Policy Dialogue #17: What should be our policy on English Education ?

Posted by on July 19, 2021  /  0 Comments

A policy dialogue on “What should be our policy on English Education”  was held by the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) on July 10th, 2021, via Zoom.

Full Video: PD#17, 2 hours  6 minutes (In Sinhala)


5:00 – 5:10 Welcome and Introduction (Dr. Sujata Gamage, Co-founder, Education Forum Sri Lanka)

5:10 – 6:10 Panel Discussion moderated by Dr. Sujata Gamage

  • Dr. Darshana Samaraweera, Deputy Director-General, National Institute of Education
  • Dr. Harsha Wijesekera, Director, Postgraduate Institute of English, Open University of Sri Lanka
  • Mr. Ajith Parakum Jayasinghe, Write and former English teacher
  • Mr. Chandana Prasanna, Film-maker and Editor-Sinhala, Yamu

6:10 – 6:50 Open Discussion

6:50 – 7.00pm – Summary & Conclusion (Dr. Tara de Mel, Co-founder, Education Forum Sri Lanka

The policy dialogue on English Language education was rich and wide ranging. Since the full dialogue is available on You Tube here we give a summary of discussions in the form of a perspective by Dr. Sujata Gamage as a policy analyst, and a historical account and recommendations for way forward by Dr. Tara de Mel from her vantage point as a driver of change in English education during the 1997-2004 period during a part of which time she was also the Secretary of Education.

Please add your perspective or additional information as a comment here to take our dialogue on English education further.

A PERSPECTIVE, by Dr. Sujata Gamage

The policy dialogue held on July 10, 2021, was aimed at understanding the existing policy if any in English language education in Sri Lanka and articulating it better or articulating a new one.

As Ajith Parakum said and many agreed, if there is a policy for English education, it is the bilingual education concept introduced in 1997. Here English is more than another subject. It is used as the medium of instruction for a selected set of subjects from Grade 6. In primary grades, English is introduced through Activity-based Oral English (ABOE) and conversational English ‘subjects’.

If bilingual education was indeed the English language policy for schools, we should have a goal to achieve bilingual education opportunity for all by a certain year and an implementation plan. The status today shows that there is or has not been consistent policy. According to the 2019 school census, only 91,645 students or 2.3% out of the 4,060,653 of all students in government schools followed a bilingual education. The percentage of bilingual students in grade 6 in 2015 is estimated at 3.8 % and in 2019 it was at 5.3%, showing that there is perhaps a recent upswing.

Why was the bilingual policy not implemented? What were the obstacles? Was another policy entertained by subsequent regimes? Dr. Tara de Mel’s account later gives some ideas, but the topic needs deeper study.

What emerged in the discussion is an overall lack of a focus on why children should learn English, how we should teach, and an honest assessment of efforts so far. Following is what I heard on those topics.

(1) Objective of English Education

Why should children learn English? Why should we teach them?

Objective of English education is to give students basic communication skills and/or cognitive academic skills, Dr. Harsha Gunesekera argued. It sounds simple enough but there are variations in the kind of communication or academic skills to be acquired.

Should the children learn to speak like the elite of this country for whom English is the lingua franca, or is it sufficient that our children learn enough to become global citizens aware of global developments and benefit from those?  Will the former lead to a generation which has no appreciation for the indigenous languages and culture? This unease about English language was evident throughout the discussion and some participants strongly felt that some methods may come with wrong cultural values and devalue the national languages and culture.

In this context, I feel we need to clearly articulate the objectives of teaching English language and the methods adopted accordingly so that these kinds of cultural issues do not become obstacles, consciously or unconsciously.

(2) Methods/Approaches

There may be many approaches to English language learning, but the focus of the discussion was on three approaches – Teaching of English as a subject, Immersion from Grade 1 with English as the medium of learning, and bilingual education. Educationists in the group argued that bilingual education is NOT a method of teaching English, and it is only a tool to learn certain subjects more effectively. Whatever the theory, when an average parent who does not speak English opt for bilingual education, they are looking to teach English to their children. Therefore, I feel that bilingual education should be seen as an additional tool for teaching English. Let us look the three approaches:

Teaching English as a subject: Drs. Darshana Samaraweera and Ginige reminisced how they learned English as a subject, with or without exceptional teachers and how they and others have gone on to do their PhDs in the English medium with ease. We did not have time to discuss whether that system works for the majority. My feeling is that it has not.

