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Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya - renowned Sri Lankan educationist



Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya

This pen portrait of Prof. J.E. Jaysuriya is written to recall the educational contributions and thinking of Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya who was a educationist par excellence contributed enormously to the development of teacher education in Sri Lanka. Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya memorial lecture on the theme ‘Some Reflections on Pre-School Education in Sri Lanka’ will be delivered by Prof. Narada Warnasuriya at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute auditorium today (February 14).

Born in Ahangama, Prof. Jayasuriya had his early education at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda and Anuruddha Vidyalya and his secondary education at Wesley College, Colombo. His brilliant career as a student was crowned with success on being awarded a first class honours degree in Mathematics in 1939.

His interest in education was manifested by his acceptance of the founder Principal’s position of Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya, at the age of 21. During the period when the concept of ‘excellent schools’ (Central Colleges) was being put into operation, the then Minister of Education, Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara identified Prof. Jayasuriya to be the Principal of the Central College in his own electorate, Matugama. Prof. Jayasuriya's academic brilliance and dynamic action was given recognition with this appointment.

Educational policies

I had the privilege of reading for my degree in education and working as an instructor in the Department of Education at the University of Peradeniya when Prof. J. E. Jayasuirya was functioning as its Head. I also had the benefit of expanding my understanding of Sri Lankan education through the writings of Prof. Jayasuriya who wrote extensively on British educational policies and development of education in the postcolonial era in Sri Lanka.

His training in the discipline of education made him to be critical of educational policies which did not reflect the principles of equality and equity and his writings seriously advocated the analysis of the policy and the process of Sri Lankan education based on these cherished principles. For instance, his criticism of proposals for diversification of education at secondary level in 1966 was based on these principles. Although he accepted the policy of diversification at secondary level, he was not agreeable to granting different statuses to different streams as proposed by the Special Committee on Education (1943) as well as the Education Reforms of 1966.

His criticism of education policies introduced by the British during their rule in Sri Lanka spoke eloquently about the disadvantaged position of the majority of Sri Lankan people with regard to access to quality education. It was Prof. Jayasuriya who went on to elaborate the criticism of the Special Committee on Education (1943) on the bifurcation of the education system based on the medium of instruction. The majority of the Sri Lankan children from rural areas and downtrodden sections of the society were attending vernacular schools which provided a rudimentary education in local languages and the children from affluent classes were able to go to fee-levying, well-equipped English schools, which paved the way for government employment and higher education.

Higher education

Children who went to the vernacular schools had to enter the informal sector of the economy without any hope for higher education and upward social mobility. Prof. Jayasuriya described this anomalous condition of education as a ‘duality in education’ which reflected the British policy of promoting inequality in education and this duality justified the criticism of neo-Marxists that ‘education system tends to reproduce the existing society with its class distinctions’ and that ‘education leads to perpetuation of social inequalities. The notion of duality in education as developed by Prof. Jayasirya referred to the existence of two types of schools differentiated by medium of instruction, curricular provision, qualification, status and salaries of teachers and opportunities for higher education, upward social mobility and lucrative employment. As observed by Prof. Jayasuriya ‘the combined effects of these dualities were that the educational provision was unplanned, unevenly distributed, wasteful of human and financial resources and, above all, access to a quality education was by and large denied to the mass of the rural population and urban poor’ (Jayasuriya, 1981).

A series of measures that were introduced during the State Council era and the post-colonial era somewhat helped to eradicate this duality in education in favour of disadvantaged sections of the Sri Lankan society and these measures and their impact were well documented and need no elaboration.

Development goals

Sri Lanka managed to reach higher levels of literacy and school enrolment ratios at primary and secondary level and a drastic reduction in the dropout rates as a result of measures such as free education, scholarship schemes, free distribution of school textbooks and school uniforms and increased allocation of funds for education. Commitment on the part of the political authorities to expand educational opportunities and awareness among the general public about the importance of education to the overall quality of life those involved, as well as upon a country's national development goals with regard to human resource development are some of the other reasons for Sri Lanka's outstanding performance in school education.

