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Free Education proposals and tuition - Part III:

State schools vs. private schools

Further, being no mathematician, I take liberty to reproduce the figures arranged in a table and the remarks made by Prof J. E. Jayasuriya in his ‘Dr C W W Kannangara Memorial Lecture – 1988’ highlighting the preferential treatment to the Christian schools.


Dr C. W. W. Kannangara

“The Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, constituted 4.3 percent of the population, and yet obtained 75.2 percent of the government grant to denominational schools, while the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims constituting 85.7 percent of the population obtained only 24.8 percent of the government grant. Furthermore, the government treated its own schools much less generously than it treated the assisted denominational schools.”

There seems to be some error in the percentages given by Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya in the remarks in respect of different religions, nevertheless the argument remains valid. The Christian population should be not less than 9 percent.

It is well-known that this anomaly was a creation of the British administrators which continued up to the 1940s. The committee as a whole was not in favour of any partiality towards any section of society. The report has gone to the extent of defining state neutrality.

“... State neutrality, which we certainly uphold means that the state shall not do anything that will have the effect of helping any particular denomination alone to further its objects, that the state should hold the scales evenly as between different denominations.”

As stated earlier there are three categories of schools, namely State schools, Denominational schools, and Private schools. The state schools were of two kinds, viz. fee-levying English schools and non-fee-levying vernacular schools. The English schools enjoyed all kinds of privileges as better buildings, better teachers etc. Here again the fee-levying denominational schools, mostly imparting English education enjoyed the best privileges, viz. better management, good buildings, good teachers, resources for extra-curricular activities and so on. The vernacular schools were the poorer and mostly neglected.

The revolutionary proposal

Majority of the Committee members from the very beginning seems to have been unanimous of the need to formulate a national education system, maintaining state neutrality ensuring equality of opportunity for all. A school system under state control would have been the ideal as was discussed in depth during initial deliberations.

However, the existing denominational schools within the system had remained an obstacle to achieve this objective and those representing the Christian denominations were not ready to give in. Accordingly, state schools and the denominational schools had to be accommodated within a unified system.

In this backdrop the inevitable choice was a revolutionary proposal for imparting education free of charge. Kannagara ably supported by A. Ratnayaka and certain other members of the Committee was firm on this decision. Whether free education was to be introduced at all levels simultaneously or by stages had been a matter of opinion. The final decision to make education free from the Kindergarten to the university was arrived at during the final stages of the deliberations.

Going through the report and also reading between the lines, it would not be hard to realize that above all, it was the will and determination of certain members which had contributed to arrive at the proposal to grant free education. Financial considerations were secondary factors. In fact, the report had devoted just two brief sections, namely, sec. 166 and 167 under ‘Educational Finance’ in this regard.

I quote form sect. 167.

“... out of an estimated cost of primary, secondary, technical and university education and teacher training, namely Rs 23,352,509, state funds account for as much as Rs 19,196,820 and only a sum of Rs 4,155,689 is found from fee collection.”

Now, the picture is clear and simple. By granting free education at all levels, the state would lose only Rs 4,155,689 being the amount collected from fees charged at all levels. Not an unbearable burden either.

The Committee had taken the view that the amount spent on education would amount to national investment. “...as none of these things can be fully realized without mass education, we are of opinion that free education must come first and foremost.” The majority Committee was confident that the country would be able to afford the extra amount as the second world war had ended and in the light of post-war reconstruction.

Thus, Kannangara was able to ‘push through’ this concept of the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ and finally free education from Kindergarten to the university was introduced on October 1, 1945. This as we are all agreed was the most epoch making recommendation of the Special Committee along with other proposals that had tremendous impact on the entire future of Sri Lanka.


Free education, the right of every child.

To recapitulate, not all members were unanimous with regard to all the recommendations. It is clear that there was much opposition from within the members of the Committee itself, from certain religious organizations, from different communities, other vested interests and so on. Even among the Board of Ministers there was opposition, not excluding the leader of the House. In this scenario, it is understandable that numerous changes were made to the original document at different stages, except with regard to the crucial recommendations.

Challenges to Free Education

I now pass on to the second half of my talk. It is worth recollecting that there is mention of certain recommendations not in conformity to the Minister's expectations. Kannangara had specially mentioned that “although there are some points which I do not see eye to eye, with the views of the majority contained in the report, I subscribe to it as a whole.” In order to get the approval for the major proposals, he would have felt it not advisable to press on other issues. Some such provisions relating to our discussion are as follows:

a. Allowing the system of direct state control of education to continue side by side with the Denominational control of schools.

b. No restriction to be placed on private and/or unaided schools.

c. No restriction for private tutories while strongly depreciating ‘private coaching for examinations.’

