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
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
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
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
(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,
(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”.
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
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