Education is the cornerstone of civilization. In past centuries, acquiring knowledge was a luxury that the poor and lower social classes could not afford to expend time or money on. What began as an elite privilege has given way to our current system, where formal education is compulsory on all children up to a certain age.

Pre-Colonial Period (Before 1505)

The ancient indigenous education in this country during the pre-colonial period can be divided into 3 major areas.
1. Primary Education
2. Secondary Education
3. Tertiary Education

During the given period of time, education was compulsory for every child, yet, it was not forcefully given, but operated as a sheer responsibility of the parents. The institute that gave primary education was “Gurugedara”. The curriculum contained subjects such as Health, Religion, Environment, writing letters and teaching of good habits.

When primary education which was meant for all children was concluded, the children who enter their adolescence also enter the secondary education. Secondary education was operated of 2 major parts.
1. Shilpa Shreni education which was based on the caste (family)
2. Temple School (Pansal Pasala)

In the historical Ceylon, there were 2 main institutions that gave tertiary education.
1. Therawada Universities
2. Mahayana Universities

Therawada University operated having Mahavihara as the centre. The teaching in this institution was based on the teachings of Buddhism and not so much on secular subjects. The sole intention of this university was to make people realize the truth. Pali and Sanscrit were taught, but did not concentrate much on Mahayana teachings. Because of these reasons, Mahavihara University did not become very popular. Mahavihara University may have had its own affiliated universities. SithulPawwa can be considered as one.

Mahayana Universities were situated close to Jethawanramaya and Abhayagiriya. These universities concentrated more on secular subjects than on religious subjects. Sanscrit was considered more important than Pali. Because of these reasons, Mahayana curriculum became more popular was attracted by the people. As an outcome, irrigation systems, statues, Sandakadapahanas and other products of artistic value came to be seen in the country. These universities have also taught Therawada Buddhism. Among the subjects taught were Logic, Mathematics, Sixty Four Arts (Siv Seta Kalaa), Royal Rules, Religious Law, art of arrowing, construction of Dagaba, Steel productions, naval industry, medicine, Buddhist Philosophy, music, public health, International Law and AshtaVidyaShilpa were included. The foreign students have also studies in these universities.

Portuguese Period (1505 –1640)

They Portuguese handed over the responsibility of education to the Catholic clergy who came to this country as missionaries. The medium of instruction was Portuguese. The methodology they basically followed was memorizing, singing, question and answer, drama, sharing experiences and lecture mode. Franciscans were supposed to be very qualified in teaching and they had affiliations to the universities in Portugal. They knew Theology and other sciences. They were the first missionaries who came to Sri Lanka and came in 1542. Dominicans knew Philosophy well while the Jesuits were good teachers. All in all, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits and Augustinians engaged themselves in the mission of education. These congregations intended to have 3 training colleges, but ended up having only one which was managed by the Franciscans.

Dutch Period (1640 – 1796)

Education was a direct intervention of the government of the Dutch. Even though their main objective was to make profits out of business, they gave priority to education. The students had to embrace Protestantism. In the event of not doing so, their parents’ properties were confiscated. The education was imparted in vernacular.

British Period (1796 – 1948)

In the year 1798, the British handed over the work of education to the Church of England. Government paid their salaries and disbursed money for other requirements as well. Education became the work of Protestant Church and almost maintained a monopoly. This resulted in Catholics disliking the system and other religions also followed the same policy.

The missionary groups that came to Sri Lanka are as follows,
• London Missionary Society – 1806
• Baptist Missionary Society – 1812
• Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society – 1814
• American Missionary Society – 1816
• Church Missionary Society – 1818

Commission on Education (1834)

In 1834, the commission consisting of Protestant priests and government officials was formed in order to look after education. This commission was in favour of Protestants and aimed at converting people to Protestantism.