Prof. J. E. Jayasuirya was the first Sri Lankan Professor of Education and Head of the Department of Education at the University of Ceylon. The department was established as a result of a recommendation made by the Special Committee of Education (1943) popularly known as Kannangara Committee. According to this recommendation the responsibility of training the graduate teachers in Sri Lanka was handed over to the University of Ceylon which was established in 1942. The establishment of this Department signalled the development of several post-graduate and undergraduate level courses in teacher education in the Sri Lankan university system.

Until 1964 the Department at Peradeniya was concentrating only on postgraduate courses in education for the graduate teachers employed in the government school system. In 1964, Prof. Jayasirya spearheaded the idea of introducing a Bachelors Degree course in Education enrolling a selected number of undergraduates who did well in their first year examination. The newly introduced degree course was the brainchild of Prof. Jayasuriya which attracted well talented students aspiring to become teachers.

It is very interesting to note that this course of study created some misgivings in the traditional departments of Social Sciences which complained that all talented students were ‘captured’ by the Department of Education and that they were deprived of students with high motivation and capability. One reason for students to choose the course in education was the preference they received from the education authorities in the appointment of teachers. It is no secret that Prof. J. E. Jayassuriya's students of education did not face the unemployment problem like other social science graduates.

Those with education degrees should be very grateful to Prof Jayasuriya for introducing with a vision to provide the undergraduate course with a vocational bias which enabled them to become gainfully employed and the opportunity given to them as teachers to promote human resource development at school level.

Social science undergraduates

Another important contribution of Prof Jayasuriya's thinking was to open this education course for Science Faculty students as well. Some of them who had a positive attitude towards teaching profession joined this course and studied along with social science undergraduates. But in later years this practice was stopped and only social science undergraduates were selected for this course. At least this is the present practice at the Colombo University where the tradition created by Prof Jayasuriya is still carried out. As we understand the Eastern and Jaffna universities are also conducting the B.Ed courses formulated with the original thinking of Prof Jayasuriya. The Open University and the University of Jaffna have been enrolling science undergraduates to follow this course in keeping with the practice introduced by Prof Jayasuriya in 1964.

It is heartening to mention that at the time of Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya, the study of teacher education was limited only to the Peradeniya University but now it has spread to other universities such as Colombo, Open University, Jaffna and Eastern University. Moreover, two Faculties of Education, function at present, one at Colombo University and the other one at the Open University of Sri Lanka. It is also interesting to note that it was the colleagues and students of Prof JEJ who were responsible for such an expansion of teacher education courses in the Sri Lankan university system.

Foreign universities

Another interesting turn of events was that though Prof Jayasuriya expected all graduates of education to become teachers several of them ended up as SLAS officers, high ranking officers in the SLEAS and that some of them became prominent academics in the university. Among them there are even international consultants and part-time/visiting professors and researchers in foreign universities. It is doubtful whether Prof. Jayasuriya had this kind of achievement and performance in mind when he developed the concept of this undergraduate course in education (B.Ed).

In keeping with the Hum-bolt (German) academic tradition universities are not only expected to teach advanced knowledge in a variety of disciplines, but are also expected to undertake research to create new knowledge.

In the Hum-bolt (German) University the professors integrated their teaching with their newly created knowledge through research. For that matter it was a German innovation for the universities to accept research as one of the main functions of universities. In keeping with these traditions Prof Jayasuriya engaged himself in research pertaining to Sri Lankan history of education, mathematics education and population education.

Prof Jayasuriya authored several books and monographs, amounting to around 200 publications both in English and Sinhala. They made a tremendous impact on the students of education and educational researchers. It was he who brought out the fact that even during the peak period in the British rule only about 10 percent of the school going population went to English medium schools and 90 percent of them were educated in national languages.

Even in recent times there are some who talk about the high quality of English education in the past forgetting that it was given only to limited number of students in Sri Lanka. Analyzing the benefits of free education he had observed that 90 percent of the children were getting free education in the so-called vernacular schools and the new scheme initially benefitted the upper class children who were enrolled in the English schools. His sharp criticism of the educational bureaucracy which functioned in the most lackadaisical manner during his time was not well-received by the policy makers but very much appreciated by the educationists of his time for his openness and fearlessness.

