19 January, 2022


International Schools: Issues, Problems, Myths, & Drivel

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Patali Champika Ranawaka, at a convention held last week, spoke on private education and the Kannangara reforms. He spoke on international schools and argued that they should either be closed down or be integrated with the country. That is pertinent but certainly does raise some hairs. He then went on to imply that while we shouldn’t go on a rampage and shut down such schools in a hurry, nevertheless their proliferation must not be at the cost of (culturally and socially) castrating our children. That too is pertinent and that too raises some hairs.

This is not the first time this year that Ranawaka has expressed such sentiments on the subject. At a ceremony held at the BMICH last July, he spoke along the same lines, arguing that the need of the hour in Sri Lanka was a localised education system in English. He was concerned about the rapid and unchecked proliferation of international schools in the country and said as much, adding that such schools did not always provide the qualitatively superior education we as a nation should promote. Again, pertinent.

The most frequent allegation levelled against private education is that it hides inequalities and disparities between students under a fiction of equality. That is true. Merit is not the leveller, profit is. Ranawaka spoke on the SAITM crisis as well, and cautioned against the recent rise of private medical colleges, but for the time being his remarks on international schools merit scrutiny for the simple reason that while one doesn’t have to throw the baby with the bathwater when it comes to English medium education in this country, at times it’s difficult to distinguish between the baby and the bathwater when it comes to international schools.colombo-international-school

Photo credit Facebook page – Colombo International School

There currently are two perspectives when it comes to these schools. The first is that they are not regulated properly and hence, tend to compromise on quality. That’s the administrative argument. The second, echoed by rabble-rousing nationalists, is that they uproot our children and more often than not impart an English education in an elitist atmosphere. That’s the cultural argument. The latter tends to privilege rhetoric over reason, while the former presents its own solution at once: regulate and subject such schools to the control of an administrative body.

I think it’s safe to say that the Board of Investment (BOI) is more concerned about profit-making entities than about the potential of such institutions to provide quality education. The simple fact of the matter is, it’s difficult to keep a tab on them: they are everywhere and they can be set up anywhere. It takes more time to set up a school under the Ministry of Education, after all, than it does to set up a company or business organisation.

In the end, naturally enough, when it comes to recruitment, selection, and pedagogy, teachers are very often behind their expected skills level and therefore, leave much to be desired. I am, of course, not talking about established international schools, which have (as Professor Rajiva Wijesingha once aptly put it) set up their own administrative systems and checks and balances that actually surpass their counterparts in the public sector by a considerable margin.

Does this absolve the public sector? I don’t think so. Ranawaka spoke for an education system in which economic, caste, and gender disparities were done away with. He forgot to mention ethnic and religious disparities (he should have), but that’s another story. He also argued for a system whereby the government and the private sector would hold hands (which is another way of saying that the government should personally step in and create a market for education). On the other hand, I don’t believe that this should be taken to whitewash our public education system.

And it’s not hard to see why. Administratively they are centralised and their authority is vested in the government. One need only flip through the archives to see how the likes of Professor Wijesingha faced difficulties when reintroducing the English medium to our schools. To the argument that we were doing our children a disservice by depriving them of access to the language, administrators (with probably the most intelligent of responses they could come up with) retorted that the elite managed to learn English while studying in the vernacular! In a context where bureaucracy was privileged and innovation (at best) was marginalised, hence, I think it’s safe to say that what ails our local education system is precisely what thrives in the private sector: flexibility.

Yes, quality shouldn’t dip. But is quality the preserve of the public sector? Not by a long shot. I mentioned Professor Wijesingha’s attempt at reintroducing the English medium here. I think the best example for how and why inefficiencies remain in the system is the way English is taught here. I argued in a previous column, or rather implied, that as a subject that language is probably the easiest to get through in the local curriculum. And yet, year after year, the fail rate for it never goes below 50 percent. The pass rate barely goes above 45 percent. Why?

Forget maladministration. I don’t think bad administrators necessarily compromise on good teachers. Good teachers, however, are hard to get. Time and time again, I have come across testimonies from students, of how teachers fudge it at their job, how they differentiate between those who can learn quickly and those who can’t, and how, in this process, the latter get marginalised. In a context where classrooms sometimes pack up to 50 students I personally don’t think one can expect miracles from teachers, but despite this I wonder: why is a language that’s taught “Our Way” so hard to pass?

The truth, not surprisingly, is unpalatable: either teachers are not adequately compensated or worse, they don’t care. Those who rubbish international schools tend to ignore the harsh truths rampant in the public sphere: unmotivated staff, desensitised children, and all those other realities which don’t exactly seem as paradisiacal as defenders of the sector tout them as. We’ve lost the “free” in free education, but instead of trying to regain it we are content in vilifying the private sector. Nothing could be more fallacious. Despite its varying quality standards, in terms of procurement of textbooks, administration, and efficiency the non-governmental education sector (or to be more precise, industry) are, I can say honestly, ahead.

