Tuesday, 17 December 2002  
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Government - Gazette

Sunday Observer

Budusarana On-line Edition

An epitome of English education in Sri Lanka

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

After 1796, during the early years of British occupation of the island, education was completely ignored, having become engulfed in their political aspirations and in finding the ways and means of capturing the Kandyan kingdom in keeping with their policy of territorial aggrandizement. The first colonial governor of the island, Frederick North (1798-1805), revived this situation and took steps to establish schools to teach English.

The first English school cum seminary was established at Wolvendaal under Rev. James Cordiner, which was maintained with fees charged for translating petitions and legal documents into English for submission to courts. But, with the departure of Cordiner, who was Superintendent of Schools, the English schools disappeared because the home government in England refused to provide the necessary funds to maintain them.

Governor Sir Thomas Maitland (1805-1812) received orders from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, to look into the establishment of schools, not only to teach English but also Sinhala and Tamil. Archdeacon Twisleton was appointed as president of a committee to administer the schools, and 47 of them were given a new life.


Private schools to teach English were opened by missionary societies and they received a government grant. Rev. Bisset became the head of the government schools, and people soon realised that the British took an interest in opening schools to educate the young. Thus in the race for English education, which was fast becoming a necessity, the Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus lagged far behind the Protestants for lack of government support.

In 1801, the Catholics had few schools and in 1831 there were 63, but they were all vernacular schools. Without aid from the government, the Catholic priests, who were Konkani brahmins from India, were unable to set up English schools. The Catholic community, which outnumbered all other denominations of Christians put together was deprived of the chief means of government employment and influence, as they were not educated in English. Thus the advent of English set a premium on English education.

English schools of the missionaries were set up by various Protestant missionary societies that sent missionaries to the island. In 1805, there came four agents of the London Missionary Society, and out of them only one, J.D. Palm remained in the island as pastor of the Dutch church. In 1812, the Baptist Missionary Society sent James Charter, and the British and Foreign Bible Society was founded in Colombo, to look into the developments in education. In 1814 came the Church Missionary Society who established themselves in Various parts of the island. In 1816, an American Board of Foreign Missions sent missionaries to Jaffna, where the first girls' schools were set up.

While the country under the British was making rapid progress in English education, although the position was lukewarm in the beginning, every effort was made to make it firm by making English the language of the courts, of the legislature and of administration. Trade and commerce being in the hands of the English colonists and merchants, a sound knowledge of English was found to be necessary.


The recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission of 1832, recommended that a knowledge of English was required from candidates for superior headmanship. But no provision was made to give the people at large an opportunity to learn English. The Burghers and those who professed Protestant Christinaity were alone privileged.

This state of affairs was due to the apathy of the British government and the constitution of the central school system. Although the Colebrooke Commission Reforms, laid emphasis on English, and the need for more English schools, the result was that the vernacular schools run by the government was abolished.

The School Commission of 1841 supervised education in the island and controlled the distribution of public funds voted for education, but grants were freely given to missionary schools and schools conducted by the Episcopal clergy.

The period from 1841 to 1847, witnessed several innovations in education in the country. The system of grant-in-aid for missionary schools was introduced, and the principle was laid down that a child should be taught his own language prior to teaching English. In 1861, there were only 9 English schools in the island, with 276 pupils of whom 233 were Protestants, 220 Catholics, 192 Buddhists and 26 Muslims.

The Colombo Academy (now Royal College) was the Chief English school.

It had a lower and an upper school and a higher department called Queen's College, affiliated to the Calcutta University, and attended by 6 students, mostly Burghers. The educational policy of the British caused grave dissatisfaction and was vigorously criticised by many and specially by Fr. Bonjean, a Catholic priest who later became the Archbishop of Colombo.

In 1865, the Legislative Council appointed a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Richard F. Morgan, an old boy of the Academy, to inquire into the system of education. After a lengthy inquiry, the Committee proposed the abolition of the School Commission and the establishment of a department, the abolition of religious instructions as a condition of grant, the abolition of Queen's College, and the establishment of a university scholarship to enable promising students to receive university education in England, and finally, the establishment of a training college for teachers.

