and integration should have been adopted. In Lanka, the very opposite happened.
There was a time when Sinhalese and Tamil students sitting together in the same classroom had eminent teachers from both communities. It was in spaces such as the classroom, the sports fields or, where available, the dormitory that lasting bonds overriding linguistic and religious identities had been established. By the 1960s, that era had come to an end. Even as the policies adopted in creating an egalitarian society with equal opportunities in education were to be lauded, the policymakers and educationists failed the youth by not evolving a curriculum within the framework of instruction in the mother tongue that would have promoted integration. This could have been achieved by giving English the role of a link language.
Ultimately, the state failed to evolve a clear education policy, beyond patchwork reforms. There has not been a single education minister worth remembering in the post-Independence years, a notable exception being Badiuddin Mahmud, minister of education during the 1970s, who, besides upgrading Tamil-medium schools, did a remarkable service to the Muslim community by opening up the education sector to Muslims. Although there was some heartburn among the Tamils that they were losing jobs as teachers and headmasters, the Muslims had been late-comers to education, especially the women. The balance was set right. During the 2008 ordinary-level examinations for grade-ten students, only 44 percent had passes in the English language. It is unlikely that even those with passes had the proficiency to read a short and simple paragraph from a newspaper or utter two sentences in English, leave alone writing. In fact, the quality of instruction all round has dropped considerably. The country was once known for high levels of achievement in mathematics, yet a few years ago only ten percent of students had passes in geometry at the grade-ten public examinations.
The problem is that even as nationalisation freed education from sectarian management, it allowed the politicians to take over completely. Today, state control of education has degenerated to interference by politicians with a vice-like grip on the appointment of teachers. What happened in the field of education was a telling example of the over-politicisation of every aspect of the socio-economic life of the country. By the 1970s, literacy rates were close to 80 percent, and are today just above 90 percent. Similarly, great advances were made in the female literacy rate. Having achieved these remarkable indices, the country has not been able to go to the next stage of development. This is because the increasing volume was not matched by quality education, including job-oriented education for a developing country, especially in the sciences, technology, computer literacy and information technology.
Here, again, the state controlled educational system is fundamentally flawed. Sixty years after visionary policies towards an egalitarian society by expansion in education reforms were implemented, there has been no periodic review of the system to assess the value of state control and the content of education. Tinkering with the system has become the norm as governments changed, led by ministers and bureaucrats with inflated egos. Ideally, a policy based on consensus for a National System of Education suitable for the times among all parties in Parliament is called for today. Yet, unfortunately, this is too much to expect from the deeply divided Sinhalese polity that seems unable to arrive at a consensus on the Sinhalese-Tamil relations that have been tearing the country apart.
The purpose of education, it has been said, is to make people fit to live with. Yet many have lost sight of this ultimate objective of an education, as a means to a good life. In Lanka, there has been a loss in terms of offering a values-based education, which in decades gone by promoted tolerance, free debate and rational discussion, a sine qua non for a healthy society. A first step to take the country in this direction is to depoliticise education, freeing it from those least fit to rule. One of the major issues in the current presidential election is that the 17th amendment to the constitution establishing a Constitutional Council be implemented. The task of this council is to establish an independent Election Commission, Police Commission and Public Services Commission. Hopefully, if this is implemented the depoliticisation of education will follow.
~Marshal Fernando is the director of the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in Colombo.
~Santasilan Kadirgamar taught history at the Universities of Colombo and Jaffna.