Free Education for Ceylon: Tales Missing

Prabhath de Silva, in Island, 11 July 2020, where the title is “Unsung And Forgotten Heroes of Free Education and Sri Lanka’s Missed Opportunities”

Much has been said and written about Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara for his role in the introduction of the Free Education Bill in the State Council (Sri Lanka’s legislature under the Donoughmore Constitution from 1931 to 1947) and implementation of the free education policy here. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to him but there are other unsung and forgotten heroes behind this story.

First to come to mind is Rev. James Darrell, an Englishman. He was born 1872 and In 1890 entered Cambridge University where he excelled in Mathematics and obtained a First Class Honours Degree. He later studied Theology and was ordained a Minister of the Methodist Church. In 1896 he came to Sri Lanka to serve as Principal of Richmond College, Galle, a school foundrd by the Wesleyan missionaries and was the Chief Guest at the Prize Giving of the Wesleyan Missionary School at Randombe, a village in Ambalangoda, where Kannangara won many prizes.

At that time Kannangara’ s father had lost his government job and the family was undergoing hardships. Darrell, a kind and compassionate man, impressed by Kannangara’s achievements in the village Missionary School, awarded him a full scholarship to Richmond College as a boarder. Kannangara who excelled in his studies first served as a teacher at Wesley College, Colombo and then became a lawyer and a political leader whose struggle for free education is remembered with gratitude.

During Darrell’s time at Richmond, there was an outbreak of typhoid and many children at the school hostel had contracted the disease. Darrell left the comfort of the principal’s bungalow to stay at the students’ hostel to nurse the sick children; he eventually contracted the disease and passed away at the hostel at the very young age of 34-years. But for Darrell’s kindness and compassion, Kannangara wouldn’t have received the education that made him a teacher, lawyer and a great political leader whose efforts served the educational needs of underprivileged children.

From the beginning of British colonial rule, education in the Sinhalese and Tamil medium was free from the kindergarten to the Senior School Certificate level (equivalent to today’s GCE’O’) . But the English medium schools constituting about 10 -15 percent of the schools here charged fees. The best Swabasha educated children could reach was the teaching profession or becoming notaries, village headmen or ayurvedic physicians. The better jobs were only to those who attended the fee levying English medium schools.

The second unsung and forgotten hero behind free education was Mr.A. Ratnayake, elected to the State Council from Wattegama in 1931 after universal adult franchise was granted under the Donoughmore Constitution. Ratnayake favoured free education from the kindergarten to university and moved in the State Council that a Special Committee on Education be appointed to look into the issue of a uniform system of free education right up to university. This motion was accepted and the State Council appointed a Special Committee on Education. Kannangara, the first Minister of Education under the Donoughmore Commission, was appointed the Chairman of this Special Committee comprising Members of the State Council and eminent educationists. Ratnayake and Robert Marrs , Principal of the University College, were among its members. Marrs was succeeded by Sir Ivor Jennings, as Principal of the University College and Jennings attended the last meetings of the Special Committee on Education.

Robert Marrs  Ivor Jennings

After much discussion, the Committee presented the final draft of its report under the Chairmanship of Kannangara recommending free higher education to children passing the grade five scholarship examination. Jennings says in his autobiography that Ratnayake who was absent at some previous meetings, had been present at the last where the final draft of the report was presented by Kannangara. At this stage, Ratnayake had said that this was not what he originally intended when he presented his motion in the State Council to appoint the Special Committee and moved that free education be given to all children whether they passed the Grade 5 scholarship examination or not.

Ratnayake’s amendment was accepted. Kannangara , as Minister of Education responsible for the implementation of the final report of the committee. He presented in 1942 the Free Education Bill drafted upon the committee’s recommendations in the State Council. At the debate that followed, he spoke almost 12 hours facilitating the delivery of the ‘child’ of free education and implemented the free education policy. For these reasons, Professor Carlo Fonseka, in a lecture, suggested that A. Ratnayake might be called the “Father of Free Education” while Kannangara might be called the “Mid-wife who delivered the child .” Average Lankans today are totally unaware of A. Ratnayake’s role in the story of free education and he is sadly a forgotten and unsung hero.