Not long after the Kannangara recommendations had been passed with certain amendments, different forces against the intended progressive socio-educational policies proposed, as well as religious and other organizations including certain sections of his own political group, not excluding the leader himself, joined together to neutralize those proposals. Further there was a move to remove Kannangara, the man who spearheaded the national education policy from the entire scene. Thus, at the general election of members to Parliament in 1947, Kannangara was defeated. It is interesting to note what Kannangara had said at his election meetings. He had said: “You defeat me at the election but don't defeat the policy of free education.” This shows his dedication to his principles.

When Dr. Kannangara, the man who had been directing the entire education system in the country for nearly two decades was out of Parliament, A. Ratnayaka would have been the obvious choice to fill that position. In fact, it was Ratnayaka who had proposed free Education in the Committee and given undaunted support for all progressive education reforms, but Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake had given him a different portfolio. In spite of the lack of enthusiasm, free education policy could not be abandoned.

The progressive government that came into power in July 1960, had brought about far reaching changes in education by way of fulfilling the mission of Kannangara. It can be said that these changes were very much in keeping with his policies, the most vital of which was the taking over of the Assisted schools to establish a unified system of schools under the state. We recollect that Dr Kannangara had vehemently opposed the continuation of denominational schools, but had to live with it as a result of pressure from the Christian quarters.

By this time, Dr. Kannangara lived a life of retirement, but certainly this proposal would have given him immense joy and satisfaction. He passed away on September 23, 1969.

State schools vs private schools

Much water has passed under the bridges since then and many changes had taken place in the field of education. Some of the concessions given with the introduction of free education continued while new systems had also evolved. Apart from state-controlled schools under the free education system, today there are at least three categories of schools as follows:

(a) Private, non-fee levying, and state-aided schools

When the Assisted schools were taken over by the state in 1960, certain schools, other than Buddhist schools, had opted to remain private. The government pays the salaries of the teachers. Facilities fees were allowed to be charged and these schools were subject to supervision by the Education authorities. Example, St. Joseph's College, Colombo.

(b) Private, fee-levying schools

These schools had opted to levy fees and not join the free education scheme. No financial assistance given but are subject to supervision by the education authorities. e.g. S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia.

(c) International schools and other private schools

The first international educational establishment was started in 1958 with a view to fulfilling the needs of the children of the Diplomatic community. Known as the Oversees Children's School, it catered to those children who prepare for foreign examinations in the English medium. Obviously this was a harmless initiative at the start. However, as from the 1980s or so, countless institutions under the title of International schools came to be established with the approval of BOI and registered under the Registrar of Companies.

Originally, these schools catered to the upper runs of society but gradually spread into even the less affluent sectors.

Various reasons may be attributed to the attraction of children to these schools but the main reason could be that the medium of instruction is English and that they cater to foreign exams. It has to be pointed out that currently there are a few schools registered under the Companies Act which cater to local examinations as well.

The International schools do not conform to the provisions of the existing regulations of the Education Ministry. However, these schools have gained popularity. No proper investigations have been made. According to a survey done in 2003 by the National Education Commission, it had been estimated that there were roughly over 50,000 students attending these schools.

Dr. Kannangara's attitude to tuition

Our main concern is not the International schools but the supplementary teaching establishment popularly known as Private Tuition or rather tuition classes. This had developed into an independent lucrative business concern as an alternative system of the teaching-learning process. During the 1940s and even until many decades later, tuition as we understand it today was not even heard of. Kannangara in his report has used the term ‘private coaching'. He seems to have foreseen the developments that were to come in later years. We quote from the Kannangara report.

“We strongly depreciate the practice too frequently adopted by many parents of supplementing the school homework by private coaching”.

“Parents frequently provide private coaches whose whole justification is that they will get their pupils through examinations. Coaching establishments which do not pretend to educate at all, flourish”.

Contemporary situation

These remarks must have been made in the 1940s with pious hopes of improving our education system. However, many changes have taken place in respect of aims of education side by side with the examination system. The aspirations and expectations of parents have changed as well, due to circumstances beyond the control of education planners. The goals and aims of education, however much they are worthy of fulfilling have come to be sidelined in preference to other social factors.

The relentless nature of our society in addition to the existing highly competitive examination structure where a single mark could make a world of difference seem to be the main causes that drive children for tuition.

This explains why tuition is most popular in respect of public examinations, viz. Year Five, GCE O/L and A/L. Parents living even in remote parts of the country and belonging to low-income groups aspire to get their sons or daughters admitted to university. Their ultimate aim is to make the child a doctor or an engineer. It is in this scenario that the private schools and the tuition industry have prospered.

Now that the tuition industry has come to stay in Sri Lanka as well as in most South Asian countries, number of research studies have been undertaken as from the 1980s and their findings have drawn the attention of the scholars, education authorities, as well as the general public. Despite numerous extra benefits to children attending tuition classes, some other unforeseen issues have arisen during the last decade or so.

To be continued

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