Introduction of English Medium to State Schools

Some weeks back, I wrote here about the degree course at the Military Academy, the introduction of which I cannot claim responsibility for, since it was a brainchild of the hierarchy there, and in particular of Commandant Gamini Hettiarachchi, with support from his excellent staff, and then his successor Percy Fernando.

But as the first Commandant under whom I worked there with the commencement of the course, Niranjan Ranasinghe, handsomely acknowledged, the course could not have continued without me. 
He noted at a meeting of the Study Board, when he was faced with anonymous letters against me produced by the then Director of Studies in their Academic Wing, that in the army they said no one was indispensable, but he wanted to make it clear that I was, for this degree course.

The then Director left and was replaced by the immensely dedicated Colonel Dayan Athukoralage, and we worked excellent well together for the next several years before my cooption to the Peace Secretariat meant I had to give up my involvement at the Academy.

The work at the Academy started in 2000 with the recruitment of the Officer Cadets of Intake 51. But in that same year, when I was spending much time in Diyatalawa, for I did a lot of work on the syllabus of the first Semester with that group, I also embarked on another even more significant initiative. This was the reintroduction of English medium to Government schools which took up a lot of my time in the latter part of the year. Fortunately by then I could spend less time at the Academy, for I taught Intake 52, which was smaller, without breaking them up into groups, and 51 had moved to start on their military package so I had just the one or perhaps two subjects with them during this term.

English medium happened because Tara de Mel was speaking at an event at the British Council as I was, and Jeevan Thiagarajah, who had got to know her well, insisted on bringing us together. I knew she was engaged in very productive initiatives in Education, having been made Secretary to the Ministry following Chandrika Kumaratunga’s re-election as President in 1999.

I told her than that she should restart English medium, which had been stopped by J R Jayewardene in the forties. Older and wiser people in the State Council amended his proposal so that it was confined only to primary school, but that inevitably meant that secondary had to follow, and so it did through a regulation issued by Eddie Nugawela as Minister of Education in 1951. Science was exempt for about a decade more, but that of course was largely confined to elite urban schools, and then that too stopped under Mrs Bandaranaike, the Ordinary Level Examination of 1964 being the last at which Sinhala and Tamil students could sit in English. Muslims and Burghers could continue until the early eighties, the last repeat examination taking place in 1981 just after I had become Sub-Warden at S. Thomas’.

It was then that international schools started, so the elite had an alternative. I asked from then Minister of Education if we could follow suit, but he said it was illegal. When I pointed out that he allowed the Colombo International School to teach in English he said that it did not come under his Ministry and he had sent the papers to the Attorney General for prosecution. I believe he was telling the truth, but Prime Minister Premadasa had by then taken CIS under his wing, and it had indeed been taken over and was under the Ministry of Local Government and Housing.

I did a paper for the Board of Governors showing how we could work round the regulations, but by then they were trying to get rid of me and ignored my suggestions. The then Vice-President of the Old Boys Association told me I might as well give up and asked me to help set up another international school but, while I had nothing against a rich elite working outside the system, it was systemic change I wanted.

But out I went from S. Thomas’, and only returned to public education when the Deputy Representative at the British Council got me involved in educational work in addition to the cultural and public relations work for which I had been hired. Through this I learnt a lot about the state system, and I was able to embark on a great many projects to provide supplementary reading material, which was lacking, to train teachers in rural areas, to introduce trainees at the Colleges of Education to the use of reading for developing language skills (not for study of literature with a capital L which was the fashion at the time).

And this also helped me to transform tertiary level English, when Arjuna Aluvihare roped me in to work on English programmes at the Affiliated University Colleges he had started. And so, in addition to working with schools while at the British Council, I also got involved with the universities.

They were rigidly conservative in those days, in other respects too, but certainly so as far as English degrees went. So they were satisfied with the elite students they by and large had, and they did not think at all about improving language skills (though these were rapidly declining, even in the private schools working on the Government curriculum), and not at all interested in working with texts to which students could relate easily. Their curriculum still focused on the Great Tradition, Colombo for instance only having one Sri Lankan short story on its curriculum, and Africa Drama, which was because a recent recruit had done her doctorate in that.

Peradeniya and Kelaniya were even more hidebound, and there was certainly no question of introducing English Language Teaching modules. The only concession they had made to the need for better language was what they had moved to in the fifties, namely linguistics, which had led to several new staffers doing their postgraduate work in that subject. So they thrust sophisticated linguistic theories on their students, who did not have the basic language capacity to understand these.