Sri Lanka Table of Contents
The education system of Sri Lanka until colonial times primarily was designed for a small elite in a society with relatively low technology. The vast majority of the population was illiterate or semiliterate. Among the Sinhalese, learning was the job of Buddhist monks. At the village level, literate monks would teach privileged students in the pansal, or temple school. The curriculum there, still taught to young children, included the Sinhala alphabet and memorization of elementary Buddhist literature--the Nam potha (Book of Names) of Buddhist shrines, the Magul lakuna (Book of Auspicious Symbols on the Buddha's body), and classic stories of the Buddha's life. The pursuit of higher education typically was reserved for men who became monks and took place at universities (pirivena) dedicated almost exclusively to memorization and commentary on the Pali scriptures. Among the Tamil population, village schools, which were located near temples, were run by literate Brahmans or educated Vellalas (see Glossary). Technical training was highly developed for students of the arts (such as architecture or sculpture); for engineers, who applied geometry to problems of irrigation; and for craftsmen in various trades. This training, however, was generally the preserve of closed corporations, castes, or families. Knowledge was often passed down from fathers to sons.
Although colonization brought European-style education to Sri Lanka, especially to prepare students for positions in the colonial administrations, few women went to school and most people remained uneducated. During the sixteenth century, Portuguese missionaries established up to 100 schools designed to foster a Roman Catholic culture among the growing Christian community in the low country. When the Dutch took over in 1656, they set up a well-organized system of primary schools to support the missionary efforts of the Dutch Reformed Church. By 1760 they had 130 schools with an attendance of nearly 65,000 students. The British takeover led to the closing of many Dutch schools and a short-term contraction of European-style education in the low country. By the mid-nineteenth century, government-funded schools and Christian schools were again expanding; in 1870, however, their combined student bodies had fewer than 20,000 students. Because they were educated in English, the graduates of the European-style schools, a large portion of them Christians from the low country in the southwest, went on to fill lower and middle-level positions in the colonial administration. Apart from the European-style schools, education continued through the traditional system in Tamil and Sinhala.
In 1870 a series of events revolutionized the education system in Sri Lanka. The government began to expand the number of state-run schools and instituted a program of grants for private schools that met official standards. Medical and law colleges were established in Colombo. There was a big increase in the number of students (which totalled more than 200,000 by 1900), but the lopsided development that had characterized the early nineteenth century became even more apparent by the early twentieth century. Private schools taught in English, which offered the best road for advancement, were dominated by Christian organizations, remained concentrated in the southwest, and attracted a disproportionate number of Christian and Tamil students. Although institutions that used Tamil and Sinhala continued to function as elementary schools, secondary institutions that taught exclusively in English attracted an elite male clientele destined for administrative positions. The education of women lagged behind; by 1921 the female literacy rate among the Christians was 50 percent, among the Buddhists 17 percent, among the Hindus 10 percent, and among the Muslims only 6 percent.
The colonial pattern began to change in the 1930s, after legislative reforms placed the Ministry of Education under the control of elected representatives. The government directly controlled an ever-larger proportion of schools (about 60 percent by 1947) and teacher-training colleges. As part of a policy to promote universal literacy, education became free in government schools, elementary and technical schools were set up in rural areas, and vernacular education received official encouragement. In 1942 with the establishment of the University of Ceylon, free education was available from kindergarten through the university level. When independence came in 1948, Sri Lanka had a welldeveloped education infrastructure. Although still hampered by gross ethnic, geographic, and gender inequalities, it formed the basis for a modern system.
Data as of October 1988
Sri Lanka Table of Contents