A fresh look at Kannangara Reforms

By Eric J. de Silva

C.W.W. Kannangara rode the educational scene of the two decades that preceded our gaining Independence from British rule like a colossus, and the education reforms that were introduced during this period or immediately thereafter are commonly attributed to him whether he was personally responsible for the changes proposed or whether he was instrumental in delivering the changes proposed by bodies such as the Special Committee on Education with which he was associated, irrespective of whether he was in total agreement with the proposed changes or not. This essay is an attempt to disaggregate these reforms and re-evaluate the contribution Kannangara made to the development of education in this country.

Reforms introduced in our education system during the period we came under the Donoughmore Constitution (1931-1947) are commonly referred to as the Kannangara reforms, named after C.W.W.Kannangara who was Minister of Education during this entire period. This essay is an attempt to take a fresh look at these reforms based on the available literature and, hopefully, remove some of the mist that has gathered round them over time.

The year 1931 marked not only the inauguration of the Donoughmore Constitution which granted us a large measure of internal self-government, but also the arrival of universal suffrage. The new constitution gave us a State Council of 61 members, 50 of whom were territorially elected and 8 nominated by the Governor. The remaining 3 positions were occupied by the Officers of State (Chief Secretary, Legal Secretary and Financial Secretary), who had no vote but wielded plenty of power as officials of the imperial government exercising control over what were known as ‘the reserved subjects’.

The Constitution made provision for 7 Executive Committees consisting of members of the State Council. The Chairmen of these Executive Committees together with the Officers of State comprised the Board of Ministers. It is as Chairman of the Executive Committee of Education that Mr. Kannangara became Minister of Education. He held these positions right through the entire Donoughmore period, having being elected to the State Council as a member at both the 1931 and 1936 elections. (The State Council elected in 1936 continued until 1947 due to the intervention of the Second World War and the events that followed on the local political scene leading ultimately to the promulgation of the Soulbury Constitution.) The Executive Committee that is most remembered today is the Executive Committee of Education, in itself a tribute to the dynamism and leadership qualities displayed by Kannangara as its Chairman and as Minister of Education.

Early Initiatives of Kannangara

It is often assumed that Kannangara’s reform efforts in education commenced with the appointment of the Special Committee on Education in April 1940 to report on the changes necessary in the system of education we had inherited from the colonial administration. This was not so. He had shown a great deal of interest in education even as a member of the Legislative Council during pre-Donoughmore days, and did not have to wait until 1940 to make his presence felt.

It was clear to Kannangara at the very outset that no real change in the existing system of education could be made within the legal and administrative framework provided for in the Education Ordinance of 1920. In terms of its provisions, all administrative powers and responsibility in the field of education lay in the hands of the Director of Education while the Board of Education, a body nominated by the Governor, was empowered to frame regulations subject to approval by the Governor in Council. Under such an arrangement there was not much that the Executive Committee of Education, or for that matter the State Council itself, could do. Kannangara was convinced that this had to change, and both the Director and the Board of Education which was dominated by those who wanted no change in the status quo, made responsible to the Executive Committee of Education and the State Council, as speedily as possible.

Although the decision to replace the 1920 Ordinance with a new law was taken soon after the appointment of the Executive Committee in 1931, and the preparation of a draft bill taken in hand even before the end of that year, it took seven long years and an unrelenting battle on the part of Kannangara to get it placed before the State Council. K.H.M.Sumathipala (History of Education in Ceylon 1796-1965) has documented in considerable detail how vested interests both within and outside the government left no stone unturned to thwart his efforts to bring the existing legal and administrative framework for education in line with the constitutional advances the country had made since the enactment of the 1920 Ordinance.

The new bill which was finally tabled in the State Council in August 1938 became law in September 1939, over a year later, during which period there were many attempts to block it by seen and unseen forces that had come together to resist any change. This is what Minister Kannangara said introducing the bill in the State Council: "…….some people seem to think that the subject of education should not be entrusted to the Executive Committee of Education and that anybody may be asked to deal with that subject except the Executive Committee of Education. That is a negation of this Constitution. The main objection comes from those who want to see the Board of Education super-imposed upon the State Council and the Executive Committee of Education."

