A fresh look at Kannangara Reforms

Written by Eric J. de Silva (former Secretary, Ministry of Education) and published in The Island on December 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20 2010, collated here because the original lacks hyperlinks.

C.W.W. Kannangara rode the educational scene of the two decades that preceded our gaining Independence from British rule like a colossus, and the education reforms that were introduced during this period or immediately thereafter are commonly attributed to him whether he was personally responsible for the changes proposed or whether he was instrumental in delivering the changes proposed by bodies such as the Special Committee on Education with which he was associated, irrespective of whether he was in total agreement with the proposed changes or not.

This essay is an attempt to disaggregate these reforms and re-evaluate the contribution Kannangara made to the development of education in this country.

Reforms introduced in our education system during the period we came under the Donoughmore Constitution (1931–1947) are commonly referred to as the Kannangara reforms, named after C.W.W.Kannangara who was Minister of Education during this entire period. This essay is an attempt to take a fresh look at these reforms based on the available literature and, hopefully, remove some of the mist that has gathered round them over time.

The year 1931 marked not only the inauguration of the Donoughmore Constitution which granted us a large measure of internal self-government, but also the arrival of universal suffrage. The new constitution gave us a State Council of 61 members, 50 of whom were territorially elected and 8 nominated by the Governor. The remaining 3 positions were occupied by the Officers of State (Chief Secretary, Legal Secretary and Financial Secretary), who had no vote but wielded plenty of power as officials of the imperial government exercising control over what were known as ‘the reserved subjects’.

The Constitution made provision for 7 Executive Committees consisting of members of the State Council. The Chairmen of these Executive Committees together with the Officers of State comprised the Board of Ministers. It is as Chairman of the Executive Committee of Education that Mr. Kannangara became Minister of Education. He held these positions right through the entire Donoughmore period, having being elected to the State Council as a member at both the 1931 and 1936 elections. (The State Council elected in 1936 continued until 1947 due to the intervention of the Second World War and the events that followed on the local political scene leading ultimately to the promulgation of the Soulbury Constitution.) The Executive Committee that is most remembered today is the Executive Committee of Education, in itself a tribute to the dynamism and leadership qualities displayed by Kannangara as its Chairman and as Minister of Education.

It is often assumed that Kannangara’s reform efforts in education commenced with the appointment of the Special Committee on Education in April 1940 to report on the changes necessary in the system of education we had inherited from the colonial administration. This was not so. He had shown a great deal of interest in education even as a member of the Legislative Council during pre-Donoughmore days, and did not have to wait until 1940 to make his presence felt.

It was clear to Kannangara at the very outset that no real change in the existing system of education could be made within the legal and administrative framework provided for in the Education Ordinance of 1920. In terms of its provisions, all administrative powers and responsibility in the field of education lay in the hands of the Director of Education while the Board of Education, a body nominated by the Governor, was empowered to frame regulations subject to approval by the Governor in Council. Under such an arrangement there was not much that the Executive Committee of Education, or for that matter the State Council itself, could do. Kannangara was convinced that this had to change, and both the Director and the Board of Education which was dominated by those who wanted no change in the status quo, made responsible to the Executive Committee of Education and the State Council, as speedily as possible.

Although the decision to replace the 1920 Ordinance with a new law was taken soon after the appointment of the Executive Committee in 1931, and the preparation of a draft bill taken in hand even before the end of that year, it took seven long years and an unrelenting battle on the part of Kannangara to get it placed before the State Council. K.H.M.Sumathipala (History of Education in Ceylon 1796–1965) has documented in considerable detail how vested interests both within and outside the government left no stone unturned to thwart his efforts to bring the existing legal and administrative framework for education in line with the constitutional advances the country had made since the enactment of the 1920 Ordinance.

The new bill which was finally tabled in the State Council in August 1938 became law in September 1939, over a year later, during which period there were many attempts to block it by seen and unseen forces that had come together to resist any change. This is what Minister Kannangara said introducing the bill in the State Council: “…….some people seem to think that the subject of education should not be entrusted to the Executive Committee of Education and that anybody may be asked to deal with that subject except the Executive Committee of Education. That is a negation of this Constitution. The main objection comes from those who want to see the Board of Education super-imposed upon the State Council and the Executive Committee of Education.”

He went on to add: “Under this (1920) Ordinance the Director of Education is not responsible to the Executive Committee or the State Council. He has to discharge his duties as the Board of Education wants. ……The present Ordinance is completely out of date. It is not in keeping with the spirit of the constitution and I expect the honourable members of this House to hold the Executive Committee of Education responsible for anything done as regards education. We cannot hold someone else responsible. That is not proper. The State Council must be able to take the Executive Committee of Education to task, but the Executive Committee of Education cannot discharge those functions properly if the administration is left in the hands of someone else and the Director of Education is made responsible to that party.” Even a member of the State Council who had earlier voted for a postponement of the discussion on the bill (J.W. Oldfield) was to later admit during the debate that such a position was “directly against the principles of the Constitution outlined by the Donoughmore Commissioners”.

There were many provisions of the new bill, too numerous to mention here, those who stood for the old order were not in favour of. One of Kannangara’s biggest achievements was to defeat the combined strength of these forces after a gruelling battle which lasted well near a decade and get the Education Ordinance of 1939 into the statute book without which none of the major changes that followed would have been possible. It is indeed a matter for surprise that most commentators who pay glowing tributes to him hardly make any reference to this very important contribution of his. It needs to be underlined that had it not been for the forces that combined to delay the enactment of the new law, many of the changes that had to wait till after the commencement of the World War would have been introduced much earlier. The Education Ordinance of 1939, incidentally, remains in force even today, and there is no doubt that had he been around it would have been replaced long ago!

To move on to other matters, Kannangara was deeply troubled by the social stratification that resulted from the two types of education that the school system provided based on the medium of instruction. He had often spoken in the Legislative Council drawing attention, in the words of Sumathipala, “to the existence of a community of people in Ceylon who did not know their mother tongue. Invariably, they spoke English in the home, were educated in the English medium from kindergarten and were holding high positions in the administration. They had no cultural link with the common man of the country. This was an undesirable feature under a democratically elected government”. He felt very strongly the need to bridge this gap as a sine qua non for a well-functioning democracy. Amongst the first things he did after assuming duties as Minister of Education, therefore, was to make it obligatory on all English medium schools to provide a course of instruction in the mother tongue of the pupils up to Standard V. As an example to the other English schools, provision was made at Royal College to do so from January 1932.

There had been many who had argued from about the latter part of the 19th century that the mother tongue was the best medium of instruction. There were not only educationists among them, but also colonial administrators. Kannangara too subscribed to this view. Although the Macrae Commission of 1920 had recommended that “instruction in the vernacular languages should be compulsory for all pupils at the earlier stage of their school career”, the recommendation had failed to get implemented. Being the pragmatist he was, Kannangara wanted to test the waters. So he started a new kindergarten class at the Royal Preparatory School in 1933 with Sinhalese as the medium of instruction, only for the first year. This class was reserved for the Sinhalese and for those who chose to take Sinhalese as the medium of instruction. His words in the State Council in this regard are worth recalling. He said, “we do not propose to create an upheaval and a revolution all at once” showing with what degree of caution he approached the subject of bringing about change in education.

While Kannangara did not like English being an instrument of social stratification, he saw its value and sought to make it available to those who remained outside its reach. He, therefore, followed up his attempt to strengthen the teaching of the mother tongue in the English medium schools with an attempt to expand the teaching of English as a second language in the so-called vernacular or ‘swabhasha’ schools. The results, however, fell far short of expectations and “by the end of 1939 only very few swabhasha schools in fact were teaching English” (Sumathipala). Arguably, Kannangara saw the need for a child to know both the mother tongue and English, and was for bilingualism rather than monolingualism. Though both the above measures brought very limited success, they provide a clear indication of the importance he placed on both the mother tongue and English.