Thus was established in 1869, the Department of Public instructions, which has come down to our day with only a change in the name, i.e., Department of Education. This Department was to superintend the government schools, and distribute the government grant on the ascertained results of secular instruction, as if a school deserved no grant if it did not show good examination results worthy of merit. As this system did not receive public approval, the government was obliged to appoint a Board of Education, which it did in 1896.


The Sessional Paper issued in 1867, recommended, inter-alia, (i) that elementary education should be undertaken on a larger scale by the government, (ii) that more government schools should be established, but greater support should be given to missionary (denominational) bodies to run schools, (iii) that mixed schools be replaced by Anglo-Vernacular schools, (iv) that more English schools be established providing for an English education and also teaching practical subjects, (v) that religious bodies were to be relieved of all restrictions about religious education in their schools, and were to be free to teach any religion they pleased, and (vi) that the Central School Commission was to be replaced by a department under a director.

English was made the medium of instructions in English schools for local children, and the pupils of these schools were not required to know anything of their mother-tongue or to have any acquaintance with their country's history or geography.

Vernaculars were relegated to the background as something unworthy of those who were to possess a knowledge of English. English education became the hallmark of gentility, and vernacular was considered secondary education, and very few of those educated in English schools had any knowledge of vernacular grammar or literature.

Secondly, it led to the introduction of the English system of education that prevailed in England. Books prepared for English children were read in local schools which were run mostly by persons not familiar with either Sinhala or Tamil. British examinations, the Oxford and Cambridge locals and the London examinations were the best in the eyes for Sri Lankan boys who were to be shoddy imitations of Tom Brown (Englishmen).

Thirdly, this system made education synonymous with a knowledge of English and denationalized the English educated class in the island. The natives imbibed English political ideas and soon elbowed out the European colonists from the political field, and demanded a form of government consistent with their self-respect. Most of the English educated people formed the elite group and the public servants including professionals.


With the establishment of the Education Department, the number of English schools increased, but most of them were missionary schools run by Catholic and Christian clergymen. Education was taken out of the hands of Protestant clergymen, and was directed by lay inspectors of schools controlled by the Department. The establishment of a Training School for teachers in 1902, led to the improved methods of teaching, and in 1905 two scholarships were awarded on the results of the London Intermediate Examination in arts and sciences.

The scholarships tended to raise the level of English education and, above all, they annually enabled the local students to receive a university education in England. A very large number of public servants in executive grades took their stand as qualified graduates, at the expense of the government. This led to the postponement of the idea of establishing a local university in the island.

Another landmark in English education was the arrival in the island of Col. Henry Steele Olcott in 1880, who roused the Buddhists of the country to a sense of their rights and privileges and also obligations towards learning English.

The result was the establishment of the Buddhist Theosophical Society in 1886, to teach English to Buddhist children who were not accommodated in Christian schools. The society succeeded in putting up 63 schools assisted with grants from the government.

The problem of English education, beyond the elementary school stage, began to occupy the minds of the British administrators.

The result was that in 1880, the Cambridge Senior Examination was introduced.

This was followed by the introduction of the London Matriculation Examination in 1882, and the London Intermediate in 1885.

The introduction of higher examination paved way for the provision of facilities to study for the learned professions of law and medicine.

By 1897 Sri Lanka possessed a Medical College, a Law College, the Agricultural School and Technical School (which later became the Ceylon Technical College) and 15 state-aided industrial schools.


By this time, the thirst for a Ceylon University began, as degree courses were available only in those schools affiliated to the Indian universities. In 1906, an association was formed to agitate for a university in Sri Lanka, and in 1911 a committee was set up, assisted by J. J. R. Bridge of the British Board of Education.

It recommended (1) the establishment of a University College, (2) compulsory education in primary classes for Sinhala and Tamil children in their mother-tongues, and (3) the development of commercial education and the introduction of the Elementary School Leaving Certificate (ESLC).

The Ceylon University Ordinance, which fused the University College and the Medical College, provided the constitution for the University, and was passed by the State Council on April 2, 1942, thereby making the University a reality. The first University in Sri Lanka was established on June 1, 1942, under the statute No. 20 of 1942, by the merger of the Ceylon Medical College (1870) and the Ceylon University College (1921).

The University made a breakthrough in English education, and some of the educated took to teaching English in schools on a higher salary.

With the establishment of the Official Language Policy in 1956, a great change has taken place in education, where English has lost its prestige.






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