Central School Commission (1841)

In 1841, an amendment was introduced to the commission on Education whereby it became the Central Education Commission. Out of nine members, only 3 were priests, out of which, one was a Catholic priest. This commission was formed in order to find solutions in terms of the uniformity of the resources for each religion. The outcome of the commission is as follows.
• A Catholic representation was in this commission. So the catholic schools were able receive aid.
• The facility was not enjoyed by the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Their representatives were not included in the commission.
• The commission proposed a Christian education system and in these Christian schools, all religions were to be taught.
• As Colebrook recommended government schools with English as the medium of instruction, village schools were doomed to be closed.

Ceylon Branch of Royal Asiatic Society (1845)

The Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon was established on 7th February 1845, in parallel to RAS of Great Britain and Ireland to foster oriental research. It established,
• Colombo National Museum
• Department of Archaeology
• Department of National Archives
• Department of Meteorology
• Department of Statistics
• University of Ceylon
• Historical Manuscripts Commission
• Sinhala Dictionary

There were two prominent catholic presidents in this society
• Most Rev. Dr. Edmund Peiris OMI
• Rev. Fr. Charles Collins OMI

Morgan Commission (1865)

In 1865 this commission was formed to research and report on education in the country. They consulted Rev. Fr. Christopher Bonjean on this. He voiced his opinion against the prevailing system where Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were not regarded in the education system. The Sub Commission recommended that the earlier Central Education Commission would be abolished and a new body would be formed. This was named as the Department of Public Instruction.

Recommendations of the Morgan Commission under Fr. Bonjean’s Influence (1869)

• A new education system was introduced
• Each religion could start their own schools
• Government agreed to grant aid to the schools that function well.
• Parents had the right to choose the school for their children
• All religions have their religious rights in the schools
• Primary education must be in vernacular
• Children must be taught the religion of their parents

Accordingly, Rev. Fr. Christopher Bonjean became the father of grant-in-aid schools. Between 1869 and 1896 education developed rapidly. It was an English education. English education did not give knowledge about native languages, history and environment. Books were published in English. Teaching techniques and examination methodology was in line with that of Britain. By this, Sinhala was cornered in the country.

Department of Public Instruction (1869)

With the recommendations of this subcommittee, Central School Commission became defunct and new arm was established which was named as Department of Public Instruction. This, later on, became the Department of Education.

Buddhist Revival (1869)

In the wake of developing a denominational education in the country with medium as English, there came to be a true revival from the perspective of the Buddhists as it appeared to them as if they were to lose their identity as Sinhala Buddhists. The Buddhist Theosophical Society, YMBA and Mahabodhi Sangamaya were initiated during this time in order to revive Buddhism in the country.

Panadura Debate

Panadura Debate took place in 1873. The cause for debate arose when Rev. David de Silva delivered a sermon on the Soul at the Wesleyan Chapel, Panadura on 12 June 1873.GunanandaThera delivered a sermon a week later criticizing the points raised by Rev. David de Silva. The two parties signed an agreement on 24 July 1873 to hold another debate at Panadura, although this was not the only cause of the debate as debating on religious issues had commenced more than 10 years previously.

Buddhist Theosophical Society

Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society was formed on 17th June 1880. Henry Steel Olcott, an American Theosophist and Madam Helena P. Blavatsky,a Russian author and Theosophist, inspired by the message of Buddhism disseminated by the ‘Panadura Debate’ of August, 1873, arrived in Sri Lanka on 17th May, 1880, and proclaimed themselves Buddhist by observing Thisarana Paanchaseela.

Mahabodhi Sangamaya

In 1891, while on pilgrimage to the recently restored Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, the location where Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) attained enlightenment, AnagarikaDharmapala had experienced a shock to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship, as a result of which, he began an agitation movement. Prior to that, in 1885 Sir Edwin Arnold visited the site and published several articles drawing the attention of the Buddhists to the deplorable conditions of Buddhagaya.The Buddhist renaissance inaugurated by Anagarika Dharmapala through his Mahabodhi Movement has also been described as “conservative” for it considered Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent responsible for the decay of Buddhism in India, in the then current mood of Hindu-Buddhist brotherhood.