He went on to add: "Under this (1920) Ordinance the Director of Education is not responsible to the Executive Committee or the State Council. He has to discharge his duties as the Board of Education wants. ……The present Ordinance is completely out of date. It is not in keeping with the spirit of the constitution and I expect the honourable members of this House to hold the Executive Committee of Education responsible for anything done as regards education. We cannot hold someone else responsible. That is not proper. The State Council must be able to take the Executive Committee of Education to task, but the Executive Committee of Education cannot discharge those functions properly if the administration is left in the hands of someone else and the Director of Education is made responsible to that party." Even a member of the State Council who had earlier voted for a postponement of the discussion on the bill (J.W. Oldfield) was to later admit during the debate that such a position was "directly against the principles of the Constitution outlined by the Donoughmore Commissioners".

There were many provisions of the new bill, too numerous to mention here, those who stood for the old order were not in favour of. One of Kannangara’s biggest achievements was to defeat the combined strength of these forces after a gruelling battle which lasted well near a decade and get the Education Ordinance of 1939 into the statute book without which none of the major changes that followed would have been possible. It is indeed a matter for surprise that most commentators who pay glowing tributes to him hardly make any reference to this very important contribution of his. It needs to be underlined that had it not been for the forces that combined to delay the enactment of the new law, many of the changes that had to wait till after the commencement of the World War would have been introduced much earlier. The Education Ordinance of 1939, incidentally, remains in force even today, and there is no doubt that had he been around it would have been replaced long ago!

To move on to other matters, Kannangara was deeply troubled by the social stratification that resulted from the two types of education that the school system provided based on the medium of instruction. He had often spoken in the Legislative Council drawing attention, in the words of Sumathipala, "to the existence of a community of people in Ceylon who did not know their mother tongue. Invariably, they spoke English in the home, were educated in the English medium from kindergarten and were holding high positions in the administration. They had no cultural link with the common man of the country. This was an undesirable feature under a democratically elected government". He felt very strongly the need to bridge this gap as a sine qua non for a well-functioning democracy. Amongst the first things he did after assuming duties as Minister of Education, therefore, was to make it obligatory on all English medium schools to provide a course of instruction in the mother tongue of the pupils up to Standard V. As an example to the other English schools, provision was made at Royal College to do so from January 1932.

There had been many who had argued from about the latter part of the 19th century that the mother tongue was the best medium of instruction. There were not only educationists among them, but also colonial administrators. Kannangara too subscribed to this view. Although the Macrae Commission of 1920 had recommended that "instruction in the vernacular languages should be compulsory for all pupils at the earlier stage of their school career", the recommendation had failed to get implemented. Being the pragmatist he was, Kannangara wanted to test the waters. So he started a new kindergarten class at the Royal Preparatory School in 1933 with Sinhalese as the medium of instruction, only for the first year. This class was reserved for the Sinhalese and for those who chose to take Sinhalese as the medium of instruction. His words in the State Council in this regard are worth recalling. He said, "we do not propose to create an upheaval and a revolution all at once" showing with what degree of caution he approached the subject of bringing about change in education.

While Kannangara did not like English being an instrument of social stratification, he saw its value and sought to make it available to those who remained outside its reach. He, therefore, followed up his attempt to strengthen the teaching of the mother tongue in the English medium schools with an attempt to expand the teaching of English as a second language in the so-called vernacular or ‘swabhasha’ schools. The results, however, fell far short of expectations and "by the end of 1939 only very few swabhasha schools in fact were teaching English" (Sumathipala). Arguably, Kannangara saw the need for a child to know both the mother tongue and English, and was for bilingualism rather than monolingualism. Though both the above measures brought very limited success, they provide a clear indication of the importance he placed on both the mother tongue and English.

Kannangara, the great innovator he was, then came up with a different solution to the problem of making English available to those who found it to be beyond their reach by making English available to rural children selectively, starting with the best and brightest among them. This he did by launching his scheme for establishing Central Schools in different parts of the country in 1940, the very year that the Special Committee was appointed. He knew that this would not bring about an overnight change in the country’s education system, but a beginning had to be made. Let us now proceed to discuss his new initiative in greater detail.

Central Schools

The establishment of Central Schools was by far the most innovative step taken by Kannangara, for which he and he alone has to be given credit. It was his firm conviction that English should not be a badge of social distinction and an inheritance of only the more advantaged segments of society. The main purpose of establishing these schools was to take quality education provided only in English medium schools at the time and had become the preserve of relatively well-to-do families living in urban areas, to the less advantaged rural population.

Continued Tomorrow

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