“An invaluable addition to the scholarly literature on Sri Lankan social development” says Emeritus Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya, University of Western Australia; Foundation Professor of Sociology and Social Welfare and Dean Social Sciences, University of Ceylon, Colombo; and author of ‘Taking Social Development Seriously: The Experience of Sri Lanka’ and numerous other widely recognized publications.
“Taken in its totality, it brings out two irrefutable phenomena in the field of education policy formulation and implementation in Sri Lanka” says Deshamanya K.H.J.Wijayadasa, former Secretary to the President.
Home ReviewsGetting Away from a Colonial Model

Getting Away from a Colonial Model

(Sunday Island-October 19, 2013)

by Leelananda De Silva

In the 1970’s, Sri Lanka ranked high among developing countries in the league tables for education and health. Its outstanding achievement was in female education. This was the result of investing resources in education without any form of gender discrimination. There were many desirable outcomes as a result. The decline in population growth rates can be largely attributed to better education and high rates of literacy. Improvements in health were partly the result of better education. According to World Bank and UNESCO statistics, Sri Lanka allocated about 3.5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to education in the early 70s. In 2010, that share has declined to 2%, at a time when the international development community is attaching the highest priority to education, as a way of overcoming poverty. (Shares of GDP for comparable countries like Malaysia and Vietnam in 2010, are over 4 percent.)

Sri Lanka is lagging behind in a field where it once reigned supreme. There are increasing inequalities in educational opportunities with the more affluent walking away from the state system, sending their children to private schools. Even when they attend government schools, most of their tuition for the more important subjects is obtained privately. The challenge today is to reverse the pattern of diminishing resources. There should be a target of reaching 4 percent of GDP by the year 2020. The time for root and branch reform is not now, and what should be aimed at is incremental reform aligned with increasing public resources.

The volume by Eric de Silva offers a new opportunity for more extensive public discussion of national educational policies. It is a timely intervention by a leading authority in the field. De Silva has all the qualifications to write it. He has been one of the finest administrators of my generation. He had 20 years of experience as a generalist administrator before he started to focus on the subject of education. He was permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education and later he became an expert in the field, working for the United Nations in Sri Lanka and in the Asia Pacific region. With his academic background in political science, he is eminently placed to inquire into the politics of education reform in this country.

The volume is in five sections. The first three sections are newly written for this volume and cover the period from the early 1970’s to 2005. The reforms of that period can be understood only in the context of what went before. Sections 4 and 5 briefly examine the key developments in reforming school and university education since the 1930’s. Whilst there are significant gaps in the volume on educational reform issues of this period (the taking over of schools in the 1960s and the expansion of universities are two of them), this volume is an important contribution to the understanding of the role of politics in education reform in the last 75 years, not only of the politics of politicians, but also of the politics of professors and bureaucrats.

In reviewing this volume I shall adopt a chronological sequence starting with events of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The section on ‘A Fresh Look at the Kannangara Reforms’ is a clear analysis of the many changes that were introduced by C W W Kannangara, who was Minister of Education in the State Council. The aim of these reforms was not to make a clean break from the existing colonial model of providing an elitist education to a selected group. It was more an attempt to reach out to a much wider group of children from the rural areas to obtain a high quality English education. The key instrument in this approach was the establishment of over 50 central schools all of which had English as the medium of instruction. Apart from this, free education in English medium school also enabled the participation of a larger group.

It is usual to regard Kannangara as the father of free education. That is not strictly correct. There were others who initiated such proposals like A. Ratnayake, and Kannangara went along with it. As usual in this country, there was no attempt to inquire into the costs of this proposal. At least on this occasion the benefits have greatly outweighed the costs and the politicians were right. Without getting involved in the detailed analysis of the Kannangara reforms to be found in this volume, one key statistic might be noted. In 1946, only a few years after the Central schools were established, they performed exceptionally well at the SSC English examinations, obtaining a pass rate of 50% as compared with an all-island percentage of 35.

This shows that an English education, although selective, could have been made available to the better and brighter students from the rural areas and breaking the colonial model of English medium instruction as an elitist system. There is an apt quotation from G. Uswatte-Aratchi, a product of Central Schools. "Central Schools brought a first class education to boys and girls from desperately poor homes with illiterate parents and with no tradition of formal education ……..They were taught effortlessly, although they were literally miles away from an English speaking home".