The Committee on Special Education headed by Kannangara by a majority recommended that the medium of instruction in all schools should be the mother tongue in the primary classes. Having had the privilege of primary, secondary and tertiary education in English, he was one of the most persuasive advocates of Swabasha education. Sir Ivor Jennings records in his autobiography that the politicians’ views prevailed on this policy over the educationists’ opinions. Kannangara proposed that a child should receive education in his or her mother tongue and this triggered a debate in the Special Committee on what ought to be considered the mother tongue of a child. There were some Sinhalese and Tamil children whose mother tongue was English as that language was what was spoken in their homes. According to Sir Ivor, the politicians including Kannangara proposed a legal formula called ‘racial or ethnic mother tongue’. According to this formula, if the language of the progenitors of the ethnic group of the child’s father is Sinhalese, it should be irrefutably presumed that the Sinhalese language was the child’s mother tongue which should then be his or her medium of instruction in primary school even if his mother tongue was in fact English at home. This legal formula was proposed in respect of Tamil children too.

Ministers of the State Council 1936

When it came to Muslims, Burghers and Malays, the Special Committee could not recommend applying this principle. If the legal formula of racial mother tongue was applied to these ethnic groups, the mother tongues of Muslim, Burgher and Malay children would respectively be Arabic, Portuguese/ Dutch/English and Malay. In order to overcome this difficulty, Muslims, Burghers and Malays were permitted to receive education in the English medium. The Kannangara Committees’ recommendations were adopted after Independence. Sinhalese and Tamil children in the English medium schools were required to study in the Sinhalese and Tamil mediums. The English medium schools were allowed to teach only the Muslim, Burgher and Malay children in the English medium. C.W.W. Kannangara was in fact the father of Swabahsha education although S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was responsible for the enactment of Sinhala Only Act of 1956 is often wrongly blamed for Swabasha education.

Within two years of the Free Education Ordinance passed in 1942, as many as 44 Central Colleges were established throughout the country, mainly in the rural areas, with well equipped buildings, laboratories and hostels. These schools initially taught rural children in the English medium and some rural children entered the University of Ceylon from them in the early fifties. It certainly was a great revolution. However, the subsequent language policies adopted by successive governments deprived these rural children and others from established English medium schools the benefit of English medium education.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, only 10 percent of the schools in that country used English as the medium of instruction whilst 80 per cent taught in Chinese and the rest in either Tamil or Malay. Lee Kuan Yew did not abolish English medium education but converted all non- English medium schools to English within a decade giving all Singaporean children, regardless of ethnicity, an equal opportunity to be taught in the English medium. He retained English as the working language of the country making English , Chinese, Tamil and Malay as official languages. Lee did this in a country where 80 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese. If Sri Lanka’s post Independence leaders had adopted this policy, we would not have had ethnic conflicts, tension, communal riots and a 30-year civil war immensely benefiting our development.

Another interesting question that arises is: “How did the then government of the British colony of Ceylon afford to build 42 Central Colleges and a well equipped residential University at Peradeniya?”. The answer speaks volumes of the well managed economy we had under the British rule. Although many portray British rule here as ‘exploitative’, of our country, they ignore the vast economic, social and educational developments that facilitated the transition from feudalism to capitalism and a parliamentary democracy. The contemporary progressive political trends in Britain with her social movements like utilitarianism, social, democratic and labour movements, too influenced colonial rule here. The classic example was the grant of universal adult franchise to Sri Lanka upon the recommendation of the Donoughmore Commission.

The British government appointed a Royal Commission headed by Lord Donoughmore to inquire into further reforms to the constitution to meet Sri Lankan aspirations. A.E. Goonesinha, Sri Lanka’s pioneer labour leader, appeared before the Commission and demanded the grant of universal adult franchise. The delegation of the Ceylon National Congress vehemently opposed Goonesinha’s progressive proposal and demanded that the qualifications of education and wealth should remain and preferred limited franchise to the elite. This shows that Goonesinha who was influenced by the contemporary policies of the British Labour Party was progressive whilst the Ceylon National Congress led by the elite semi-feudal Sri Lankans were reactionary.

But the Donoughmore Commission which comprised progressive British politicians, strongly recommended that the universal adult franchise should be granted to Ceylon to enable the ordinary people in the rural areas to elect their own representatives to agitate for better facilities – educational, health and development. It may be argued that the far sighted vision of the members of the Donoughmore Commission also remotely contributed to the Free Education policy of Sri Lanka. In that sense, the progressive British members of the Donoughmore Commission too are unsung and forgotten heroes behind the true story of Free Education here.

