Change of medium of instruction was not meant to ostracize English
Posted on November 10th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This is a revised version of an article published in The Island newspaper (05.11.2014) under a different title.)

It is almost seventy years since the introduction of free education in Sri Lanka. Under the education reforms initiated by Mr C.W.W. Kannangara, the mother tongue of the child was established as the medium of instruction in the primary schools. At that time there were two kinds of schools medium-wise: English schools and vernacular schools, the former for the privileged minority and the latter for the oppressed majority under British rule. The vernacular educated had very limited scope in employment and in other fields. To do well in life, one had to be educated in English. But English education was not available to the children of poor parents. The English medium schools were fee-levying, and beyond their reach. Mr Kannangara’s reforms made education free for all the children of the country.  Through his central schools which were for free English medium secondary school education, Mr Kannangara took the English medium to the rural areas. But with the replacement of English in favour of  native languages as the official languages post-1956, the English medium was gradually taken away (in pursuance of the medium change started at the beginning of free education for all in the mid-1940’s). By the early 1960’s Sinhala and Tamil had completely banished English as the medium of instruction. This change is sometimes wrongly blamed for the general failure of teaching English as a second language in our schools.

However, it is high time that this erroneous view were put to rest. Arguing about it is a futile exercise; it is nothing more than flogging a dead horse. But it has been used, for too long, by a handful of antinational elements traditionally ill disposed towards us to put shackles on our youth in their march into a prosperous future through quality education supplemented with a good knowledge of English, which is achievable without reverting to the English medium as if that were the last resort.  True, the English medium has been brought in recently, but I am not suggesting that the move be reversed. However, English is hardly suited to become the universal medium of instruction in our country.

It has been customary for decades to malign the ‘Sinhala Only’ official language policy born out of the heady patriotism of 1956 that overshot the healthier, calmer, and certainly more viable  trajectory of harmonious national resurgence that the nationalists should have followed as now realized by some with hindsight. The controversial language policy has been appropriately modified since, but it is still unequivocally blamed, in some quarters, for the withdrawal of the English medium from the school system allegedly depriving the masses of a standard education that is not available in Sinhala or Tamil. Needless to say, this is a misconception. The truth is that the switch over to the mother tongue medium was effected in the mid-1940’s as part of the far reaching educational reforms introduced at the initiative of Mr Kannangara for the very purpose of putting quality education within reach of all the children of the country irrespective the social rank or the economic status of their parents, something unprecedented then. To determine whether the medium change was a positive step or a negative one, we need to take at least a brief look at the status quo ante that prompted the reforms, and the role that Mr Kannangara played in bringing about these changes from pre-independence times.

Under the State Council a special committee was appointed in 1942 to look into the state of education in the country and to make recommendations for reforms, with Mr Kannangara as its head. The colonial government which had no ambitious plan for educating the children of the oppressed class (which formed the overwhelming majority) relied on a strictly two tier system of schools: English medium schools for the children of the privileged minority which charged fees, and vernacular schools that provided free ‘education’ not worth the name for the poor majority. The difference in treatment was reflected in the amount of government money spent on the education of the two classes of pupils. The percentage of English medium schools out of the total number of schools in the country in the early 1930’s was 07%, while the corresponding figure for the vernacular schools was 93%. The discrepancy between the amounts spent on the two types of schools percentagewise was: 37% of the money went to the 07% English schools, and the rest 63% to the vernacular schools which accounted for 93% of total number of schools (that is, at least seven times more money was spent on the education of an English medium student than on that of a vernacular student.)  The highest form of employment that a vernacular school qualified young person could expect to secure was working as someone like a primary school teacher, a notary public, or a village headman. The English medium schools meant for the elite turned out the clerks that the government needed to do its routine administrative work and personnel to occupy other more lucrative and prestigious positions in government still under the supervisory control of senior British civil servants. The highly subsidized fees charged for an English school education, being only nominal but too high for  poor parents to afford, were actually intended to keep the hoi polloi out in order to maintain the class divide intact, and the masses indigent, ignorant and easy to govern. Around the time that the Kannangara reforms were being fought for, English, the language of administration, higher education, jurisprudence, business, and other important departments of public life, was available only to about an incredibly low 03% of the population.

Mr Kannangara’s goal was to ensure equal opportunities for education for all the children of the country irrespective of their social, economic, religious or ethnic background. Among the recommendations made by the 1942 committee on education headed by Mr Kannangara the most important one was that education be free from the kindergarten to the university for all the children. Another was for a curriculum for the young learners which would develop their “head, heart and hands” (i.e., a holistic education that would guarantee the intellectual and emotional growth of the children along with practical skills development that would enable them to earn a living by being useful members of the society). To ensure that education was accessible to children in every nook and corner of the country, the mother tongue of the child was to be made the medium of instruction in all primary schools. Meanwhile the indispensability of English for being competitive among nations (for making educational and economic headway) was emphasized. So, an associated recommendation was that English be taught as a second language in all schools from Standard III onwards. This was very significant. Earlier the poor had been firmly shut out from English, which effectively ruled out a decent education for them. By the time these reforms took effect, the percentage of English language proficiency among the population, with even those with a bare, smattering knowledge of English counted in, was 06% (Census 1946).

As Minister of Education of the State Council, Mr Kannangara was responsible for the implementation of the reforms which were operative from October 01, 1945. He didn’t scrap English medium education altogether. What he did was to make it available free of charge to the promising young boys and girls of the villages at the secondary level of school through his central school system. Mr Kannangara modeled these central schools on the Royal College Colombo, and established them in village locations outside major towns because his idea was to take quality secondary school education to the rural poor. He planned to build one central school in every electorate. By 1950, there were fifty central schools in the country providing English medium instruction for secondary students in the villages, which was not an insignificant achievement. Mr Kannangara also started a scholarship programme to help bright students to enter these schools and continue their school education in English and enter the university.

It should also be remembered that Mr Kannanagara saw his free education bill through the State Council in the teeth of opposition from representatives of the privileged class including Mr D.S. Senanayake, which knew that justice to the poor majority of the country meant necessary curtailment of their accustomed privileges. (The pragmatic Mr Senanayake probably thought that it was not the right time for educational reforms.)

Though the English medium was phased out from the central school system in the early 1960’s in accordance with the government’s official language policies (which had to come sooner or later in the national interest), these pioneers and every subsequent government have always emphasized the importance of English for education and have spared no effort to teach it to the children.  It was not possible then (and it is not so even now) to make English the universal medium of education for all the children of the country all of a sudden because of obvious reasons. We should be able to teach English as an indispensable second or foreign language along with, if possible, other useful foreign languages such as Japanese and Korean that are likely to give our young people a competitive edge in the job market, because education without a good knowledge of English in these times is empty of meaning. Even far bigger and far more economically and technologically advanced countries like China and Japan focus on English as a second language that they can’t do without. But they don’t try to transform English into their mother tongue in the process.

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