Let’s not forget, after all, that international schools cater not to the elite (and I will come to this presently) but to those who a) are generally affluent (all in all, from the middle class, subject of course to preferences framed by social background) and b) are not able to get their children into local schools. It’s about demand and meeting that demand. It’s about business as well, but in this vast, interminable, and globalised world of ours I doubt one can generalise by saying that such schools should be banned. And as for the argument that quality dips: of course it does, but I don’t see the kind of rampant corruption, nepotism, and rush to get one’s offspring admitted by hook or crook that I see elsewhere.

Now take the cultural argument. In a context where anything with the “international” label tagged on tends to cast aside the “national”, it makes sense to surmise that international schools follow a curriculum far removed from that of our country. However, going by the logic of those who love to hate these institutions, what is it exactly about them that their critics take to task?

On one level I think it’s the language. More often than not, these critics echo their visceral distrust of English (in general) in their even more visceral distrust of international schools. On another level, it’s history: the latter are decidedly more recent and hence, less endowed by a history to make them immune to attack. About 10 years ago, for instance, a newspaper could see it fit to editorialise the issue by claiming superiority for established schools, in effect implying that the so-called cream of the crop in the country’s social, economic, and political spheres were and continue to be produced by them. In other words, international schools are culturally uprooted because they lack a tradition of their own, not (as it should be) because their more established counterparts elsewhere inculcate local values in their students.

So it’s not even a question of history, it’s a question of tradition! If it’s about inculcating traditional values, these critics should be fixated and more concerned about the lack of facilities in the Madya Maha Vidyalayas and the deplorable deficits in academic achievement between Colombo and (among other districts) Moneragala (the latter of which consistently ranks low in several economic and social indicators). They are not.

The truth is that they are captivated by tradition, not history stricto sensu, and in their irrational phobia of international schools on the basis of culture (or the lack thereof) they forget one key point: that these institutions provide an opt-out point for those with cash who couldn’t enter the local stream, as much as the outstation local school provided an opt-out point for those without cash. Same problem, different solutions.

Sri Lanka has four kinds of state schools: Type 1AB, Type 1C, Type 2, and Type 3. The first two have classes until the A/Levels, with Type 1AB offering Science subjects and Type 1C offering non-Science subjects (the latter of these predominate, because those opting for non-Science subjects are in the majority). Type 2 schools go on until the O/Levels, while Type 3 schools don’t proceed beyond Year Five or Eight. This is a basic classification that hides a complex problem: Type 3 schools, being in the majority, lack amenities. From their inception, they are considered as “feeder schools”, which explains the competitiveness of the scholarship exam.

Forget all that. I still don’t buy this cultural argument. What is there about the “cream of the crop” that makes them nationalists? What is it about the cream that warrants praise? A perusal of history will convince anyone that (and I say this at the cost of simplifying an already simplified argument) culture was not the product of the “cream” but the “outsider”, the vilified villager who are trashed as unrefined and uneducated by the same elite who came from (supposedly) superior institutions. No, I am not ranting, because perceptions tend to explain those who subscribe to them and the elite (real and imagined), going by this, are (almost) as uprooted as those they love to deride as, yes, culturally uprooted.

The only reason why the second argument would make sense is that international schools don’t teach history and the vernacular languages. In other words, they promote the kind of snobbery that established schools used to in those dark, colonial days. That is true. The solution, however, isn’t to insist on their removal (we are sadly not the frogs in the well we used to be, and because of this accursed reality called “globalisation” we have to have the cake and suffer it when it comes to English) but to regulate. At any rate, the international schools rampantly growing in every nook and corner of the country don’t operate on Cambridge and Edexcel but rather operate on the local curriculum, so (as I implied before) those trashing such institutions forget that they don’t always teach the Englishman’s syllabus but in fact teach the same subjects that state schools do.

There’s a person who teaches English at a school in Kurunegala. His name is Wilbert Ranasinghe and he starts his class at five in the morning. He is so thorough with his subject that all his students, and by all I mean ALL, speak, write, and read the language almost perfectly. No, they don’t speak with an accent and no, they don’t consider the language as the exclusive possession of a few for a few, but they use it as they would a kitchen utensil: for the moment, for its use, and not for the privileges it (apparently) brings.

Meanwhile, their more established counterparts in Colombo and the metropolis (by which I include those in international schools) struggle with a language they are taught from their infanthood, and along the way fail probably the easiest paper in the entire local syllabus. An irony of fate, I believe. No, not because the one lags behind the other, but because the latter, despite their inability to wield English, consider themselves to be the elite, those who have a say in the cultural discourse and take it as their monopoly.