Then Ceylon did not borrow hugely to build the Central Schools and the University thanks to a well managed economy under colonial rule. Colonial rule was an extension of British capitalism to the colonies including Ceylon. Lenin in his book “Colonialism: The Advanced Stage of Capitalism” presented a similar argument. Today, we beg for foreign investment. This is not a new phenomenon. During British colonial rule, British companies invested in the plantations and other sectors in Sri Lanka. These capitalists paid taxes to the British colonial government here on the profits they earned. Later parallel to the British and European capitalist class, an indigenous native entrepreneur class emerged . The colonial government managed the economy with its own tax revenue without borrowing from outside.

At the public sittings of the Special Committee on Education, an eminent educationist had recommended that free education should be given only for primary and secondary education but not for university or tertiary education as it would be an unbearable burden to the country. His suggestion was that the students who could not afford to pay the fees for university education should be granted loans to be recovered when they obtain employment after graduation; exceptionally brilliant students with economic hardships should be given scholarships. A member of the Committee who was a Ceylonese politician had reportedly told this educationist, ” Mr. …., We (Ceylon) have enormous foreign reserves and assets, ….. we can well afford it”. I personally believe in the practical wisdom of that educationist’s suggestion. Had his proposal been adopted, Sri Lankan State could have saved more funds to expand university education to provide opportunities for many more deserving students. The percentage of university graduates in Sri Lanka could have been much higher [with better standards ] and perhaps equal to those of well developed countries. At the end of Second World War, Ceylon granted an enormous loan to Britain for reconstruction work. Such was the strength of the economy we inherited from the British in spite of the stories of economic exploitation. We should concede that we inherited from the British an economy with assets and not liabilities. Ours was an economy second only to Japan in Asia. Many Lankans have forgotten that free education today was funded by resources generated before Independence and is a lasting legacy from the British colonial rule and progressive policies.

In almost every tribute I have read to C.W.W. Kannangara on his role in the introduction and implementation of free education, it has been repeatedly highlighted that Kananngara was defeated at Matugama in the General Election of 1947. This implied that the majority of the people of his electorate had been ungrateful to him for what he had done to give the country free education. Only three years before his electoral defeat, one of the central colleges had been established in Matugama. Those who suggest that Matugama people were ungrateful, ignore the stature of the candidate who defeated Kannangara in 1947.

Wilmot Perera

He was Wilmot A. Perera, social worker and a philanthropist, who had by then spent his personal wealth to build Sripali College at Horana and many other schools and educational institutions in the district of Kalutara. Obviously the people of Matugama had been touched by the generous and philanthropic contributions of Perera and might have preferred him to Kannangara whose free education policy was still in its infancy and the people had not yet reaped its fruits. I believe that it is unfair to suggest that a majority of voters of Matugama were ungrateful. They seem to have felt they should be more grateful to Wilmot Perera who spent his enormous personal wealth and not State funds to build schools and do social work in the Kalutara district.


A NOTE from Michael Roberts of Thuppahi, 13 July 2020

Prabath’s essay raises numerous issues about the independence movement in the first half of the 20th century and the overarching foundations of British rule. These aspects could even call for a monograph length study. I will try and address some issues in a short essay at some point soon. For the moment, let me direct Prabath and readers to some pertinent sources.

ONE: Note that the young and callow Michael Roberts interviewed A. Ratnayake on three occasions: 4 March 1967. 11 March 1967 and 5 January 1968. These tape recorded interviews have been digitalized by the Special Collections Unit at the Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide and can therefore be accessed by one or other of these routes: (a) Go to the Michael Roberts manuscripts ………………………………. listing…. And click on the link to Adelaide Research and Scholarship under Series 1 – Digital versions; (b) Go to the University of Adelaide Libraries home page

On left hand menu bar click ‘Digital Services’ ………….. Then ‘Adelaide Research & Scholarship’……………Click on ‘Communities and collections’ …………Scroll down to ‘University Library: Special Collections

TWO: See Michael Roberts: “How It Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress,” 22 March 2018,



Filed under accountability, British colonialism, cultural transmission, democratic measures, education, education policy, governance, historical interpretation, language policies, life stories, politIcal discourse, social justice, sri lankan society, teaching profession, world events & processes