The section on "University Education: The Peradeniya Model and its Demise", brings back memories to those undergraduates who were at Peradeniya, in the 1950’s. For them, this was the golden period of university education. There was a sense of fellowship arising from a residential system of higher education, and a sense of scholarship, born of access to wide reading in English and high quality lecturing from a select group of teachers. There is an extended discussion of the role of Ivor Jennings, coming from the University of Cambridge, and before that from a very poor working class home. As the volume states, Jennings "did not seek to create a prototype of Oxford or Cambridge at Peradeniya" What he sought was a high class university.

One of Jennings’ cherished aims was to establish a university which had a high degree of autonomy. That is neither a western nor an eastern concept. It was something that the university and the country required, providing some space which is outside politics, and where there can be an opportunity for free inquiry. It is therefore regrettable that under a liberal Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, (the Minister of Education responsible was Iriyagolle) such autonomy was ended by the Higher Education Act No.20 of 1966. This was the beginning of a process where independent and autonomous public institutions were gradually done away with. It is indeed a matter for regret, at least for our generation, that Ivor Jennings‘ contribution to Ceylon, is now forgotten, both in building up Peradeniya, as an outstanding University, and his contribution to the making of a benign constitution for the country which lasted for 25 years. Since that constitution was abolished, we have been playing with fire.

Sections 1 to 3 of the volume address educational issues that emerged from the 1970’s onwards. During the 1970’s, and after the JVP insurrection of 1971, education policy-making became more radical. In the early 1960’s, assisted schools had been taken-over, and English ceased to be the medium of instruction. The colonial model of education had been laid to rest. Since that time, there had been many attempts at tinkering with policies, without much political consensus for these changes. In the 1970’s, there was a clear attempt to develop a system of education which was more vocationally oriented. Academic and vocational aspects of education were to be integrated. The spectre of educated unemployment was raising its ugly head.

The curriculum was to be changed to cater for those who were not entering universities, so that those students would have competences which will enable them to find a job. Most of the reforms that were introduced in 1972, did not last beyond the life of the then government. According to the author, "It is not unlikely that the Education reforms of the UF government and, in particular, the way they were implemented contributed considerably to the debacle is suffered at the Elections". The volume offers us details of what occurred after, with the new government publishing a White Paper in 1981 with detailed proposals for the reform of all aspects of education. This White Paper too got caught in party political rivalry.

Section 2 of the volume which is entitled, "Journey towards a National Education Policy Fails and Politics takes over (1990-2005)", is an extended discussion of the efforts made between 1990 and 2005 to develop a national education policy. This section is valuable in that it places on record the discussions of this period, which is not widely available. One of the main strands in reform proposals was the restructuring of the existing school system. It is a rich source of information for future policy makers. There were suggestions for abolishing schools which offered 13 years of continuous education, and breaking them into junior and secondary schools.

There were many variations to these proposed schemes. Many committees of educationists were appointed, and there were many reports. English was once again introduced as a medium of instruction in some schools and for some subjects. The author meticulously records these developments which are not familiar to other than a small, closed circle of educationists and government officials. The author’s main concern is the lack of consultation with a wider constituency on these suggested reforms. What is clear is that with all these committees of officials addressing various aspects of educational reforms, nothing much happened in these 15 to 20 years in the form of significant reforms.

A salient feature of the protagonists in these reform discussions might be noted. In the 1930’s and 1940’s when major reforms were introduced, those who were intimately involved were senior politicians drawn from both left and right. There was also participation of those directly engaged in education in schools, such as principals with hands-on experience. In contrast, in the latter period, those most active in the reform movement were professors of education and other education technocrats, with their own preferred philosophies. Departments of Education in universities appear to have emerged as the power centres in educational reform. A striking feature was the lack of a national debate openly conducted. Common sense appears to have eluded the certified educationists.

One important conclusion to be obtained from this volume is that grand and comprehensive reforms are not the answer for the many deficiencies of the education system. As noted earlier, lack of resources is the critical constraint on the system. In concluding this review, I would like to suggest that, apart from attempting to undertake comprehensive reform of the education system, a more incremental approach to improving current institutions and systems should also be examined, in consultation with practitioners at the schools level. One area for such reform could be in teacher training. There could be a closer look at the quality of teaching whether it be in schools or vocational training centres.

The feasibility of offering greater autonomy to schools, by removing the iron grip of the Ministry of Education, could be explored. There could be more mobilization of resources from parents and the community, as a result. A start needs to be made in making principals of schools once again the respected personalities they once were. They should be vested with more powers to experiment. While a vocational form of English might be imparted in most schools, there can also be higher institutions of English learning and teaching for selected groups of personnel, in government and in the private sector, addressing their professional requirements in a globalizing world.

Courtesy : http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=90496


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