Prof Jayasuriya took a keen interest in the study of education systems in the third world countries such as Malaysia and Korea and he thought the development of education in these countries are more relevant to the educational issues in Sri Lanka. His studies encouraged the university curriculum developers to include the study of education in the third world countries into their teacher education programmes.

For some time Prof Jayasuriya served at the UNESCO as its Regional Advisor in population education and he was appointed to lead a team of specialists to help the countries of the third world to formulate population education programme. The source book published by his team of experts was influential in developing strategies and programmes in respect of population education in the region. Eric de Silva has indicated that Prof Jayasuriya was known as the father of population education in the Asian region in view of the pioneering work he did when he was attached to the UNESCO Regional Centre.

Jayasuriya Commission

He was also engaged in the development of an intelligence test and a standardized version of the Raven's Non-Verbal Test which were in use for several years.

Prof Jayasuriya produced 12 Sinhala textbooks in mathematics in a simplified form for the benefit of students and teachers. They were popular books in schools for nearly two decades until the introduction of new mathematics.

Although in later years he took an interest in population education and the history of Sri Lankan education, as a university teacher his area of interest was psychology and educational evaluation which he presented and discussed in a very interesting and simple manner relating the concepts to life situations and to actual teaching-learning activities.

As chairman of the National Education Commission he was instrumental for several far reaching reforms which are still relevant to the present day issues in education in Sri Lanka. A careful study of the recommendations of the Jayasuriya Commission would shed new light on the issues deliberated by on the policy makers at present. His recommendation pertaining to compulsory education was implemented in 1997 after the enactment of Compulsory Education Regulations.

The Commission also recommended flexibility in scheduling the school vacations in keeping with the needs of the community, particularly in agricultural areas where children had to help their parents during harvesting seasons. The Commission supported the inclusion of health and physical education into the school curriculum. The report also emphasized the need for integrating school education with the world of work and recommended work experience as a remedy to bridge the gap between academic education and the needs of the productive sector of the economy. The Commission recommended Wood Work or Metal Work for boys, Home Science for girls and work experience (a day in school garden or paddy field practicing at a cottage industry in the area). It is pertinent to note that subsequent education reforms continued to follow the ideas enshrined in the Jayasuriya report and introduced subjects such as pre-vocational studies (1972 Reforms), life skills (1981) and practical and technical skills (1997).

Social responsibility

In recent times there is an attempt to incorporate provision in the school and university curriculum to promote leadership skills, problem solving skills, innovative skills, information literacy, social and communications skills, ICT skills and English language skills which could help the students to become effective members of the emerging knowledge economy.

Jayasuriya Commission was also very much concerned about the strong relationship that should exist between the school and the community. This concern of the Commission is manifested in the recent statements, reports and directives issued by the education authorities and policy makers in Sri Lanka. One of the recent innovations is the establishment of School Development Committee under the programme for school improvement to promote school-community relationship.

It is charged by the society with the duty of training and bringing up the students, so that they may be able to take part in activities aiming at the transformation of the society. Recent thinking in school-community relationship is very much in keeping with the ideas of the Jayasuriya Commission. Accordingly, the school can become a resource for the whole community by extending learning and sharing among community members. Often in most cases, especially in poor countries, the school is the only social institution available for the local communities. Therefore the school can distribute information or share experiences with the community in which it is located. By building stronger links between the school and the community the benefits of having a school will be shared, while at the same time community members will feel an ownership of the school.

Apart from his academic accomplishments, Prof Jayasuriya was modest and simple in his lifestyles and dealing with his colleagues and students. He had a high sense of propriety, social responsibility and ethical standards. No wonder his qualities as a university academic are always remembered and appreciated by his students and colleagues. His impact on thousands of his students is remarkable and admirable. Still the University of Peradeniya remembers him by dedicating a magnificent building to the memory of Prof Jayasuriya.

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