Kannangara, the great innovator he was, then came up with a different solution to the problem of making English available to those who found it to be beyond their reach by making English available to rural children selectively, starting with the best and brightest among them. This he did by launching his scheme for establishing Central Schools in different parts of the country in 1940, the very year that the Special Committee was appointed. He knew that this would not bring about an overnight change in the country’s education system, but a beginning had to be made. Let us now proceed to discuss his new initiative in greater detail.

The establishment of Central Schools was by far the most innovative step taken by Kannangara, for which he and he alone has to be given credit. It was his firm conviction that English should not be a badge of social distinction and an inheritance of only the more advantaged segments of society. The main purpose of establishing these schools was to take quality education provided only in English medium schools at the time and had become the preserve of relatively well-to-do families living in urban areas, to the less advantaged rural population.

The term ‘central school’ entered the education lexicon in this country with the establishment of three such schools for boys in 1840 by the colonial administration. These schools were intended to provide a practical education to enable the youth to qualify themselves for agriculture and other lucrative employment. The inspiration for their establishment had, in fact, come from educational thinking and practice prevalent in Britain at the time. These central schools, however, were short-lived due to the lack of economic rewards for the practical subjects they taught, which resulted in even Latin being introduced later as a subject. To quote J.E.Jayasuriya (Educational Policies and Progress during British Rule in Ceylon 1796–1948): “In the course of the retrenchment measures taken in 1848, the Central Schools in Kandy and Galle lost their special character, namely the little practical education they provided, and the Central School in Colombo became part of the Colombo Academy” which, as we know, later became Royal College.

The need to establish central secondary schools, in which pupils might have a training largely based on local conditions re-emerged in 1937. Mr.Kannangara appears to have gone along with this idea initially when he explained his plan for establishing Central Schools in a speech he made to the State Council in 1940. He said: “As regards the Central Schools, the plan is that there should be a system whereby there will be one school in the centre of a group of schools and that group of schools will be feeding that Central School as much as possible. The post-primary classes of these schools will be stopped and post-primary education will be given in the Central School.” He added that education in these schools “will not be of one kind as has hitherto been given” which meant that the new Central Schools were to provide a diversified education or streaming at the post-primary level.

However, Kannangara had moved away from this position when he set out to select existing schools for re-organization as Central Schools later in the year. Although this indicated a quick turn-around, it indicated in no uncertain terms that he was always prepared to modify his position on further reflection on what he felt were the contemporary needs. In a speech he made in the State Council in 1944, he pointed out that when the Financial Secretary had shown a disinclination to support his proposal to set up Central Schools through which he was seeking to provide English medium education free of charge, he told the Financial Secretary as follows: “For the sake of the poor children in these distant and far off places, whose parents cannot afford to send them to places like St.Thomas’, Wesley, Ananda or Royal, let us establish these schools. Why should only the children in big towns — why should only they profit from higher education? Could we not have something of the type of Royal College, or something even less than that to start with at least? Could we not have some of them in our constituencies where we find hundreds and thousands of children unable to go to better schools?……..Where a child with absolutely no hope in this life beyond becoming a vernacular teacher, circumscribed as he is by the bounds of his village, circumscribed as he is by the means of his parents, but still a beautiful child with a splendid brain — why should that child not have an equal chance with the others?.” The Financial Secretary had seen the logic of his reasoning and relented, and Kannangara had his way! Equity or providing equality of opportunity to whatever extent was practically possible appears to have been his guiding principle here.

Thus when Kannangara proceeded to establish Central Schools, what he set out to do was to bring the St.Thomas’, Wesley, Ananda or Royal College model (Royal College model, to be brief) to the rural areas with, of course, much greater attention paid to vocational and aesthetic subjects than the urban schools ever did. He established the first Central School in his own electorate of Matugama, and there were 22 of them by 1944 — an outstanding achievement by any standard! To quote Sumathipala: “A definite step forward taken this year was the provision of 40 free board and lodging scholarships at each school. The pupils were picked out from the surrounding area, from feeder schools. How far this measure was welcomed and appreciated by the public was seen when the residents of several localities came forward with generous offers of land, money and material to put up buildings required for dormitories.” This, incidentally, showed that there were richer folk who were not averse to supporting enlightened measures intended to bridge the gap between them and their less advantaged brethren.

The following words of Kannangara, in the speech referred to above, are worthy of special note: “These schools were started only about 3 ½ years ago. It was my own scheme. I thought that this was the only way in which education could be spread far and wide…………..Everybody seemed to condemn this measure, and asked ‘What is this nonsense that you are starting?’ So I thought I would start this nonsense on myself. I tried it as an experiment in my own constituency.” When he used the words “my own scheme” he obviously did not have in mind ‘central schools’ of the type proposed, in the meantime, by the Special Committee that he chaired.

In August 1945, replying to criticism aimed at him regarding the Central Schools he was establishing, Kannangara said in the State Council: “Some of the Central Schools were established only the other day, last month. Sir, some of the big schools have been plodding on for the last 100 years to attain this excellence. I have been condemned for offering this ‘false pearl’ of the central schools. I say that it is a pearl of great price. Sell all that you have and buy it for the benefit of the whole community. ‘Mankind has struck its tents and is on its onward march’. Let us not lag behind”. There is no doubt that, in Mr. Kannangara’s own lifetime, some of these schools were able to reach levels of excellence their urban counterparts had taken a much longer time to achieve. This was largely due to the personal interest that Kannangara took in their development going to the extent of handpicking, and very often personally interviewing, the principals who were to take charge of these schools, and from then on keeping a close vigil on the new schools that he was establishing.

No discussion of the Central Schools can be complete without reference to the fact that they were the first to provide free education in the English medium. And that was well before the introduction of what is commonly referred to as the free education scheme which Kannangara was to describe as “free education all round”. This is something that is often forgotten. His Central Schools added a third category of schools to the existing school system which consisted of (i) vernacular schools providing free education in Sinhala or Tamil and (ii) fee-levying schools providing education in the English medium. These Central Schools began to provide free education in the English medium which until then had been provided only in category (ii) schools located in urban centres, making Kannangara the undisputed ‘Father of Free Education in the English Medium’. And let me emphasize that this project of Kannangara’s had great potential over the long-term for minimizing, if not totally doing away with, the social stratification that the colonial policy on the medium of instruction had brought about.

It would be interesting to note that the Central Schools had a pass rate of 50.4% at the SSC (English) Examination held in 1946, as compared with an all-island percentage of 37.5%. Out of the 121 candidates who sat the full examination from 14 Central Schools, 61 had passed, with 9 candidates obtaining distinctions in English, and these were children who had studied in their mother tongue in primary school. When it came to university admissions later on, Central School products were able to compete with their counterparts from schools which had English as the medium of instruction from the kindergarten upwards, and acquit themselves well. It did not take much time for these schools to make their presence felt in cadetting, cricket, athletics and other extra-curricular activities too. What more proof of the emphasis that Central Schools placed on the pursuit of excellence on the classical public school model as against the objective of providing diversified education that the other version of central schools contemplated?