Immersion in English as the medium of instruction from Grade 1 took centre stage because of the recent ad hoc policy proposal by the Ministry of Education to initiate pilot projects for the same. The proposal was withdrawn amidst heavy opposition. Dr. Wijesekera argued passionately for biliteracy in primary education, while Chandana Prasanna and Dr. Tara de Mel argued for giving choice to parents. It was erroneously mentioned that teaching in The English medium is primary grades is unconstitutional but as Dr. Tara de Mel explained there is no such restriction in the constitution or the international covenant for which we are a signatory. If anything, the UN covenant strongly advocates for multi-literacy in the primary stage. Overall, there was not much support for immersing children in the English medium Year-1 school, except for a strong cry for choice for parents.

Bilingual education starts in Grade 6 bilingual education with about half of the subjects taught in English medium. The capacity for bilingual teaching that was put in place still exists in the form of the National Institute of Education as the hub, Four National Colleges of Education (NCOES), 20 Regional English Support Centers (RESCs).

English language learning for Primary education essentially consists of two parts. In primary education English is introduced as ABOE and conversational English. Two

Two principals and a former teacher and an academic vouched for the success of the bilingual education model. As Dr. Wijesekera noted she observed that children learning in the bilingual model develop supra ethnic identities.

(3) Measurement issues

As Dr. Samaraweera pointed out, we may view the objectives of English language broadly, but we end up measuring achievement through written tests.

(4) Cultural and attitudinal issues

One of telling anecdotes about bilingual education was an incident where a principal of a major girls’ school had remarked that the girls in the bilingual classes were ‘too much’ or ‘too forward’ (ඕනෑවට වැඩියි). This remark without further examination is apparently what led to a circular insisting that vernacular and bilingual students should be in the same class, with students in the bilingual stream leaving the class for their for subjects which are taught in the English medium. As Mr. K. A. Vimalakeerthi, the principal of Lakdas de Mel Maha Vidyalaya in Kurunegala, noted, these are practical issues that need to be sorted at the school level and circulars like this tie the hands of principals hindering the development of bilingual education.

Dr. Samarweera also felt that bilingual education is used to propagate (ප්‍රචලිත) the English language when it should be simply used as a tool for learning a subject. Similar sentiments were echoed underscoring the fear among educationists that English medium education would lead to a generation of youth who value English language and culture above their own.

But does this need to be the case. We need to remember that the medium of instruction in Kannangara Central schools was English and the products of that system from about 1943-63 could perhaps be recognized as those adding a nationalist fervor to the culture.

As Dr. Gunesekera noted from her field visits, children who were better versed in English than their mother tongue still insisted that their identity was Sinhala or Tamil, depending on their ethnic origin. One may speak a global language but culturally we all need a unique identity.

As Chandana Prasanna said without mincing words, in Sri Lanka we have been trying this Sinhala identity project through education since [1956] and we are at the end of the road. It is time to free our children from being lab rats and give them a choice. I have Chandana Prasanna write elsewhere, and if I may interpret what he said, he says that perhaps by giving a choice to children we might find that those who immerse themselves in the English Language may contribute in more instrumental ways, while the few who choose to study in Sinhala emerge as a generation uniquely prepared to face the world with strong roots to the indigenous culture.

Ajith Parakum asked why this fixation on English when we have issues with the way we  teach science, Sinhala, or most other subjects. As stated earlier, perhaps people are using English without realizing it. Most signage in Colombo is in English, for example, and people seem to navigate the city without difficulty.

(5) Concluding remarks

Dr. Tara de Mel in her remarks noted that Sri Lankan students and their parents have been demanding improvement in the standards of English teaching in Government schools for decades. The Education Reforms of 1998 had strongly focused on English proficiency. There is much capacity for teaching English and mechanisms to develop further capacity. Why aren’t we using them she asked?