Buddhist Monks who fought the Battle

Rev. Migettuwatte GunanadaThero
Rev. Hikkaduwe Sri SumangalaThero

English Education during the Time of Fr. Christopher Bonjean

This time, English education was the limelight. Catholic Church was little backward in embracing the English education. Catholic Church was still in the hands of Oratorian Fathers and they knew only Portuguese. Likewise, the French and Italian missionaries knew nothing about English. In this instance the Anglican priest were much ahead, because it was their mother tongue.

Government Schools and Grant-in-Aid or Denominational Schools

Catholic as well as other religious denominations was thus given the opportunity to engage in education. Despite various hindrances encountered in the beginning, it was the persistent effort of the Fr. Bonjean that paved the way for a very successful system of schools. Accordingly, while the state established its own schools, there was the development of assisted schools springing up in almost every village where there was the presence of people belonging to different religions.

Oriental Studies Society (1902)

This society was established in 1902 by S. M. Borosa, Director, Department of Public Instructions to support the cause of Pirivena education. Rev. Fr. F. A. Edirisinghe and Rev. Fr. C. W. de Silva were present at the inauguration. They were great scholars of oriental languages. This society is responsible for holding examinations for Pirivena education.

Donoughmore Commission

The 1927-1928 Donoughmore Commission recommended that Ceylon be given limited self-government and the replacement of the Legislative Council and Executive Council with the State Council and Board of Ministers respectively. Accordingly, the Executive Council was abolished in 1931.

State Council of Ceylon – Donomourgh Constitution

The State Council of Ceylon was the unicameral legislature for Ceylon. Established in 1931 by the Donoughmore Constitution, the State Council gave universal adult franchise to the people of the colony for the first time. It replaced the Legislative Council of Ceylon, the colony’s original legislative body. There were only two State Councils: the First, elected in 1931, and the Second, elected in 1936. The 1947 Soulbury Constitution replaced the State Council with the Parliament of Ceylon, as part of a process of constitutional development leading up to independence, which took place on 4 February 1948.

Soulbury Constitution

In 1944 commission was appointed for the reforms and it was headed by Lord Soulbury. Boards of Ministers also sent their proposals to the commission and the request of the dominion status was rejected by the Crown and approved the Soulbury proposals. It was adopted by the State Council in November 1945. Ceylon Independence Act was passed by the British Parliament on 10 December 1947 and 19 December 1947 Ceylon Independence Order was issued. Finally on 4thFebruary 1948, Ceylon became an independent country.

Reforms in 1951

In a reformation brought to the Education Act in 1951, the government gave the preference to choose whether to remain Unassisted or Assisted. Accordingly, some schools opted to be fee –levying while others remained non-fee levying. The only catholic school that remained Unassisted was St. Bridget’s Convent while few other Christian schools opted to be fee-levying. They were Ladies’ College, Bishop’s College, Methodist College, St. Thomas’ College, Carey College, Trinity College etc..

The Act also gave a green light to open new schools which will have to opt be fee-levying. Accordingly,
1. St. Aloysius Seminary, Borella
2. St. Lawrence’s Convent, Wellawatte
3. Good Shepherd Convent, Panadura
4. Christ King College, Pannipitiya
5. St. Joseph’s College, Nugegoda
6. Loyola College, Negombo
7. Oblate Scholasticate, Nugogoda
8. St. Philomina’s Convent, Horanawere begun

Reforms in 1960

Assisted Schools and Training Colleges Act No. 5 of 1960 (Special Provisions) was passed in the parliament. The introduction of the aforementioned Act says that the objective of the Act is to take over to the government the schools that were run by the Managers who were appointed by different religious denominations to which they belonged and to hand them over to the Director of Education. This came into execution on the 1st of January 1960.

Reforms in 1961

Assisted Schools and Training Colleges Act No. 8 of 1961 (Supplementary Provisions). This Act comes into effect on the 2nd March 1961. The objective of this Act is to take over the properties of the schools that were vested in the Director of Education. This taking over was done without any compensation. So actually it is not a taking over, but vesting in the government with conditions laid down.