It is relevant to add here that the Rural Scheme introduced by Kannangara at Handessa in 1932 to diversify the curriculum had hardly been included in the Central School scheme, although it had been introduced in 253 schools by the time the Central Schools came into being. (This scheme, commonly known as the Handessa Scheme was a modification of the scheme originally introduced by R.Patrick, Inspector of Schools, in 1930). One cannot, therefore, run away from the conclusion that Kannangara did not consider it as suitable for the little Royal Colleges he was setting up in the rural areas, and hence did not make any attempt to incorporate it in the Central School curriculum though, of course, provision was made to include practical subjects such as agriculture, commerce and handicrafts (metal work, wood work, lacquer work, weaving etc.) in addition to aesthetic subjects like dancing and music as part of general education.

M.C. Mathupala (‘Fifty years of free education’ — Daily News, Aug.8,1997) gives the following first hand account of the transformation that took place when a Rural Scheme School (Galahitiyawa Rural Scheme Boys’ School), where he happened to be a student, was turned into a Central School (Galahitiyawa Central School) in May 1944. He says: “A central school was established in each of the then electorates. For this purpose, a rural school — in most instances in a central location in the electorate — was selected. Most of them were the then Rural Scheme Schools. …………….As students of the Rural Scheme School we used to dig up the railway reservation close to the school and plant manioc and sweet potatoes from morning till lunch time. These were the war days. Then we were given a quarter of a loaf of bread with dhal or potato gravy for lunch. This system was continued for a few months even after the school became a Central School. A new principal was appointed and he, with the three teachers who were there to assist him, gradually helped us to merge with the new students who enrolled in the school as fifth standard scholarship holders and settle down to a revised curriculum of instruction.” This is ample proof that Mr.Kannangara did not make any attempt to incorporate the Rural Scheme into the Central School curriculum. He had a different model in mind, as we have already seen.

In the words of G.Usvatte-Aratchi, a product of Katudampe Government Mixed School where he had his primary education (1940–45), Hikkaduwa Central (1946–51) and Kuliyapitiya Central (1952–53), “……………Central Schools brought a first class education to boys and girls from desperately poor homes with illiterate parents and no tradition of formal education, whatever. They picked intellectually able students from among them, housed them in hostels, fed them more nutritionally than in their own homes, taught them elementary hygiene, introduced them to the fine arts, exercised their bodies with physical activity and games and instructed them in academic skills. They were taught English effortlessly, although they were literally miles away from an English speaking home.” (‘Time to resuscitate Central Schools’ — Daily News. Aug.22, 2001)

In an article which appeared in The Island of 6th June 2001, (‘Central Schools and their Revival — a different viewpoint’), I summarized “what was central and special about the Central Schools” in the following words:

  1. They were central because they were located centrally to serve a cluster of feeder schools.
  2. They were special because they catered to the brightest children completing their primary education in the feeder schools.
  3. With English as the medium of instruction like in the prestigious, urban schools, they stood out from the rest of the schools in the rural areas.
  4. Principals were carefully handpicked, and given a free hand to manage and develop these schools. They were young, energetic men seized with a mission, and had the fullest support of the authorities.
  5. Some of the best teachers in the country were drawn into these schools (to the extent of raising protests from the management of assisted schools).
  6. With much greater emphasis on vocational and aesthetic subjects, these schools provided a wider variety of learning experiences than most of the urban English medium schools did.
  7. Free hostel facilities were provided for the scholarship winners — both girls and boys- enabling about 15–20% of the pupils to live ‘in situ’, and form a large enough core of students for spearheading both academic and extra-curricular activities of the school.
  8. Last, but not the least, these schools were manageable, sizable units with a pupil population of not more than 1000 and a teaching staff of not more than 50.

Central Schools fitted neatly into Mr.Kannangara’s idea of bridging the gulf that existed at the time between the English educated and the others, by making English medium education available to rural children who hitherto had no access to it. Of course, the gulf could not have been fully bridged in a year, or even a decade. It is to his credit that within a matter of six years 50 such schools were established and a large number amongst them reached levels of excellence, hardly surpassed since then. Central Schools were Kannangara’s most outstanding contribution to education in this country, and he could easily claim sole copyright for what turned out to be a unique ‘product’. While the Special Committee’s school structure with its central school proposal never saw the light of day, the Kannangara scheme continued to make headway under his very close supervision and careful guidance. By the time his long and illustrious tenure as Minister of Education ended in 1947, their number had increased to 54 — illuminating the educational landscape of the country. These schools were an addition to the elitist tradition, albeit an elitism based not on economic and social factors but on ability and merit.

The need to appoint a body of persons to report on the existing system of education and recommend necessary changes had been raised repeatedly in the State Council since September 1935, and on every such occasion the matter had been referred to the Executive Committee of Education for its consideration. During this period, however, the attention of Minister Kannangara and the Executive Committee was focused more on the need to get the Education Ordinance of 1920 out of the way, and to get the proposed new bill which had been stuck in the Legal Draftsman’s Department since July 1932 placed before the State Council.

Kannangara, in fact, mentioned in the State Council in 1938 that the Legal Secretary had inquired from him as to whether this Bill could be laid by in view of the proposal to appoint an Education Commission, a clear indication that there were many who felt more comfortable with a Commission which would take a number of years to come out with its findings, as a means of buying time against the changes proposed in the new bill. With the new bill firmly in the statute book in September 1939, the Executive Committee of Education resolved (April 1940) to form a Special Committee, rather than a Commission, for “the task of investigating the defects of the present educational system and recommending measures of reform necessitated by the changed conditions”.

The Special Committee on Education was to consist of all the members of the Executive Committee of Education willing to serve on it and eight others named in the resolution. It was to function under the chairmanship of Mr Kannangara who was Chairman of the Executive Committee of Education and, in that capacity, Minister of Education as well. The eight outsiders mentioned in the resolution were the Director of Education; Principal, Training College; Principal, Royal College; Rev.Fr. M.J. Legoc; Mr. P.de.S. Kularatne; Mr. S. Shivapadasunderam; Rev. R.W. Stopford and Major E.A. Nugawela M.S.C. On May 31, 1940 the Executive Committee resolved to co-opt Mr. S.A. Pakeman and Dr.G.P. Malalasekara as members of the Special Committee. Mr.G.K.W. Perera, Rev.R.S.de Saram and Mr. N. Nadaraja were co-opted during the period September-October 1940. Mr. J.C. Amarasingham was appointed in January, 1941 to take the place of Rev. Stopford who resigned from the Committee, and Dr. W.I. Jennings was co-opted in June 1941.

“It would have been foolhardy to expect unanimity from such a large body of persons, representing diverse interests. K.Alvapillai who functioned as Secretary to both the Special Committee and the Executive Committee of Education, was later to comment that several important matters, acute differences emerged as was evidenced by the number of dissents and riders attached to the report” (Education in Ceylon, A Centenary Volume Part 11, 1969). There were in all 1 rider and dissent, 6 riders with one signed by the Chairman himself, and 4 dissents. The rider Kannangara wrote was in respect of the continuance of the denominational system which he opposed, but failed to carry his fellow-members in the Committee (except two) along with him.

The Special Committee had 90 meetings in all and submitted its report in September 1943. The Executive Committee of Education made a few modifications in its recommendations and submitted them to the Board of Ministers in the form of a 25 clause resolution in January 1944. Moving the resolution in the State Council on May 30, 1944 along with the comments made on it by the Board of Ministers, Kannangara referred to the fact that “some matters which you will find in the Report of the Special Committee have been purposely removed by the Executive Committee from the scope of this resolution”, something that most of us often overlook.

The resolution had a rough ride in the State Council with the debate taking 15 full days of discussion spread out over a period of over 15 months, and was ultimately disposed of only on June 6, 1945 more than a year later. When it was finally passed, it was with many amendments. This meant that the package which finally emerged at the end of the tunnel was considerably different from what the Special Committee had proposed.

