Internationalisation of School Education

Posted on September 1, 2007  /  0 Comments

Internationalisation of School Education

Dr. Siri Gamage


EDUCATION: This paper critically examines the internationalisation of education in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, relevant discourses and their implications on the society and culture.

A well-known Sri Lankan educationist once said that there is no informed educational debate in Sri Lanka. What exists there is only several myths extracted from the British educational tradition’ (Udagama 1981/82:8).

However, it is important to see if these myths continue to exist, whether the myths have changed, or indeed different myths have been extracted from other powerful countries such as USA, and Australia.


A central argument of the paper is that those who criticise international schools do so from a variety of perspectives and for a variety of reasons.

Some of these are related to the nature of education provided by the international schools itself, but other criticisms arise as a result of the poor standards prevailing in the public education system, the disadvantages that students face in the competitive employment market place and the anger generated in the public mind as a result, impact on national identity and values, widening class disparities, and equity implications.

The critical discourses on educational inequality in Sri Lanka are rooted in the British colonial history of Ceylon, the course that free education project went through since independence, the post-77 market-led economic rationalist, anti-welfare policies, and the nationalist way of thinking advocated by those who can only access the public education system to advance their children’s status in society.


A country’s education system has its own history. Officials and professionals with socially, culturally and even politically shaped attitudes, ways of thinking, and acting run it. Education institutions have sub-cultures, formal procedures, informal networks, and corporate histories.

They have their own ways of operation conditioned by the requirements of broader society, institutional constraints, and available provisions and resources. What we find in the broader socio-political, economic and cultural systems are replicated in the educational institutions.

Therefore the aim of this paper is to provide a contextual understanding of internationalization of education, in particular the international schools in Sri Lanka.

In doing this we have to be aware of the transnational forces and processes with a bearing on the issue under consideration along with the national ones.

Fundamental social divisions in Sri Lankan society have been articulated by academics, journalists, other writers and even politicians by using categories such as castes, classes, elites and masses, urban and rural, nationalist (jatika)/indigenous (desheeya) vs. foreign (videsheeya) eg. Western (batahira).

The discourse on elites who are urban based with access to power, privilege and Western styles of thought and action is a strong one. The ruling political class and the business, military, bureaucratic, religious elites form parts of the elites. The elites are broadly divided into Westernised and nationalist strata.

State schools

The role of urban based elite schools now run by the State, which were restricted to privileged groups of society during the British colonial period providing English medium education- is a critical one in not only imparting the subject knowledge and qualifications but also several critical markers of high status.

This high status and markers included Western cultural markers such as English language knowledge and accent, sporting skills, life style, consumer goods, and other symbols.

Attending such schools also provided the students with access to important networks through Old Boys and Girls associations, friendships with peers and their parents, teachers and patrons of the schools.

These factors kept them apart from the average village or town boys and girls who attended not so prestigious schools and learned through the medium of Sinhalese or Tamil with little exposure to English language, Western life style, or elite networks.

In the Sri Lankan society there has been a continuing critical discourse on the role of these schools that privilege some and disempowered and exclude others with similar educational and social aspirations.

Because of these criticisms and concerns, and government reactions, there has been a degree of localisation/indigenisation of urban-based elite schools in the 1960s and afterwards making them available to a broader cross-section of the population.

The medium of instruction changed from English to Sinhala and Tamil, yet instruction in English also continued in these urban schools. Many students brought knowledge of English from their family backgrounds also as their parents were middle class professionals in the state or private sector.

Expansion of international schools

In this context, a larger section of the population see the genesis and expansion of international schools as a repeat of what existed during the colonial period serving a similar function to these urban elite schools, i.e. Contribution to the creation and maintenance of a privileged strata in society whose values, interests and aspirations as well as ideologies are pro-Western, not Sri Lankan.

In this sense, those who are excluded from participating in the international schools do not see the education made available through international schools as a liberating one. Instead, they see it as an alienating and antagonistic one.

However, those who have the necessary resources to access such education see it as a liberating, multi skills elevating and much more broad based one allowing the children better transcultural capital.

