There is a popular belief that the MEP government headed by the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was responsible for doing away with English as the medium Of instruction. Some even argue that this was a concession made by the SW RDB government to the forces that put it in power, at the expense Of the Tamil minority. TO make matters worse, many amongst us assume that English was the medium of instruction in all our schools before the change came. What exactly are the facts?

The debate on the medium of instruction really commenced during colonial times. In Educational Policies and Progress: 1796-1948, J E. Jayasuriya documents how even colonial administrators advocated the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. The Director of Public Instruction, for instance, stated as follows in his Administration Report for 1884:

“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…”

One of the earliest Ceylonese to highlight the need to have the mother tongue as the medium of instruction was P. Arunachalam (Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam in later life, the respected Tamil and Ceylonese leader). This is what he said in the 1901 Census Report, commenting on the education provided in English medium schools: “In these schools which attract the best pupils in the island English is the medium of instruction to children imperfectly acquainted With the language. In the lower forms students scarcely understand What is taught or understood at the cost Of great mental strain. Think what it would be in England if say, German was made the medium Of instruction in the elementary school and English was entirely excluded. Yet German is more akin to English and easier to an English child than English is to a Sinhalese or Tamil child. A parrot-like repetition of words With little understanding of their meaning is necessarily encouraged. The pupils of the English medium schools are, in fact, worse off from an educational point of view than the pupils of the vernacular schools who are at least taught to think. English itself is so imperfectly taught that, after spending over a dozen years in its study, many are found unable to express themselves without committing gross blunders of grammar and idiom, though sometimes they acquire a certain vocabulary of English speech which they mistake for education.”

Swabasha Movement

Nira Wickramasinghe explains how the language issue in education was closely linked to the ‘swabasha’ movement which demanded the use of vernaculars in the administration of the country, instead of English. She says: “The movement began in the 1920s in Jaffna and was spearheaded by the Jaffna Youth Congress. The 25 English schools and colleges in Jaffna were vehemently criticised. The movement reached its zenith at the end of the 1930s and one of its leaders, S.H. Perimpanayagam, addressing the Northern Province Teachers’ Association in 1941, could rightly point out how Youth Congress agitation for the mother tongue had now become practical politics.” (Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka, 1995)

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 adopted 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”

It is this duality that the Special Committee on Education headed by C.W.W. Kannangara wanted done away with. This was a very Representative Committee having a number of Tamils among its members, as would be evident from the following signatories to its report: C.W.W Kannangara, P. de S. Kularathne, H.S. Perera, J.C. Amarasingham, S. Natesan, MJ. LeGoc, S. Shivapadasundaram, G.A.H. Willie, T.B. Jayah, G.P. Malalasekara, G.K.W. Perera, N. Nadarajah, R.S. de Saram, E.L. Bradby, A.R.A.Razak, A. Ratnayake and E.A. Nugawela. Apart from the basic inequity in the dual system where only a privileged few were entitled to an English education, they considered the natural medium of instruction to be the mother tongue. While the ideal Should be the mother tongue at all stages of education, the Committee acknowledged that Such a radical reform could not be achieved straight away. Hence, they recommended that the mother tongue be made the medium of instruction in the primary school, and that the over in post-primary education be phased out over a period. The only dissenting voice came from E.L. Bradby, who, while supporting the change of medium in the primary school, disagreed that it should encompass all stages of education.

Even before the publication Of the Special Committee Report in November 1943, JR Jayewardene gave notice of a motion in the State Council that Sinhalese should be made the medium of instruction in all the Schools . When the motion came up for discussion in May 1944, JRJ accepted the amendment proposed by V. Nalliah that the reference to Sinhalese shall read as Sinhalese and Tamil. The motion, as amended, was carried in the State Council with a majority of votes cast in favour of it. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was, I believe, among those who voted in favour. Thus, it would be clear that the decision to do away with English was taken even before the country gained its independence, and that the Tamils were firmly behind the move. They were, in fact, in the vanguard of the movement for change. The implementation of the change in the English medium schools commenced in 1945, and had reached the pre-S.S.C. class by the time the MEP government took Office in 1956. It is, Of course, true that the new government did not reverse the process, and that it pushed the process further forward.


Some Of the most vocal advocates of the change were the Marxist parties. This is What Pieter Keuneman said in parliament on January 21, 1955 when there was some indecision on the part of the government in regard to changing the medium Of instruction in the university: “The government should immediately announce that it accepts that Sinhalese and Tamil should be and will be the media Of instruction at university level and over and above the S.S.C. ” He objected to making English a compulsory second language in schools saying, “the very fact Of maintaining English as the common second language which is compulsory means that you are preparing for a position Where the medium of higher education will always be the English language.” (It should be remembered that J.R. Jayewardene himself had opposed the teaching of English as a compulsory second language in 1944). Thus, if the abandoment Of English as a medium Of instruction was an unwise move, the Sinhala and Tamil leadership as well as politics of the left, right and centre have to equally share the blame!

We Often hear people say that the problems young people face today in the field Of employment would not have been there had English remained as a medium Of instruction. I have heard this being said even at the highest policy-making levels. Those Who received their education in the English medium and had easy access to higher education and/or the more remunerative jobs, in particular, tend to generalize on the basis of their own personal experience. They advocate a return to the past as a solution to the problems of the present conveniently overlooking the fact that, at the best of times, English was the medium of instruction in only about 10% of the schools!