Since Dr. de Mel had only a few minutes to give her feedback, we reproduce below some of her writing on the topic elsewhere.


The Education Reforms of 1998 had strongly focused on English proficiency for multiple reasons (e.g., need for conversational English to even obtain the least skilled jobs, entry requirement for professional training programs, employment purposes, certain university Courses) including the fact that the demand for English amongst parents was growing significantly.

Demand for English medium education

Sri Lankan students and their parents have been demanding improvement in the standards of English teaching in Government schools, for decades. With decreasing emphasis given to this subject over time, affluent parents opted to send their children to International & Private schools. The former began to mushroom with speed, owing to this increasing demand. The less affluent parents sought the help of tuition masters to impart English education to their children. In a random survey done in about 100 schools in ten districts in 1997-1998, >90% of parents who were interviewed clearly stated that English education in schools was well below standard and that they were compelled to pay tuition masters to assist their children to learn English. When asked why they considered English to be so important, the answer was that, for obtaining respectable employment post-school, proficiency in English had become a necessity. 

The reference to this Study is unfortunately not available – 20 years later, but it is not difficult to do a similar Study if convincing is necessary. The number of ‘international schools have increased from 131 in my days as secretary to 400+ twenty years later.

With a comprehensive plan and roadmap aiming at reaching high proficiency levels in English in all school-going children, the then Government invested heavily in implementation of the said program. 

We still have the capacity.

Teacher Training systems currently available

National Institute of Education (NIE) is the hub for teacher training and also coordinates training systems. ABOE team (8 members) at NIE is competent to roll-out an effective all-island training system for teachers with RESCs and NCOEs.

Regional English Support Centers (RESCs): 30 RESCs train the following number of teachers per year on average.

  • Teachers of English 800-1000
  • Non-English Teachers 100-200
  • Teachers teach in Bi-medium classes 50-100

Average number of students catered by a RESC per year.

  • Seminars for Gr.10, O/L, A/L 5000-8000 students
  • Different activities for Primary Gr 1-5: 500-800 students
  • Secondary Gr 6-9: 400-700 students

National Colleges of Education (NCOEs, 4) for English train the following numbers annually

  • 150
  • Peradeniya 110
  • Pasdunrata 180
  • Jaffna 30

An approximate 500 new English teachers enter the system annually. This should be considered in the context of annual attrition as well.

English Language Teaching Units (ELTUs) at universities

These contribute with undergraduate training for teaching in English.

Considering that such a broad and well-distributed teacher training system exists island-wide maintained on taxpayers’ money, there should be a committed plan to bring all teaches responsible for English education up to speed within a defined time frame.


Policy level 

  1. Revive with vigour, ABOE & CE and set targets that teachers at all Primary schools (approx. 5000) are newly re-trained through specially designed online programs arranged and implemented through RESCs & NIE. NIE has the capacity to design the training modules, and the materials needed. As well arrange for Training of Trainers programs (ToT) for all Primary Teachers for the next two years. The NIE and ABOE team should be the focal point for coordinating all training programs happening at all training institutions.
  2. In-service training for above and for all Primary ISAs, could be more efficiently coordinated through RESCs (Regional English Support Centres = 30, approx. one per each district), at regular intervals. These can be conducted online.
  3. All four English teaching NCOEs should be connected to these training programs as well, since NCOES have good master trainers as well as internet connectivity and devices. 
  4. Books and Materials: NIE with Education Publications Department (EPD) should immediately decide what materials (written, CDs, virtual) could be used by students and what training guides can be offered to teachers. Offer multiple book options – for example, consider recommending English books published by reputed publishers in addition to local publishers.
  5. An efficient monitoring system should be implemented, i.e., whether the trained ISAs actually visit schools and check if ABOE & CE are happening, whether Primary teachers are using the skills they have been trained in, whether children are receiving the books intended for them.

 Primary School (Grades 1-5)

Activity-Based-Oral-English (ABOE) which was introduced at Key Stages 1,2,3 during the 1997 Reforms remains in the policy document. But ABOE is not implemented in most schools – National and Provincial. 