The excluded segments do not believe that the education from the international schools as providing the cultural capital required for culturally compatible national development and social progress.

Thus, there are two significant frameworks by which people located in different strata view international education and national/ public education. Features of each will become clearer in the details provided in the following pages.

How do we make a direct or indirect link between the internationalisation of education eg: international schools, and educational and socio-economic inequalities existing in a society such as Sri Lanka? Is there such a link, and if so what is the nature of it? Alternatively, are the criticisms of international schools misguided?

Do these criticisms arise because of the supposedly sub-standard nature and quality of education provided by the public education system? How far is this responsible for generating anti-internationalisation attitudes and rhetoric? What is the basis of such attitudes and rhetoric, and where do they come from?

These are some questions that one can raise around the issue of internationalisation of school education in the Sri Lankan context. Schools and education in the Local Context International schools in Sri Lanka exist side by side with the public education system.

Internationalisation of education at all levels has been taking place since the British administration of the country (1796-1948).

As with any indigenous society subjected to colonialism and corresponding changes in the economy, polity, religion, education and other social services, Sri Lanka has seen social changes at different periods during the colonial, and post independent periods.

Changes in the education sphere reflect, represent and correspond to significant social and cultural changes in Sri Lanka.

Avenue to best professions

Many parents and children see educational opportunities as an avenue available to enter much valued professions and achieve social mobility in a society where factors associated with ascribed status (e.g. caste, religion, ethnicity, family) are still influential in determining the access to opportunities available to a given person.

Campaigns for equal and free universal educational opportunities go back to the late British colonial period ie.1930s. In post independent Sri Lanka when progressive politicians and bureaucrats attempted to change the nature of education instituted by the British administrators, there were considerable obstacles put in their way by those in authority.

However along with the changing political and economic settings, significant changes were implemented in the educational system also. They were couched in nationalist terms.

The masses saw these educational changes as addressing their hitherto neglected needs, and many in fact were able to access public education at all levels as a result. The time period involving these changes is from 1940s to 1970s.

During the post independence period, the publicly funded education system has undergone significant qualitative and quantitative changes.

While a larger proportion of the population had access to education at all levels as a result of the changing political landscape, in particular the electoral appetite for expanding public education, the system started to attract wide criticism on two main grounds: 1) quality of education, 2) employability factor. University-oriented academic nature of the school curriculum is related to the second issue.

The expanding fee charging privately run tuition classes were blamed as a factor contributing to the lowered quality along with other factors such as low teacher pay, politicisation, and lack of student-teacher motivation.

The onset and expansion of international schools since late 70s occurred against such a background. After a period of growth in the international schools and other providers, some critics have started to make a direct link between the two systems also.

Public perceptions

Public perceptions about the new phase of internationalisation, especially after 1977, cannot be properly understood without locating the process in the broad socio-economic, political, historical and cultural contexts as well as the overall evolution of the education system with its many complexities.

This is because the perceptions about the privately provided international education are often clouded by the experiences of parents and children from a variety of social strata.

These experiences relate to the access or non-access the children have to quality and recognised education in the society, and the role that the government plays in the provision of education services.

For example, the welfare state concept provided the necessary ideology for policy making in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. During the post-welfare state period, with the emergence of economic rationalist policies and ideologies eg. economic liberalisation and privatisation, there is an uneasy co-existence of the two ideologies since late 70s.

One the one hand, irrespective of the existing weaknesses of the national public education system, large segments of the population still yarn for free education as a state welfare measure.

On the other hand, those parents who are dissatisfied with the quality of public education look to the privately funded local and international educational services such as international schools because of the low recognition given by the private sector to public education, and the lack of access to higher education institutions where there is a competitive system of selection.

Public perceptions on this are also conditioned by the benefits received or not received from either system. Arguments and counter arguments about the internationalisation of education in Sri Lanka have to be viewed in such a broader context.

Further changes in the global and local environments occurred during the 1980s and 1990s.