10 responses to “Free Education for Ceylon: Tales Missing

  1. wilfrid jayasuriya

    On the general theme of the extremely beneficial impact of British rule I have presented a host of evidence and information in my publication “The British Diaries” printed at Lake house at my cost. Its basic source material is the Diaries of the Government Agents of Ceylon (Ratnapura GAs diaries and related literature about Ceylon.) It was my Master’s thesis in English for the MA awarded by the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (USA). The diaries, which were kept by the GAs recount their personal involvement in provincial administration, and how they saw their role as paternal overlords ensuring benefits for the people. Copies are found in the Library of Congress, the Ceylon Archives and perhaps in the SLIDA library. The GAs employed their own personal writing styles and the book is readable as well as wide ranging in its source material. I wonder whether Michael would like to have a look at it. It will certainly be rich resource for postgrads looking for topics and research material. Wilfrid Jayasuriya Ph D

  2. Patrick Rodrigo

    Mr. A Ratnayake when he was President of the senate gave me a note to be handed to Mr. Cooray chairman of Brown & Co.Ltd, and the next day I was employed as a special apprentice (1965). His son P B Ratnayake ended up as GM of the Peoples Bank a simple person who never ever changed personality with this powerful posting.

  3. Pingback: Battleships Down: Early Signs in the Decline of British Imperial Power across the Span of the Indian Ocean | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. Pingback: Pushing the British out of Ceylon, 1918-1956: Issues | Thuppahi's Blog

  5. Dash

    Sir Richard Morgan and Sir Charles Henry de Soysa played leading role in the formulation of The Village Communities Ordinance of 1871 which revived the ancient Gamsabahas (Village Tribunals) with increased powers and responsibilities and introduced powers to enforce compulsory education. The contribution of CH de Soysa and other subsequent philanthropists, the ‘grand-fathers of free education’ in the story of free education cannot be overlooked any further. De Soysa establised non-denominational English and Sinhala education at the same institution (where over a third of the students were girls) 60 years befoe these proposals. Also, H W Amarasuriya, a member of the Special Committee on Education had by then personally funded several schools.

  6. Chulanee Herat Gunaratne

    I am Senator Ratnayake’s youngest daughter. My father dedicated his life to develop education levels in our country to be in line with European Countries. Free education from kindergarten to University was his dream. The opposition to is dream did not in anyway affect him. His determination and commitment won the day. Thank you so much for remembering him!

  7. De Silva’s article gets most of the facts correct, but I think it’s unfair to implicate poor James Darrell in the Kannangara story. He was merely extending Christian charity to a gifted boy whose father had ruined himself socially, professionally and financially. He was not to know what the sequel would be, and he certainly did not encourage Kannangara’s Sinhalese nationalism (which seems not to have manifested itself till well after he left Richmond).

    It is also worth pointing out that Wilmot Perera, who defeated Kannangara at Matugama, had as good – or better – a claim to be an educationist as his opponent did. He had founded Sri Palee Vidyalaya, a major school in the Matugama area, which had been opened by Rabindranath Tagore himself. And, as is well known, his grandparents were the founders of Visakha Vidyalaya, Abraham and Celestina Dias.

    • chandre DW

      It is good that Mr. A Ratnayake’s role in initiating free education has been brought out here.
      In fact, initially Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara had not been favourable to the idea. Also, it is interesting that apparently Leftist leaders like N. M. Perera, although favourable to the idea, actually opposed it and wrote a pamphlet opposing it. This seems surprising since all Socialist governments put a stress on education. The Marxist opposition was based on what was claimed to be the dialectical principle of doing what was best to usher in the revolution as soon as possible.
      Apparently NM had argued that free education must be introduced only after the capture of power by the working class.
      It was claimed that the introduction of education by an imperialist capitalist regime will invariably produce a brainwashed servile educated middle class that will oppose the revolution and sing in praise of the good done by the imperialist regime.
      Someone may still have a copy of N. M. Perera’s 1940s booklet. It would be nice to find that booklet as it reveals the utter certainty of the belief in the coming of the revolution that guided the early days of the Left Movement in Sri Lanka.
      Chandre Dharmawardana

      • Richard Simon

        “It is good that Mr. A Ratnayake’s role in initiating free education has been brought out here.” – Yes, indeed, it is good that the true culprits of Lanka’s ruination are identified. Seventy years of their nonsense have culminated in the pathetic state Lanka finds herself in now. They, far more than SWRD Bandaranaike, are to blame for our present condition.

  8. AN EMAIL NOTE from RAJAN HOOLE, 9 December 2021 adds THIS: …………. “I have seen this. It was Arunachalam who first recommended free education for the youth of Ceylon. See Arunachalam’s speeches and writings published by Lady Arunachalam in 1936. ………………..Rajan

Leave a Reply