ABOE was aimed at introducing key words and sentences in English in each subject (e.g., Environment, Math), in English. The Grade 1-5 class teacher (who also teaches all the subjects in the Primary) was trained in this regard.

All Primary Teacher-trainees who would be passing out from the NCOEs underwent this training. This was in addition to the four NCOEs (Pasdunrata, Jaffna, Peradeniya, Mahaweli) which were dedicated for English teacher-training. The teacher-guides and all training material were prepared to meet these objectives as per the Learning Outcomes for ABOE. 

Further, the In-Service Advisors (ISAs) of both primary and English were also trained, specifically in this regard.

 Conversational English (CE) – Weekly lessons in all three Primary Key Stages using audio-visual methods. This subject is hardly practiced. Students used to be exposed to conversations with the teacher & referred to interesting CDs, videos on conversational English for home usage.

When governments changed in 2005, the priority given to English drastically diminished, and implementation of all programs suffered heavily. Today in June 2021, more than twenty years later, we are still discussing this same topic. At least 20 batches of students have left the school education system without benefiting from these policies that were shelved.

English Medium option at Primary

  • Primary schools, which are equipped with trained teachers from above systems, should be able to offer the option of at least one parallel class per Grade, where all the teaching is in English.
  • Parents should be offered the option of such a facility, at school entry. Depending on the ‘parental demand’ – the ‘supply’ should be arranged. NO parent should be forced to choose English medium in any way, and similarly NO parent should be denied the opportunity of English medium as well.
  • If such teachers are not available, then immediate training of such teachers should begin with nearest RESCs and NIE. The four English NCOEs should also be aware of such needs and tailor the training of trainees accordingly.
  • Planning for the next year primary intake could be based on such systematic training.

Junior Secondary (Grades 6-9)

Currently two mediums, as Sinhala/Tamil Medium and English Medium (Bilingual Education) exist. In Sinhala /Tamil medium, English is only offered as a language. In bilingual mode Mathematics, Science, Health, Geography and Civics, use English as the medium of instruction. English is also offered as a language for this group. Apart from these, regardless of the medium, Western Music, and some foreign languages, use English as the medium of Instruction.

Informal feedback is that none of above is happening effectively. The proof is the lack of proficiency in English, in the bulk of the school leavers, at senior school, or earlier.

  • English to be continued to be taught as a language (x periods each week) and the teachers should be introduced to refresher, intensive training using special Modules designed by NIE. Conversational English should be an integral component of this program. Materials should be sourced urgently for teachers to refer to.
  • ISAs and RESC representatives should develop a monitoring system to check if all above is happening, regularly.
  • Selected subjects (e.g., Math, Science, Health) could continue to be taught exclusively in English or along with Sinhala/Tamil – as a bilingual option, as per the demand. Grades 6-9. Teacher-training in these subjects should be accelerated.
  • Teacher training for all these options could be initiated immediately and material (if unavailable locally), can be used from comparable countries. If the teachers who are designated to teach Science, Math etc are comfortable to continue teaching exclusively in English they should be empowered to do so. All relevant ISAs should join these training programs and be advised to follow up with teachers, after schools reopen.
  • Benchmarking of language proficiency of the teachers and giving them language training accordingly should be a mandatory part of the teacher development process. All teachers should be encouraged to maintain their language level required to remain a teacher (this could happen by way of assessing their language proficiency at regular intervals and offering rewards for maintaining the expected levels)
  • NCOEs that are designated for 13 subjects in Grades 6-9, should all be advised to include special subject-related English proficiency programs, which include Conversational English.
  • TOT (Training of Trainers) done by NIE & Provincial authorities should be up scaled. These training programmes should be held online and as per a regular schedule, in keeping with the urgency of the situation.
    TOT for all teachers in all above areas should be advised to focus on English proficiency using RESCs and University English Departments
  • If a concerted effort is upgrade all forms of English teaching (e.g., as a Language, as conversational English and as a medium of instruction in certain subjects) across the board through Teacher Training, by 2022 when schools hopefully recover fully after Covid, teachers would be sufficiently equipped.
  • Seek assistance from WB, ADB to provide resources (e.g., books, CDs, digital material) for teachers for above mentioned tasks.