These included the ethnic conflict, resistance by the radical Sinhalese party JVP, economic liberalization, privatization of state enterprises, globalisation, relaxation of emigration restrictions and encouragement of overseas employment, and expansion of private educational services offered by international organizations and/or their local counterparts.

As a result of the expansion of private educational services a view exists that the country is going back to the system which existed during the British colonial period (1796-1948) where a few could afford to pay the fees to attend elite schools , and a majority were excluded from access to high quality education provided by such schools.

In our country’s educational system the education system that the English gave us during their rule, the Christian missionary schools, and the free education system initiated by Mr. Kannangara still exists in an unequal manner. The mixture of these different educational systems and patterns has contributed to make our society unequal.

To make things more complicated, along with the liberalized economy the newly introduced international school system and private education system, foreign education etc., is turning the social system upside down.

In fact the inequalities in education influenced the 1971 rebellion and 1988-89 (youth) unrest. (Hewage A.S. 1999: 7-8) In the next section, I briefly look at the educational scene that existed before and after the independence and the issues identified by educationists and other commentators.

From Colonial to Free Education – A Brief Account of the Changes & Inequalities According to Jayasuriya (1969), two dualities existed in the organization of the education system during the colonial period (1796-1948).

1. schools managed by the government and those managed by denominational bodies and private individuals, 2. schools under all management, divided along linguistic lines ie. according to the extent to which English or other local languages were used.

This created various inequities eg. money provided, quantity and quality of educational facilities, opportunities for higher education and employment. Jayasuriya states that the missionary education was encouraged and supported by the government while the traditional Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim schools were deprived of such support and encouragement. Government heavily subsidized education in English medium schools.

‘The differential opportunities associated with the language medium, for higher education as well as for employment, added to the inequity of the system’ (Jayasuriya 1969: 6).


In 1939, there were 3575 schools in Ceylon. Out of this, only 35 were prestigious schools. One of them was a government school established in 1836, and others were Christian missionary schools. The curriculum in these schools inculcated Christian and English ideals in the young people and prepared them for employment in government and commercial establishments.

The decision to conduct the Cambridge Senior examination and the London Matriculation examination in Ceylon and to prepare students in the prestigious Ceylon schools for thee examinations contributed to the legitimacy of this curriculum. They were examinations popularly taken by English Public School students.

They emphasized literacy and academic skills, the requirements necessary for the university studies in Britain (Jayasuriya 1969: 7). Commenting further on the rest of schools in the country Jayasuriya states, The mass of schools for the most part set their sights on the curriculum of the prestigious schools, but their resources were so limited as to permit its adoption only in a greatly adulterated form that provided no intellectual stimulation at all while being at the same time socially irrelevant.

The seal was thus set on the separation of education from life, and the only saving grace was that the basic literacy which the curriculum provided was of some value. A few from among these ranks emerged as a Sinhalese educated or a Tamil educated elite, socially inferior to the English educated elite and with fewer opportunities for economic mobility, generally holding appointments as Sinhalese and Tamil teachers, or practising Eastern systems of medicine. (Jayasuriya 1969: 8).

There was much unhappiness and frustration about this situation among the masses in the 19th and early 20th century resulting in significant changes to the system. Silva puts this in following words: By the early twentieth century the society of Sri Lanka was a complex one: being composed of various religious and ethnic groups-Buddhists, Christians (of various denominations), Hindus and Muslims as well as the Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays and Burghers. A key factor here was that the largest ethno-religious group, the Sinhala Buddhists, found themselves in the early twentieth century as an educationally underprivileged group.

The situation could not last very long especially as the introduction of universal suffrage in 1931 and the winning of independence by the mid-century placed them in a politically dominant position.

In fact one of the themes of the history of education in Sri Lanka in the present century is the successful attempt of the Sinhala -Buddhist leaders to change the educational structure of the country so that their group would have at least equal opportunities with those of other religious and ethnic groups. (Silva 1979: 475)

There were significant changes to the system of educational organization, as well as the curriculum after Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain. However, the continuation of certain elements of the prestigious school system, its values and norms, and the process of elite formation dividing the emerging generations of Sri Lankans into two broad strata is also a distinguishing feature of this period, i.e. Anglicized vs. vernacular educated.