Let us now turn our attention to the main areas that received the attention of the Special Committee, the recommendations it made and the changes that followed, bearing in mind that Kannangara himself did not fully subscribe to everything that the Special Committee (often referred to as the Kannangara Committee) proposed, the Executive Committee put forward or the State Council approved.

The Special Committee proposed a new school structure with a diversified curriculum as the centre-piece of its recommendations. The Committee felt that while there should be a common curriculum at the primary stage of education (an ‘infant class’ followed by standards 1–5), there should be differentiated education provision at the post-primary stage linked to the future careers of the pupils, and the contribution to social and individual well-being they were capable of making. It reckoned that “under the present economic conditions the vast majority of the student population will have to take to some kind of occupation soon after the age of 14” i.e. at the end of compulsory education.

Recognizing the existence of a professional class, a highly skilled class and an ordinary skilled and semi-skilled class in “all civilized societies” and the wide differences in general intelligence, special abilities and innate aptitudes of children, the Committee proposed a school system designed to supply three types of education at the post-primary stage. These were: (i) secondary schools leading to the university and professional colleges, (ii) senior schools leading to polytechnics and technical schools and (iii) practical schools leading to agricultural and trade schools. Children were to be assigned to these schools on the results of a selective test conducted at the end of the 5th standard, with some provision to accommodate late developers. It was the Special Committee’s position that “the need for a practical or technical bias is imperative in the case of the vast majority of post-primary children” and “an academic bias is necessary only in the case of a few” and that the selection can be done at the end of six years of primary school i.e. at the age of 11+.

While the secondary schools were to have a lower department of three years and an upper department of two years followed by an additional two years for the Higher School Certificate Course (making a total of seven years), the senior schools were to have a lower department of three years and an upper department of two years only. The practical schools were to provide a three year course with an optional higher practical course of two years’ duration only for those who were capable of benefiting from such education while the others leave school at the end of the three-year period (i.e. at the end of the compulsory education period.)

The Committee expected only 5% of those appearing for the selection test to be held at the end of primary school to qualify for the secondary school and 15% to qualify for the senior school, which meant that the preponderant majority of 80% entered practical school. Thus, the primary school followed by the practical school was to be the main channel of education for the nation’s children.

The secondary schools catering for 5% of the children who pass the selective test were expected to provide a broad general education with an academic bias. The Special Committee explained that the senior schools catering to 15% of the children were to evolve into a type of “secondary school providing a liberal education based on a more realistic and scientific curriculum than that of a secondary school”, quoting the words of the Spens Report of England. This, in other words, meant that a pure and simple liberal education was what a secondary school, in contrast to a senior school, was basically required to provide to the chosen few! It was clearly stated that “the path to the University must lie through the secondary schools” while, of course, providing for transfers from both senior schools and practical schools after passing a selection test at the end of Standard 8.

The Special Committee went on to observe that the ultimate aim should be to run all practical schools as ‘central’ schools. Thus the central school they had in mind was and integral part of the school structure they proposed, with one such central school serving 5 or 6 primary schools. It would be seen that these central schools had very little to do with the Central Schools Kannangara, its chairman, was already establishing in various parts of the country on the Royal College model to give a place in the sun to poor (yet, bright) rural children. Being the pragmatist he was, Kannangara saw no need to write a dissent or rider to the Special Committee proposal. As far as he was concerned, the Central Schools established as part of his “own scheme” were a fait accompli!

Dr. N.M. Perera (The Case for Free Education, 1944), who made a scathing attack on the Special Committee report from inside Bogambara prison where he was incarcerated at the time, accused the Committee for basically copying the Spens Plan which had stereotyped for England the class system of education. He castigated it for blindly and slavishly proceeding to apply to Ceylon a plan drawn up for a different country with a different ideology. He described the system as “an attempt under a clever camouflage of words and a new form to perpetuate the old class content of education where the sons of the rich have all the opportunities and the sons of the poor all the disabilities. For it provides that only 5 per cent of the pupils from primary schools will pass on to the secondary schools, 15 per cent to the senior schools, the remaining 80 per cent will be drafted to the practical schools. The scheme fits beautifully: the secondary schools for the 5 per cent rich, the senior schools for the 15 per cent middle class, the practical schools for the 80 per cent poor.”

“The net result” he added, “is a mess that makes a veritable hotchpotch of its own fundamental dish of free education” saying that “its classification of types of schools is meaningless and deceptive, directed to exclude the children of the poor from higher education, and therefore calculated to defeat the very purpose of free education.”

J.E.Jayasuriya (Education in Ceylon Before and After Independence, 1969) was to later confirm N.M. Perera’s prognosis that practical schools were to be the poorer cousins of the senior and secondary schools by pointing out that: there was a basic contradiction in the social philosophy underlying the reform proposals; the claim in the Special Committee report that “all the three types (of schools) shall be accorded parity of status” had scarcely any basis of fact to support it as the secondary school envisaged a seven year course while the senior school and the practical school envisaged only a five year course; the equipment grant for practical schools was to be at half the rate as that of secondary and senior schools; the quota of pupils per teacher was less for secondary schools than for senior schools and practical schools; teachers in practical schools were to get a lower pay than teachers with the same qualifications in secondary and senior schools; and in his speech to the State Council, the Minister himself had conceded that parity of status was unachievable largely on account of the cost involved.

These practical schools, catering to 80% of the children proceeding beyond the primary stage, were eventually to be the central schools that the Special Committee had in mind.

Sumathipala, who wrote his book largely as a tribute to Kannangara was devastatingly critical of the Special Committee when he said that “if the recommendations had little unanimity, they had less originality” and “the whole report was (except for the free education proposal from the Kindergarten to the University) influenced by the findings and the recommendations of the Consultative Committee of the English Board of Education”, more popularly known as the Hadow and Spens reports*. Sumathipala went on to point out that “the Committee which started by quoting Kandel that ‘a successful national system of education must arise out of and be adapted to the ethos of the nation concerned’ ended up by adapting almost in detail a system recommended for England.” Sumathipala was well aware that it was Kannangara himself who had made the reference to Kandel and a national system of education in the preface he wrote to the Special Committee report. (*The Consultative Committee of the English Board of Education produced four reports. These were on The Education of the Adolescent (1926), The Primary School (1931), Infant and Nursery Schools (1933), and Secondary Education (1938). While the first three were popularly known as the Hadow reports, the fourth was known as the Spens report.)

The school structure that was later approved by the State Council on June 6, 1945 was not the same as proposed by the Special Committee, as would be seen from the following description taken from the Hansard (Jayasuriya, 1969):

1. Schools shall be divided into two grades, primary and post-primary; the primary grade being uniform in type and the post-primary consisting of a Junior School from standard VI to standard VIII, bifurcating at standard VIII (normally at 14+) into Senior Secondary and Senior Practical Schools; Junior Schools being of diverse types adapted to suit local requirements, provided that such secondary education is imparted in Multi-lateral schools.

The system of Multilateral Central Schools conducted by the State and providing courses of instruction free of charge up to the standard of the Higher School Certificate Examination shall continue with necessary alterations and modifications.

2. Each type of post-primary school shall be organized into a lower department giving a three year course and a higher department giving a two year course, the secondary school giving a further two year course.

Pupils may be transferred if the circumstances demand it with the approval of the Department from any type of Post-Primary school to another at the end of any year in the Post-Primary stage.

3. There shall be a fitness test at the end of the Junior School Course — the test being organized by the Department of Education in collaboration with the schools provided, however, that in the allocation of pupils to the two types of Senior Schools the wishes of parents and school records shall also be taken into consideration.

