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A casualty of nationalism

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A casualty of nationalism
Swabasha woes
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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.  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  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.

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 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.

State monopoly

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.  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.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 with the tag ‘international’ mushroomed, 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. T 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.

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.


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