I think we are focusing on the wrong issue(s). We’ve confused tradition for history. We think we know which institutions breed and perpetuate culture when we don’t. We are so entranced by tradition that we don’t (or rather, can’t) know who will breed that culture: not the elite (the new or the old) but the outsider.

Yes, I am raising some hairs. But the sooner we turn away from the dichotomy between the state and the private sector in education (and this goes for private universities as well), the sooner we’ll be able to concentrate on disparities in the former. The quickest way to bring that about, common sense should dictate, is heeding what the likes of Ranawaka have been telling us all along: not to close such institutions in the private sector, but to bring them closer to “our way of life.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is less about complete erasure than about regulation. And regulation, while we’re at it, needs reason. Not rhetoric.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Pictures worth thousand words – see the great difference between the message sent out by a national school and International ones held inthe country. They the I schools make every efforts to make it as if they hold to disipline and law and order, but with the dragon of drugs waiting at the school gates, authorities should wake up and strenghten laws not allowing those pvt schools to neglect the healthy growth of youth inthis country.

    • 5

      Uditha Devapriya

      “Patali Champika Ranawaka, at a convention held last week, spoke on private education and the Kannangara reforms. He spoke on international schools and argued that they should either be closed down or be integrated with the country.”

      The dimwit, Nitwit, blockhead Patali Champika Ranawaka,with an IQ close to 79 does nor understand competition and capacity.

      Unless there is competition, there is nothing to compare to and it will be mediocre education.

      Why are parents sending their children to international schools? Because, on Average, they provide a “better” education, which may not be true for all the schools.

      • 5

        We all what happened to Sri Lanka Airlines. Yes…please step in and ruin private education also.

  • 6

    A very thought-provoking article. It is natural that those brought up with socialist sentiments would feel uncomfortable about inequalities in education. As the writer points out free education is no longer free, nor does the Ministry of Education pretend to offer uniform standards in our schools. It openly accepts this, look for example at estate schools. One is struck by our university teachers (FUTA), from whom one expects an egalitarian impulse, demanding from the Government preferential admission for their children to leading government schools (where English is better taught) and the Government acceding to it. Doctors, army officers and administrators will be next on line. It is a telling admission.

    In this situation full of contradictions if a private institution does a good job of providing excellent education, we must welcome it as a national asset and look for ways to get the state sector to do what it professes to do. It may need pumping much more money into education and hiring expatriate teachers. I am told that teachers in government schools are often burdened with collecting statistics and writing reports to show that their superiors are doing a marvelous job that they don’t have time to teach.

    • 1

      Dear Pushpam,

      If more money really is pumped into the schools, AND the system is properly “regulated” as young Uditha Devapriya recommends, then you wouldn’t have to hire expatriate teachers. How can one possibly send such “expats” to “estate schools”?

      “Regulating” our corrupt system is difficult, but is much easier than the work done by the Kurunegala teacher, Wilbert Ranasinghe.” Treating all teachers fairly will attract better people in to the service. It will take time to yield results, but there’s no other way. I know that the Wilbert R. story is heartwarming; unfortunately, professional training will involve much less interesting, and the more academically rigorous training described in this paper:

      Most of the discussion is on improving English. Current thinking is teaching about half the subjects in English and promoting the use of English and NOT insisting on accuracy. Teachers who are specially trained for this purpose at the Nilwala and Siyane Colleges of Education are performing pretty well even now, but ensuring their proper distribution is the problem.


      That is rather forbidding to the lay reader, isn’t it? “Content Language Integrated Learning”. But if you take education seriously, you’ve got to take the teacher who has studied all that seriously, and consider her (that’s the reality – few men are to be found in the profession now) worthy of attention, then you will make sure that “Rules” even for administrators are very necessary.

      Contrast such realistic programmes with the proliferation of aimless “English Medium Degree Courses” and you begin to understand the problem. Far too often neither “lecturer” (very few teachers nowadays!) nor student knows any English, but the courses continue with “kuppi classes” (this is terminology that is well known in Universities!) crammed in to the last two weeks before exams.

      Pushpam, you’re right about condemning the various meddlings that go on in Educational administration; the public must be strong in condemning such interfering, but once more what we need is clean administration and accountability. You rightly complaining about how teachers are enervated by the bureaucracy. Importing teachers will not solve the problem, but training those in the system will make a difference – but that will take many years to show results.

      Ultimately what matters, therefore is respect for following the proper norms of “governance”. The tragedy is that the very use of the word has become a joke. But that is what has to be done: creating good administrative systems.

  • 10

    How many thugs and murderers went to international schools? How many mega crooks?

    And how may went to so-called good “local” schools like Royal and STC? Please compare and contrast!

  • 2

    Reform government schools first and then think about private schools. Almost All affordable children in government schools go for private tuition. Don’t be a bull in a China shop.