Neither the Special Committee proposals nor the State Council scheme was implemented, and the country’s school system continued to maintain its old format drawing inspiration “from the grammar schools in the United Kingdom and to offer a heavy academic curriculum unsuited to the needs of the fast increasing number of children pursuing secondary education”, in the words of J.E.Jayasuriya (1964).

Denominational schools date back to the period during which Catholic schools came to be established in the coastal belt that came under Portuguese rule largely, if not wholly, with religious conversion in mind. With the passage of time there were not only Catholic schools but also schools owned and run by other Christian denominations as well. Buddhist and Hindu schools established following on the Buddhist and Hindu revival that took place in the latter part of the 19th century, together with a handful of Muslim schools, helped to swell the number of denominational schools to 2246 out of a total of 3641 by the year 1930, as recorded in the Special Committee report. These denominational schools were privately owned and managed, and received a government grant to cover a large part of their expenses. Hence, they were referred to as grant-in-aid, aided or assisted schools. The remaining 1395 were state schools run and managed directly by the state.

Kannangara was a staunch advocate of doing away with denominational schools, which he felt had aggravated the inequality of opportunity that had become an integral part of the colonial education system. He was of the view that the future education system of this country should be under public control, while subscribing to the proposition that “no education can be complete unless imparted against a religious background”. He did not go so far as advocating that the denominational schools be done away with. He said “if any section of the people desire that their children should be educated in denominational schools they should not be denied that right”. However, he did not see why they should expect such schools to be supported by public funds in the same manner and to the same degree as at the time.

As has been mentioned already, Kannangara was not able to carry the majority of members in the Special Committee with him on this issue. The Committee’s recommendation was that “the system of direct State control and the system of denominational control should be permitted to exist side by side”. Disagreeing with this recommendation, Kannangara wrote a rider in which he pointed out that “a school should be deemed to be a public trust so long as it is supported from public funds” whereas “the denominational principle insists on regarding the school as a private trust meant to be administered primarily in the interests of a private individual or the denomination concerned”.

The Executive Committee of Education went along with the recommendation of the Special Committee rather than with the viewpoint expressed by its Chairman. Kannangara went to the extent of expressing his dissent in the State Council itself, in the historic speech he made on May 30, 1944, moving the resolution on the Special Committee proposals as modified by the Executive Committee of Education. He said: “Sir, under this motion, the very first recommendation of the Executive Committee is that the system of denominational schools shall work side by side with government schools. I know how it acts unfairly and I am not personally in favour of it.”

When the subject came up for debate in June 1945, J. R. Jayewardene (who in later years held diametrically opposite views, as in many other matters) moved an amendment to the effect that ‘the system of Public Education shall be a State system’. He even argued that wherever there has been progress in any country, that country has progressed as a result of State Education and referred to a number of countries including the Soviet Union, America, France and Italy. He said “in Italy, the home of Catholicism, the system of education is a State system” and asked “what is wrong in Ceylon adopting a system of State education”.

V. Nalliah, another member who spoke in the debate, considered the major issue before the country to be the problem of denominational education versus state education. He stated: “I do not think that any reform of education can be initiated in this country without at the same time raising tremendous opposition, simply because of the fact that the minority-community denominations have control over the education of the majority community denomination. It is a very elementary principle of human nature that those in power will never give up that power without a fight. Therefore, can we legitimately expect the Minister of Education and others to provide a rational system of education unless they face the major issue before the country, namely the problem of denominational education versus state education?”

The State Council, however, endorsed the Executive Committee’s recommendation by a majority of votes, and the dual system of denominational control existing side by side with state control remained with us until the early sixties.

The British colonial administration gave us two types of schools from the point of view of the medium of instruction together with a small number of what were known as bilingual schools. The two main types were (i) the vernacular schools which taught in Sinhala or Tamil and (ii) the English medium schools which were much fewer in number. There had been attempts to establish schools in which both the vernacular (swabhasha) and English were used. However, as the Special Committee report points out, these so-called ‘bilingual schools’ had, in time, come to have only a nominal bilingual character and had become virtually like vernacular schools, the one difference being that they taught English as a second language. It records the numbers attending each type of school in 1940 as vernacular-650,910; English-92049 and bilingual-15,917, with the comment that “these figures demonstrate the lack of interest in the bilingual schools as at present conducted”. Percentage-wise this would be 86%, 12% and 2% respectively.

There had been a growing demand from about the latter part of the 19th century for the mother tongue to replace English as the medium of instruction. Even as early as 1884, the then Director of Public Instruction H.W.Green said in his Administration Report that “English should be taught as a language only and should not be the medium of instruction in Arithmetic, History, Geography, etc. which should be taught in the vernacular”. P. (later Sir Ponnambalam) Arunachalam, Superintendent of Census was one of the earliest Ceylonese to highlight the need to have the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. This he did in his Census Report of 1901. There were many others, including well-known non-Ceylonese educationists, who underlined the value of the mother tongue in educating the child. For instance, A.G Fraser (Principal of Trinity College) said that the use of a foreign language as a teaching medium in the primary classes of secondary schools was destructive to the vigorous mental growth of students of eight to ten years (Bogoda Premaratne, Education in Ceylon, A Centenary Volume Part 11).

Nira Wickramasinghe (Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka, 1995) explains how the language issue in education was closely linked to the swabhasha movement which began in the 1920’s in Jaffna, and was spearheaded by the Jaffna Youth Congress which demanded the use of vernaculars in the administration of the country. Notably, it was a Tamil member of the Legislative Council, A. Canagaratnam, who moved a motion in February 1926 drawing attention to the adverse effects of maintaining “two sets of schools for the people of this island, English and vernacular”. He urged that we follow “the policy followed in most civilized countries of having only one set of public schools graded according to the standard of education imparted in them” and that “the mother tongue of the students be gradually adopted as the medium of instruction in schools of all grades”. Thus, the medium of instruction was already a hotly debated issue when the Special Committee on Education was appointed.

In June 1943, before the Special Committee submitted its report, J.R. Jayewardene gave notice of a motion in the State Council that Sinhalese should be made the medium of instruction in all schools with the object of making it the official language of the country within a reasonable number of years. The Special Committee report, submitted in September 1943, was a little more cautious in that it considered the mother tongue to be the ideal medium of instruction at all stages of education but set this as “the goal which the educational system should attain sometime or other”. It felt that there were compelling reasons that required English to be retained for some time as the medium of instruction at certain stages of education, though not at the primary stage. Accordingly, the Special Committee report recommended that:

  1. the medium of instruction in the primary school shall be the mother tongue;
  2. English should be introduced as a language subject in all primary schools where it is not the medium and, similarly, Sinhalese or Tamil shall be a language subject in primary schools where English is the medium (The so-called ‘language subject’ was to be introduced at Standard 3 or the fourth year in school);
  3. the medium of instruction in the lower department of the post-primary school shall be either the mother tongue or bilingual (one of the languages being English), and English shall be a compulsory second language where the medium is not English or bilingual. Similarly, Sinhalese or Tamil shall be a compulsory second language where English is the medium;
  4. the medium of instruction in the higher department of the secondary or senior schools shall be English, Sinhalese, Tamil or bilingual. English shall be a compulsory second language where the medium is not English or bilingual. Similarly, Sinhalese or Tamil shall be a compulsory second language where English is the medium; and
  5. the higher practical course shall be given through the mother tongue or the bilingual medium.