After centuries of colonial administration where certain segments of the society who could afford their children’s western-oriented education, and the growing frustrations of those segments who missed out, free education was seen as a victory when it became government policy in around the time of independence in 1948.

Both at the school and university level, through various policy changes including affirmative action measures, large numbers of children from rural areas, lower classes and caste groups were able to access publicly funded educational institutions.

Many of them in fact achieved considerable social mobility by securing academic qualifications from these institutions and full employment mainly in the state sector.

They became a powerful force in Sri Lankan politics, economy, bureaucracy, academia, security forces and other sectors often in leadership roles. Universities were transformed from elitist to a mass level.


However, along with these changes which were more evident and visible in the 1970s, the quality and standards of education started to suffer and decline. Questions about the usefulness of the kind of education received (eg. knowledge, capabilities and skills) started to occupy the minds of those who witnessed the trend eg. business leaders in the private sector.

Recognition of qualifications obtained from the public education system became problematic, especially when it came to employment of new graduates in the private sector that started to enter a new phase in its evolution since late 70s.

There was politicization of the education system through interferences in key appointments. Under these circumstances, the meaning and utility of free education to the masses started to change.

Many school going children started to attend fee-charging private tuition classes during and outside school hours, adding to, and highlighting the woes of the public education system. Free public education doesn’t hold the same promise to the children that it once held after the reforms effected around the time of independence to various segments of society that look to the government for the provision of quality education leading to better employment prospects.

Commenting on the situation, two social scientists stated, In this age of the post-welfare state, reform is long overdue in a system of education which has already rendered itself obsolete and of no particular use to its recipients either in terms of employment or personal development.

If the existing system of school and university education were to continue for the sake of preserving the concept of free education, its immediate victims would be the vast masses of persons of lower and middle class backgrounds, whose children are destined to receive a low-quality, sub-standard and goal-less education through the public education system.

The historical period in which free education served the social interests of the Sri Lankan masses has effectively come to an end. What remains, with power to grip the emotions and more people and students on to the streets, is the mythology of free education. (Abeysekera and Uyangoda 1997)

This shows how certain institutions and practices established in one historical context can become irrelevant in another, but the populace who use the services offered by such institutions continue to use them almost out of necessity but also due to the powerful ideologies and mythologies surrounding such practices. Ideologies and mythologies continue even after the use by dates of corresponding services has passed.

However, not all the people follow such mythologies. Many academics and business executives, parents-especially those from urbanized and higher social classes do understand the situation and look to alternatives beyond the public education system, and the fee-charging tuition classes run by local teachers.

In this situation, the introduction and expansion of international schools along with the economic liberalization policies of the centre-right government of 1977 was seen by some parents as a blessing in disguise as they provided a better education with better English language training and future job prospects.

The changing economic policies from the late 1970s opened up the private sector in the economy to international players. The economy and employment base started to expand. State, unlike before, couldn’t fulfil its traditional role as the provider of employment. Yet, the larger population did not understand this.

They continue to see free education as a right – although many who go through it are led to a dead end. On the other hand, notwithstanding the costs involved in paying tuition and other fees, significant numbers of children started to access international educational institutions at school and university levels.

In this respect, two factors are important: 1. Ability of the public education system at school and university levels to absorb those who wish to obtain education. ‘At the higher education level, Sri Lanka has the lowest participation rates in Asia, less than 3 percent of the age group, versus the Asian average of 8 percent’ (The World Bank Report 1996: 2).

2. Opportunities available to those who cannot or do not wish to continue in the public system eg. Drop outs at various points eg. Ordinary level examinations (O/L), advance level examinations (A/L).

It is believed that a significant number of those who enter the private/international systems of education are those who don’t continue in the public system for a variety of reasons including the quality, and the recognition accorded to the qualifications in the society at large.


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