Why English Medium Education?
English, being the world language today, is a sine qua non in securing employment even locally, not to mention internationally and gaining access to all knowledge and technology with most of the literature relating to these being available only in that language.
All nations, irrespective of their political ideology, show a keen interest in their citizens being proficient in the lingua franca that is English. Sri Lanka became open to the English language over two centuries ago when it became a colony of the British Empire that had its sway over the better part of the globe as well as ruled the waves at that time.
Britain being the more enlightened of the three western colonial powers ruling it, the other two being the Portuguese and the Dutch, ruled the country in a more systematic manner leaving the imprint of their language in a marked manner.
So, apart from leaving behind an officialdom conversant in English when they departed, it was possible for the indigenous gentry to send their sons to Oxford and Cambridge Universities for their higher education even in Western Classics and some ended up in the United States of America earning doctorates in Agricultural Economics at Chicago and Wisconsin Universities.
It was at a fee that English medium education was available to the children of the ordinary people until free education was introduced and Fifth Standard scholars who gained admission to the newly set up Central Colleges began to enjoy that opportunity. Some of those who performed well in school having graduated at the University of Ceylon got into the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) became Secretaries to the Treasury and ended up as Alternate Directors to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As a result of the nationalist sentiments associated with obtaining Independence in 1948, after almost half a millennium of foreign domination and the desirability of the people to adopt Sinhala as the medium of instruction in meeting their aspirations, as even the Indian leadership thought of making Hindi the official language, the switch over to Sinhala came to pass. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike would have been the last leader to take that measure to preserve his class.
However, it is alleged, “As a politician, SWRD became the father of the Sinhala Only Act, while knowing well that this policy would deprive the ordinary people, the model of education that made him a polished personality during that time.” The standard of English taught as a second language in schools was in the doldrums, for four decades, from 1959 to 1998 except in the small number of private schools, and the international schools set up in the 1980s.
The education reforms introduced in 1998 gave priority to launching an English medium education programme covering selected government schools in the island and it is ongoing. However, it slowed down after 2004. It has to be given a boost to make up for lost momentum without any further delay.
The fact that the quality of English medium education imparted in that manner has been found to be as high as during the English medium days belies the claim that there is not enough talent in the teachers and the trainers under whom they undergo training. The fact is that four teacher training colleges produce about 600 competent specialist English teachers, annually, who can take up the challenge.
In addition there are thirty regional English support centres, university English language teaching units and the National Institute of Education. However, that English medium education has to be brought back to the pre-1956 position is solely due to utility and therefore economic considerations and the notion that any other reasons for doing so such as culture. J.R. Jayewardene brought the proposal, in the State Council in 1944, to make Sinhala the Official Language and as an affront to the gentle sensitivity of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who was anxious to bring back pre-western rule pristine glory, making it so in 1956: the fact that both of them did not lose their lustre when they got into the garb of the Sinhala guruvaraya and the Ayurveda vedamahatttaya was ample proof that there was much more in their personality than their English education and their westernisation that allegedly polished them.
They are good examples to show that refinement comes from discipline, culture and even wealth, social status and least of all exposure to the West.