These proposals were obviously linked to the school structure the Committee recommended, and was as complex as the proposed structure itself. Equally importantly, these proposals also meant the introduction or the continued use of English as (i) a ‘language subject’, (ii) a bilingual option along with the mother tongue, (iii) a compulsory second language or (iv) the medium of instruction itself in specified situations. In other words, the Special Committee did not adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach and recommend a blanket provision to cover all schools and all stages of education. As for higher education, the Special Committee was of the view that “for some years to come higher education must continue to be given through the medium of English”. In the words of Alvapillai (1969): “Although the Special Committee was of opinion that the ideal should be the mother-tongue medium at all stages of education, it did not contemplate the possibility of giving up English as the medium of instruction for a considerable period of time at the higher stages”. There is no indication that on this matter Kannangara held a view different from that of the Committee he chaired.

While the Special Committee proposals were being considered by the Executive Committee of Education, J. R. Jayewardene’s motion was taken up for discussion in the State Council on May 24, 1944. At the very outset, Jayewardene expressed his willingness to amend his motion to read as Sinhalese and Tamil wherever the word Sinhalese occurred, pursuant to an amendment moved by V. Nalliah. The motion, as amended, was passed in the Council with 29 votes in favour and 9 against.

Just a few days later, on May 30, 1944, the Executive Committee of Education placed the following recommendations before the State Council:

  1. The medium of instruction in the primary school shall be the mother tongue.
  2. The medium of instruction in the lower department of the post-primary school may be either the mother tongue or bilingual.
  3. The medium of instruction in the higher department of the post-primary school may be English, Sinhalese or Tamil or bilingual.

It would thus be seen that neither the Special Committee nor the Executive Committee of Education both of which were chaired by Kannangara was for a total abandonment of English as a medium of instruction, indicative of a more cautious approach in bringing about a change. After a prolonged debate during which both the Executive Committee proposals and J.R. Jayewardene’s motion were discussed, the State Council decided to go along with the Executive Committee proposals subject to one minor change, that the medium in the higher department of the post-primary school may be English, Sinhalese or Tamil (deleting the reference to bilingual).

Speaking in the debate, W. Dahanayake wanted English replaced outright by Sinhalese and Tamil as the media of instruction while retaining it as a compulsory second language. He even said: “Knock out English from the pedestal it occupies today, and place thereon our Sinhalese and Tamil languages and we shall soon be a free race”. (Note that he did not use the word ‘race’ in the way it is normally used!) As for J.R. Jayewardene, he did not want to have English even as a compulsory second language, and wanted it taught only as an optional language. Kannangara was, in the meantime, carrying English medium education into the rural areas through his Central Schools and was not supportive of either of these propositions, a clear indication of the more moderate views he held. The State Council decisions on the medium of instruction came into effect with the Regulations promulgated in October 1945, and the new policy began to be implemented in the school system soon thereafter.

Let us now turn our attention to the proposal which is considered to be the flagship of the Special Committee proposals or the Kannangara Reforms.

Vernacular education which meant education in the Sinhalese or Tamil medium had always been free in this country from the time schools came to be set up during the colonial period. This was so in state schools as well as in denominational schools established in different parts of the country. English medium education was provided in a relatively small number of denominational schools other than for state-owned Royal College, and had to be paid for until Mr. Kannangara’s Central Schools came to be established in the early forties. It is in this background that we have to look at the ‘free education scheme’ proposed by the Special Committee on Education, and introduced a few years later.

Although the Special Committee proposed that education be made free from kindergarten to the University, there is ample evidence to show that this proposal found its way into its report only at its 88th meeting when the report was ready to be signed. Those who have read the report would have observed that there is not even a separate chapter devoted to it in an otherwise comprehensive document containing 21 chapters running into 163 pages, with separate chapters for even areas such as the supply of teachers, subjects of study, methods of learning and teaching, differentiation of curricula and the school as a community. While ‘subjects of study’ get a separate chapter running into 20 pages with language and literature, for example, getting 4 ½ pages, the free education proposal for which the Special Committee is most remembered, appears as a brief section in the chapter on Educational Finance, and covers less than 2 ½ pages!

The section on free education clearly acknowledges that during the early stages of the Committee’s deliberations, “discussion was limited to free education up to the 8th standard i.e. up to the point when education ceases to be compulsory”, and that the Committee had “no difficulty in deciding that education up to the compulsory stage should be free”. While some members had felt that free primary and post-primary education was the ideal, they had been reluctant “at that stage” to recommend free education beyond the compulsory age, due to the financial implications it involved. However, the Committee made a last minute change saying that they have reconsidered the whole question in the light of the problems of post-war reconstruction and, in the words of Dr N.M.Perera, “startled the country …………by what it itself considers to be a revolutionary proposal: free education from the kindergarten to the University”

In justification of this turn-around, the Special Committee went on to say something they appeared not to have foreseen earlier. To quote:

“It is not difficult to see that among the objectives that would dominate national policies after the War will be the prevention of unemployment, the raising of the standard of living of the masses, increased production, a more equitable system of distribution, social security, promotion of co-operative enterprise, &c. But as none of these things can be fully realized without mass education we are of opinion that free education must come first and foremost.”

Not every member in the Committee was prepared to go along with this sudden change as we shall see from the dissents or riders they wrote to the report.

Dr. W. Ivor Jennings said in his dissent that

(a) when he joined the Committee at its 30th meeting, the main principles of its recommendations had already been laid down and the English schools (which were the fee-levying schools) were to continue to levy fees, at least in the post-primary stage,

(b) it was not until the 88th meeting, when the Report was ready for signature, that it was decided to recommend that education be free from the kindergarten to University, and

(c) as the report had been written on the assumption of a fee-paying system in the post-primary stage, there appeared to be a need for further thought and discussion in the light of the new proposal.

Rev. R.S. de Saram confirmed that the proposal to provide education up to and including University education was a last minute entry into the report. He said:

“It was first put forward as a concrete proposal at a meeting held on July 29th to which members had been summoned for the final signing of the Report. It may have been an aspiration before that. It was no more. The Committee therefore appears to me to have reached its decision without weighing its full implications.

I would myself favour free education at all stages if I felt the country could afford it while maintaining a proper standard of equipment and an adequate salary scale. There has been little attempt on the part of the Committee to consider this question. On the contrary, many proposals previously made on other matters had been rejected as beyond the financial resources of the country until the meeting on July 29, 1943. Since then, the Committee moved rapidly to its decision to recommend free education at all stages. Financial considerations no longer seemed to weigh. I have found it difficult to adjust my ideas to remarkable and rapid change.

My fear is that we may commit ourselves to universal free education and then find we cannot afford it while maintaining a good standard of equipment and an adequate salary scale. A step like that once taken cannot be retraced and we may find our selves only to be able to maintain it by lowering salary scales and standards of equipment.”

E.L.Bradby stated in his rider that the chapter on finance “was re-written with drastic alterations at a stage when the whole Report was already in proof and signatures had been invited. The new version includes a recommendation for free education at all stages up to and including the University, instead of merely up to the end of the eighth standard as had been agreed in our earlier discussions. I feel bound to state that in my opinion this chapter has been adopted without sufficient consideration of its implications — educational, financial, and administrative — and therefore to record my dissent from it.”

J.C. Amarasingham pointed out in his dissent that the time was not ripe for the introduction of free education in all types of schools up to the very highest class, and that he was in hearty agreement with the decision the Committee had made earlier that education shall be free to the end of the compulsory age. He went on to point out that

(a) free education is likely to become inefficient education, particularly in Assisted Schools,

(b) free education up to the university should be our ideal, but any cautious statesman would move slowly and steadily, stage by stage.

(c) the free education proposed by the Special Committee is not going to benefit the class of people who need such help more than others. They need food, clothing, books etc which total up more than school fees.