Senior Secondary (Grades 10-11)

  • In addition to pen and paper test, Interpersonal communication, conversational English, grammar, and pronunciation etc. should be included AFTER sufficient numbers of teachers have been trained and are in the system.
  • To that end the English syllabus should be tailored.

Collegiate Level (Grades 12-13)

  • General English should be included for all students irrespective of Stream. Teachers at A-level should undergo special re-training on this with ELTUs or RESCs.
  • Interpersonal communication, conversational English, grammar, and pronunciation should be focused on.

At both, OL & AL the same options as in Grades 1-9, should be available: the options for offering the subjects students have studied in English, at the exam. Which means the exam papers should be designed accordingly.

Legal issues

There are No legal issues regarding English Medium instruction. Opposing to introduce English as a medium of instruction for primary education a former education Minister of Sri Lanka, mislead the people on UNESCO’s position concerning the issue during a recent TV interview program. The Minister categorically said that UNESCO has advised to use only the mother language in the primary education, which is a blatant lie. He went on to say that Sri Lanka will be banished by UNESCO if we are going to introduce English as a language of instruction at the primary level.

Constitution of Sri Lanka

Our Constitution does not put any restrictions in English medium educaiton either.

“Section 21. (1) A person shall be entitled to be educated through the medium of either of the National Languages: Provided that provision of this paragraph shall not apply to an institution of higher education where the medium of instruction is a language other than National Language.”

Nowhere else does it put restrictions on the medium of instruction.

UNESCO Covenant

UNESCO has not advised its Member States to limit the language of instructions only to the mother language at the primary level. In contrast, what UNESCO has advised is the “early acquisition (in kindergartens and nursery schools) of a second language in addition to the mother tongue.” Moreover, UNESCO advised to… “further education in this second language at primary-school level based on its use as a medium of instruction, thus using two languages for the acquisition of knowledge throughout the school course up to university level.”

This position of UNESCO is clearly mentioned in the resolution No. 30C/Res.12 unanimously adopted by all the Member States during UNESCO’s 30th biennial General Conference held in 1999, where the countries adopted a Resolution that established the notion of ‘multilingual education’ (30 C/Res. 12) to refer to the use of at least three languages in education: the mother tongue(s), a regional or national language and an international language in education.

The question we should be asking is as to why since 1999 all the Education Ministers of Sri Lanka have failed to implement this important UNESCO resolution.?

Below is the operational part of the above-mentioned UNESCO resolution No. 30C/Res.12

[UNESCO……] Recommends that Member States create the conditions for a social, intellectual and media environment of an international character which is conducive to linguistic pluralism.

  • promote, through multilingual education, democratic access to knowledge for all citizens whatever their mother tongue and build linguistic pluralism; strategies to achieve these goals could include (i) the early acquisition (in kindergartens and nursery schools) of a second language in addition to the mother tongue, offering alternatives (ii). further education in this second language at primary-school level based on its use as a medium of instruction, thus using two languages for the acquisition of knowledge throughout the school course up to university level (iii) intensive and transdisciplinary learning of at least a third modern language in secondary school, so that when pupils leave school they have a working knowledge of three languages – which should represent the normal range of practical linguistic skills in the twenty-first century (iv) an assessment of secondary-school leaving certificates with a view to promoting a grasp of modern languages from the point of view of communication and understanding (v) international exchanges of primary- and secondary-school teachers, offering them a legal framework for teaching their subjects in schools in other countries, using their own languages and thus enabling their pupils to acquire both knowledge and linguistic skills (vi) due attention in education, vocational training and industry to the potential represented by regional languages, minority languages, where they exist, and migrants’ languages of origin (vii) availability to teachers and education authorities of a computerized network, including a database, to facilitate exchanges of information and experience (viii) the establishment of a national and/or regional committee to study and make proposals on linguistic pluralism in order to initiate the necessary dialogue between the representatives of all professions and all disciplines so that they can identify the main lines of a language education system which is adapted to each country but which also facilitates international communication, while preserving the rich and inalienable linguistic and cultural heritage of humanity;
  • encourage the study of the languages of the major ancient and modern civilizations, with a view to safeguarding and promoting a literary education.

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