The Special committee headed by Mr. Kannangara did not envisage the emergence of English as a vital factor in employment. However, it must be said to their credit that they saw the importance of English from the point of view of access to knowledge, and as an international language. They spelt out the place of English in the new dispensation as follows:
“Even if the difficulty of textbooks for higher learning in Sinhalese and Tamil is overcome and English need no longer be retained as the medium of instruction an educated Ceylonese will never be able to dispense With English so long as English is a world language. Any effective advanced study would require a knowledge Of English, French or German. The major contributions to advanced knowledge are Often published in one or other of these three languages. Given the political and economic affiliations of Ceylon, the primary European language must be English which in fact is the lingua fianca Of at least half the world. For these reasons the study of the English language must be retained in the curriculum of Ceylon schools. We therefore recommend that it should be universally taught so that, apart from other reasons, by becoming a common second language it may cease to be a badge Of class distinction and become a means Of common understanding.”

Social Distinction

It would thus be seen that the Special Committee wanted English taught in all the schools as a common second language as a key to advanced knowledge and as a means of common understanding, though not as a badge of social distinction. However, the teaching Of English as a second language was never pursued With the intensity it deserved, and suffered from What one might call at best a policy Of benign neglect. The task Of teaching English as a second language in all the schools would not have been an easy task even at that time. But it was easier then than later as there was a hard core of people educated in the English medium, a pool from which adequate numbers could have been drawn to be trained as teacher trainers to train the large number of English teachers needed in the school system. Had be paid sufficient attention to teaching English as an effective second language in the years that followed, many of the problems that we face today would not have been there. This is where we missed the bus, thanks to populist politics and over-zealous nationalism which clouded our vision.

With the opening up of the economy after 1977 and the emergence of the private sector as the mam provider of employment, English acquired a new importance and became a veritable stumbling block to large numbers of young people seeking employment. It is, therefore, strange that the National Education Commission which was established in 1991 with bi-partisan support to advise government on educational policy did not make any reference to this problem in the report they submitted to government in 1992, after holding public hearings and having consultations With the private sector, among Others. The last chapter in this report (First report Of the National Education Commission, Sessional paper V-1992) listed priorities for action under five categories namely:

  1. proposals that should be given effect to immediately,
  2. proposals which should be considered for early implementation,
  3. proposals that are acceptable but need detailed study and trials before plans could be formulated for nationwide implementation,
  4. proposals which need further public debate and study before acceptance,
  5. initiatives that should be taken now With future policy-making in view.

There is no reference under any of these categories to the teaching of English, or to the need to teach other subjects in the English medium. This report incidentally, was the first and the last report Of the National Education Commission to reach the hands of the public although unlike previous commissions and committee on education, it is maintained as a permanent commission.

In December 1996, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga appointed the Presidential Task Force on General Education, with the Minister of Education as chairman, to develop a comprehensive set of proposals for reforming general education. Among the Technical Committees which the Task Force set up was a Technical Cornmittee On English. Neither this Technical Committee nor any Of the Other Technical Committees recommended a change in the medium of instruction. Hence, re-introduction of English as a medium of instruction was not a part of the Task Force proposals which, on approval by the President, became the new educational policy of the government. In this background, one has reason to be uncomfortable with the recent decision taken by Government to re-introduce English as a medium of instruction. Leaving aside the merits and demerits of this decision, it does not appear that the implications of the decision have been considered by bodies vested with the responsibility of doing so. When the decision to do away with English as a medium of instruction was taken in the 1940s, these was the Special Committee which recommended the change after extensive consultations, a great deal of public discussion, and a debate in the State Council which ended in a vote being taken. And We were only a crown colony then, enjoying some measure Of internal self-government!

In the present instance, however, there was no indication that a change in the medium of instruction was being considered until after the policy decision was taken! This raises a fundamental issue in regard to public policy- making. The Daily News of 30/09/2000 reported that “the Government has already accepted as a national policy the introduction Of English medium as a stream Of instruction.” and proceeded to give the time-frame for implementation. That, as far as I am aware, was the first intimation that the public received of a major change in the policy relating to the medium Of instruction that has been in place for nearly six decades. While I am not arguing that nothing should change, I am arguing for transparency in public policy-making and the need to ensure that important policy decisions are taken only after considering their full implications and, of course, their implementability.

The need for a broad consensus on education policy has been a long felt need in this country. The passage Of the National Education Commission Act with bi-partisan support in 1991 , and the establishment of the National Education Commission in terms Of its provisions, was an acknowledgement of this need at the highest political level. Leading members of the government have quite rightly pointed Out that after taking over the reins Of power in 1994, they refrained from changing the composition of the Commission to ensure continuity in the framing Of a national education policy, Which the government considered to be an utmost priority.

The National Education Commission is reqüired under the Act to make recommendations to thc President, On educational policy in all its aspects, With a view to ensuring continuity in educational policy and enabling the education system to respond to changing needs in society. For the purpose of discharging its functions, NEC is empowered to conduct public Or private hearings With a view to ascertaining the views of experienced professionals Or the general public. As the NEC is a public institution, accountable to the public in the final analysis, it has a duty to explain What public and private hearings it has had On this matter, and whether it has recommended a change in the medium Of instruction. The Special Committee report which recommended a change in 1943 was, after all, a public document!

(The writer is Chairman, Education Research and Study Group and a former Secretary, Ministry of Education)

The Island – Sunday Edition
Sunday 27th May, 2001
by Eric J. de Silva