In his rider to the report on the subject of denominational schools, Kannangara himself confirmed that the free education proposal was a late entry into the Special Committee recommendations. These are his words: “……I should like to refer to a matter of the utmost importance i.e the growing demand for free education from the primary stage right up to the University with a view to giving every child in this country the fullest opportunity for the development of his talents irrespective of the means of his parents. The Committee considered the question of free education in the early stages of their deliberations and, chiefly owing to the financial position of the country at that time decided to recommend free education up to the top by stages. However, the changed conditions due to the war and the fact that free education throughout a student’s career is bound to be one of the essential features of a suitable post-war educational system in this country, make it imperative that this necessary reform should be put into operation at the earliest possible opportunity. I am glad that the Committee have, during the final stages of their deliberations definitely decided on free education. I strongly support the decision.”

The following comments made by Jennings in his autobiography on what took place at the 88th meeting of the Committee, convened to sign the report are extremely relevant:

“………… More important was the fact that we were honoured by the attendance of a colleague of whose existence we had all forgotten because he had been ill for a long time, but he had not been assiduous in his attendance even before then; to the best of my recollection he had, since my membership of the Committee, attended one meeting, that was held near his own constituency. He had not read the draft report because it was printed in too small a type — the Minister told us that he proposed to have it re-printed — but did it provide for free education? The Minister explained that it provided for free education up to (age) 14, and 25 per cent scholarship thereafter. Our colleague asked whether in this age of the common man we were prepared to deprive the poor boy of education by charging fees and thus making education a middle-class monopoly. The politicians with one accord answered that they were not, and they were right, for they thought they would lose their seats if it was known that free education had been proposed and they had rejected it; though the event showed that most of them would lose their seats anyway. I said that I had no objection to free education, but in that case we must reconsider the whole report, and that would take us twelve months. Of course, I was overruled and the secretary was directed to bring up next time the amendments necessary to provide free education.

The secretary’s amendments consisted of a new draft of the chapter on educational finance. I was not at the eighty-ninth meeting owing to an engagement made before the eighty-eighth meeting, when it had been assumed that we should never meet again. When I received the minutes I discovered to my astonishment that the whole report had been completed and that we were being summoned to sign it at the ninetieth meeting. Since I clearly couldn’t sign a report without reading it, I asked the secretary for a copy of the latest version. He replied that we were not being supplied with revised proofs. I had the draft report, the revised chapter on educational finance, and the amendments to that chapter.

It then became plain that I could not sign the report. The Committee had at the last moment changed one of the fundamental principles on which it had agreed before I joined, but it had not examined the report to see if the new principle of free education was consistent with the rest of the report. To me it clearly was not.” (The Road to Peradeniya, 2005)

The member whom Jennings somewhat uncharitably referred to had been A. Ratnayake, a member of both the Special Committee and the Executive Committee of Education, who had apparently been “the victim of a somewhat serious motor accident which prevented him from attending meetings of the Committee for almost the entire duration of its sittings” according to A.P. Jayasuriya (A. Ratnayake -Tribute to An Asian Statesman’s Vision, 1971, a publication which was first brought to our attention by W. Panditharatne in the article he wrote to The Island of Oct.21, 2009 under the title ‘Who was the ‘Real’ father of free education’).

Ratnayake himself has acknowledged the fact that it was he who moved the free education proposal in the Special Committee while crediting a private member for having originated the idea. To quote: “The most revolutionary proposal viz. to make education free from Kindergarten to the University came from a private member. I had the privilege of moving this motion in the Special Committee that was appointed to consider educational reforms”. (Education in Ceylon, A Centenary Volume Part II)

P. de S. Kularatne (1971) who was a member of both the State Council and the Special Committee has given the following authentic account as to how the free education proposal made its entry into the Special Committee report:

“The main recommendations of this Committee set out that children should be educated according to their talents; education should be free in the primary classes and should be conducted through the Sinhala and Tamil media; post-primary education should be in the English medium and should not be free.

Mr. Natesan, Principal of Ramanathan College, Jaffna, Mr. T. B. Jayah, Principal of Zahira College, Colombo and I met together and discussed this report on a day prior to the date on which we were to meet to sign this report. At that discussion, we decided that we should sign this report subject to a rider. The rider being that all education should be free. But, we decided to ask in that rider that university education should be free, because, we three felt that provision should be made to help those students who were poor and who gained admission to the University.

We came to the meeting a few minutes late as I was waiting for my friends to sign the rider before we came to the meeting. When we ultimately arrived, we found Mr. Ratnayake having a heated discussion with the Chairman, Mr. Kannangara, on the subject of making education free. Mr. Ratnayake was urging reasons for his resolution and Mr. Kannangara was objecting to it telling him that he was dragging a red-herring across the trail and that the whole report will have to be re-drafted, as a result all this could lead to a lot of trouble and confusion. But, as soon as I went in, I told the Chairman, Mr. Kannangara, that, as a matter of fact, the three of us were going to sign the report subject to a rider and presented him with the documents to that effect. Then, Mr. Kannangara said, “If that be the view of so many of you, let us take a vote on the matter. After the voting we found that the majority of the members of the Committee, except for a few, were in favour of the resolution. Thus, the Committee decided that the report should be re-drafted making the necessary alterations to give effect to our recommendation that we should have free education in Ceylon from the Kindergarten to the University.”” (A. Ratnayake -Tribute to An Asian Statesman’s Vision, 1971).

From all this, we get a clear picture of what Mr. Kannangara’s stand on free education was. While he was for free education from the kindergarten to the university in principle, he did not want ‘to create an upheaval and a revolution all at once’ (the words he used in a different connection in 1933), and wanted free education in stages. However, when the majority of members in the Committee decided otherwise, though at the eleventh hour, he opted to go along with the majority view.

This is what the record reveals although there are many, even among academics- not excluding educationists — who take umbrage at the very suggestion that it was not Mr. Kannangara who was responsible for including the ‘free education proposal’ in the Special Committee report. K.H.M. Sumathipala who wrote his voluminous work as “a book on the contribution made by C.W.W. Kannangara to the educational development of Ceylon” had no hesitation, however, in saying that it was Ratnayake “who proposed the free education resolution at the 88th meeting of the Special Committee on Education”.

It is hardly a matter for surprise that the free education proposal, though a late arrival, was the one that drew the most amount of attention when the Special Committee recommendations came to be known. While it received unqualified bouquets from those who welcomed it and brickbats from those who opposed it, there were others who expressed mixed feelings. Dr. N.M. Perera (1944), who considered it to be the only redeeming feature in the Special Committee report, was highly critical of the manner in which the proposal came to be included in it. Not only did he say that the Committee appeared to have arrived at this far-reaching decision with reluctance, he also said that “the circumstances in which that decision had been arrived at has robbed it of its true value and import. It is the one fundamental decision of the Committee. But it remains ill-digested. To any careful reader of the report the conclusion is inescapable that its main portion has been written prior to this decision, which is drawn in as an after-thought rather than worked into the body of the report. This sole revolutionary proposal should have been the pivot round which the rest of the report should have revolved. Instead, it hangs loose: the rest of the report is innocent of the full impact of its wide implications.”

N.M. Perera also said: “At what precise stage the Committee felt reassured about the capacity of the Island’s finances to bear the burden, we are not told. Nor are we informed on what basis of computation this sudden realization of our solvency was achieved. No comparative figures are forthcoming that would enable us to judge the issue. In the circumstances the charge leveled by some of the dissenting members that it was a last minute surprise, embodied in the report without a full and proper consideration of its financial implications, cannot be dismissed as being without substance”. He was no opponent of free education, and was only critical of the Committee for not having “built its case on the intrinsic merits of free education unencumbered by considerations of post-war reconstruction”, and went on to say “war or no war the case for free education is unanswerable”.

The Special Committee report contains no more than a vague expectation that “a complete re-organization of public finance is bound to follow in the wake of post-war reconstruction necessitating a fresh outlook with regard to taxation policy and salaries and wages”. It also expressed the somewhat unrealistic hope that individual citizens, in whatever positions they may be in the life of the community, would not demand or expect scales of remuneration for their services not in keeping with the capacity of the country to pay. Even more importantly, there was no attempt to re-examine and fine-tune the other recommendations in the report (made on the basis of free education up to the age 14 to cover the period of compulsory education) with the new proposal to provide free education from kindergarten to the university.

Be that as it may, the Special Committee proposal found easy passage through the Executive Committee of Education. The Executive Committee described it as “perhaps the most radical and far-reaching suggestion made by the Special Committee”. Speaking on the resolution which placed the Executive Committee’s recommendations on the Special Committee proposals before the State Council on 30th May 1944, Kannangara went on to say: “There are many improvements suggested by the Executive Committee as regards what the future scheme should be. May I say that they are only the embellishments on the casket that contains the pearl of great price? Free education, all round. I consider that, Sir, the most important of all the recommendations”. (He did not hesitate to describe the Central Schools, his own brainchild, also as a pearl of great price, when he said in the State Council one year later: “I have been condemned for offering this ‘false pearl’ of the central schools. I say that it is a pearl of great price. Sell all that you have and buy it for the benefit of the whole community. ‘Mankind has struck its tents and is on its onward march’. Let us not lag behind”).

From then onwards, Kannangara had to fight a tactical battle to outsmart the opponents of free education and make it a reality. Considering the forces that came together against the proposal, there is not the slightest doubt that, if not for him, “free education all round” would not have seen the light of day. J.E.Jayasuriya (1969) who comments on the events that unfolded says: “The idea of free education from the Kindergarten to the University had such an emotional appeal to the enfranchised masses that it became a slogan with them. For any political personality to oppose free education was to commit political suicide, and none dared to take the risk. The opposition to free education therefore took a subtle form. Attempts were made from time to time to get adjournments and to postpone discussion, with the result that the debate lasted over a year. The most powerful political personality of the time and the Leader of the State Council, D.S. Senanayake, not only associated himself with attempts at postponement, but was also cryptical in his support”.

Kannangara, however, was no mean strategist! He took advantage of the absence of Senanayake from the island during the period July-October 1945 to get the approval of the Board of Ministers to place the necessary regulations before the State Council. This he did on August 24, 1945. These were approved without a division just a few days later and the free education scheme as proposed by the Special Committee became a reality in October 1945. Free education in the English medium which was until then the exclusive privilege of those attending Central Schools was thus extended to cover all fee-levying English medium schools, both government and private, except for 15 schools who took the option to remain out of the scheme foregoing the government grant they were receiving at the time.

There is no doubt that if not for Kannangara’s doughty championship of the cause that he adopted as his own, and his unyielding resolve to make it a reality combined with deft manouevring on his part to carry it through, the ‘free education scheme’ would not have seen the light of day! He had to steer the proposal through hail and storm, and no one can deny him the honour for that. Ratnayake, to his eternal credit, never grudged his old friend and colleague being called the ‘father of free education’, and stood by him in all the battles he had to fight against seen and unseen forces that did virtually everything possible to strangle it at birth! He knew that without Kannangara, ‘free education all round’ would never have become a reality!

An unintended result that followed from free education all round, was a lowering of the quality of education that assisted schools had provided for a fee and the Central Schools had provided free of charge since their advent in 1940. Writing in 1969 J.E. Jayasuriya (Education in Ceylon Before and After Independence) said: “It was the undoubted intention of our legislators that a good education should be available as a matter of right to every child born in this country. It was not their intention that a good education should be given free to a minority of children, while a bad education should be given free to the large mass of children, but this is the reality of the situation even twenty-five years after the introduction of the free education scheme.” We have to ask ourselves the question as to how far this reality is still with us, more than sixty years later!

It would be seen from all that has been said above that the education reforms introduced during the period of the Donoughmore Constitution did not constitute a composite set which could be truly described as the Kannangara Reforms, except for the fact that they were introduced during the period Mr. Kannangara was the Minister of Education. They were an amalgam of reforms that flowed from different sources along different channels, and did not form a well-integrated package.

Although the Special Committee on Education set out to formulate proposals for a “national system of education which must arise out of and be adapted to the ethos of the nation” (Kannangara), “the whole report was (except the idea of free education from the Kindergarten to the University) influenced by the findings and the recommendations of the Consultative Committee of the English Board of Education” (Sumathipala). As we have seen, none of the more important proposals made by the Special Committee were implemented except for the free education proposal which was included in its report at the very last minute when the report was ready to be signed.

By this time, Kannangara was already bringing about a silent revolution in the country through his Central Schools which provided free education in the English medium to rural, underprivileged children, though on a selective basis (selection based on merit). This was a reform that would have, had it been given time to achieve its full potential, meant centres of excellence spread out through the length and breadth of the country providing an education of very high quality entirely free of charge. Given the resources that Kannangara was placing at the disposal of these schools (not mere brick and mortar but a total package which included hand-picked principals to ensure good management), they would have not only competed with the older urban schools on their own turf, but also done better by producing truly bilingual products proficient in both English and Sinhala/Tamil to meet the needs not only of the public service and the academia but also of the school system. In contrast, the Special Committee’s scheme of ‘free education all round’ extended the principle of free education to even children of wealthy parents (“a bonanza to the well-to-do” in the words of J.E. Jayasuriya) which, we now realize, has been a case of the poor subsidizing the rich in budgetary terms.

Moving on to the medium of instruction, the Special Committee’s proposal was that the mother tongue should be the medium in primary school, leaving the option open for continuing with the English medium at the post-primary stage if necessary. This received the endorsement of both the Executive Committee of Education and the State Council and became government policy under the Regulations promulgated in October 1945. The total abandonment of English as a medium of instruction came much later in the 1950s, by which time Mr. Kannangara had faded out of the political scene.

Central Schools themselves lost their unique character with the introduction of ‘free education all round’ and the abandonment of English as a medium of instruction. These changes took away the essence or the raison d’être of the Central Schools scheme and, in time to come, made them lose their identity in a sea of Madhya Maha Vidyalayas (MMVs) and Maha Vidyalayas (MVs) which often meant a change in the name-board of a school with no value addition. I am inclined to believe that had Kannangara continued as Minister of Education in the post-1947 era, he would have realized that replicating the Central School model (which provided for English medium education beyond the primary level) through the length and breadth of the country was a policy option worth considering as a better long-term strategy, with whatever modifications were necessary, for dealing with the problem of social stratification that the colonial policies had led to. As we are aware, the total change-over to swabhasha from the Kindergarten to the University has led in time to the emergence of a surrogate school system teaching entirely in the English medium and catering only to the privileged few, defeating the very objectives those who advocated a total switch-over to swabhasha had in mind.

In conclusion, let me emphasize that Kannangara was no wooly-headed idealist, and did not think he had in his possession a recipe for all time, as many of us seem to believe. The pragmatist he was (words that I am never too tired of using), he reminded us, in the preface he wrote to the Special Committee report, that “an educational system grows rapidly out of date in a world of rapidly changing values” and “a periodical stocktaking at least every ten years is absolutely necessary”. I have no doubt that, if he were to reappear today, he will strongly disagree with those who think we do not need to find fresh solutions to contemporary problems rather than look for them within the confines of policies that came to be implemented more than sixty years ago in a society just emerging from four and a half centuries of colonial domination.

Learning communities for whole-person education towards a more compassionate world

Learning communities for whole-person education towards a more compassionate world