  • 4

    Uditha Devapriya, you have written a stunningly incisive article in which you lay bare the range of disparities both social and educational in our country. Where is the educational jargon? All thrown out.

    What you have written corresponds with the reality as I know it, having been a teacher all my life. I’m not sure that I can respond adequately by suggesting anything like a solution, but I can see the validity of your analysis. And this analysis of yours encompasses the entirety of education in our country. That is what is impressive about your article. You show an awareness of not only the most expensive of the “International Schools”, and also of the traditional “elite schools”, but also of the various types of schools that the State offers its citizens, supposedly for free.

    And yet, it may seem that you are obsessed with the role of English. Well, that again is the reality. You refer to the absolute need for English in this country, owing to “globalisation”. And the people you respectfully refer to as “the outsiders” realise this, but don’t know where to turn. You are right about how the so called “cream” struggle with the language, despite all the advantages of starting from infancy.

    You also make this other very valid point about the achievements of a humble and dedicated teacher: “There’s a person who teaches English at a school in Kurunegala. His name is Wilbert Ranasinghe and he starts his class at five in the morning.” Yes, I agree with you entirely about the wonderful results that he must have achieved, but also about the English that he teaches being like “a kitchen utensil”! That is the difference that dedication and commitment make. The methodology doesn’t matter so much, provided there is some reasoning, and there is trust among those who are working together. However to replicate Mr Ranasinghe’s work, one would need similarly dedicated teachers.

    And there’s the rub!

    I will try to contribute further, but I’ve got to put many thinking caps on!

  • 7

    My son went to an International school. I had no option but to send him to that school as I couldnt get admission to a school in Colombo. I spent my lifetime savings for his education. He passed his OLs and ALs with fantastic grades, got admission to a prestigious foreign university with a 100% scholarship and is now working overseas earning a good pay. My neighbour’s son of the same age got good local AL results, entered a local university, took two more years to complete his degree in SL and was roaming the streets of the same country my son was working. He couldnt get a job and returned to SL.

    Along with my son 9 others – all from middle class families – entered the foreign university and are doing well in USA.

    Whats the lesson here. You judge yourselves.

    • 2

      Dear Alfie,

      A story well told, and I appreciate the lesson taught.

      Now comes the difficult task of ensuring that not every parent has to cough up so much money. You’ve done the right thing by your son, but in a sense he’s lost to you and our society, isn’t he? Your story also reminds us that each individual child has to be catered to in “Education”.

      And what lesson do we have to draw from today’s American Presidential Election? There is a point at which no more will our children be welcome there. Of course, if the money is spent, yes! It’s already draining our coffers, to be replenished with the earnings of housemaids.

      And who is going to live here? Only slaves of the masters in other climes. I’m happy for you and your family!

    • 1

      The doopath maanasikathvaya the politicians and the extremists buddhist Monks create in the minds of the buddhist peopole is the reason. The classic example is there was a talk of bridge being built to connect Sri Lanka with India the so called opportunists who are with Mahinda et al and some Monks shouted saying that we will become another colony and India will grab all our resources.

      So untill the majority people start thinking with their own brain this mentality cannot be changed.

      Other thing is I have happened to cross from Germany to Sweden via Denmark through the under sea bridge which is the longest such a bridge connecting the two nations.

  • 2

    When the primary focus of our politicians is to amass personal wealth and keep holding to power to do so (which includes drumming up ethnic tensions), all institutions that are needed to ensure a great future for the country falls on the wayside. The low calibre of our immensely greedy politicians will ensure that education, health and other essential services will get only lip service. The helpless mothers and fathers have no option but to scrape the bottom of their coffers and send their children to International schools where some modicum of discipline and education is offered and the English education ensure a better chance of a future overseas. There is no chance in hell for a better future in our blighted Sinhala Buddhist nation – sad to say.

  • 1

    Up to this point in the discussion nothing has been said deploring the segregation of children in at least 98% of State Schools; that is segregation in to Sinhala Schools (usually with a strongly Buddhist ethos, except in the Negombo area), Tamil Schools(shall we read “Hindu”), and a further lot of “Muslim” schools, where the medium of instruction is again Tamil.

    There can be no reason for having separate Muslim schools. Linguistic segregation is more difficult to overcome. It is an important topic, but not to be discussed in relation to this article. I was very happy with what President’s Counsel Ali Sabry had to say on this inspiring 90 minute programme:


    Ali Sabry had the courage to say that there shouldn’t be Muslim schools.

    One of the most significant contributions made by privately run schools is that almost all of them have an ethnic and religious mix. We must remember that the “excuse” for introducing the “English Medium” was to usher in state run “Amity Schools”. Almost nothing of that is left.

    Also, Sri Lankans like to claim that they are religious, despite all the strife that we have had. The most sophisticated International Schools don’t teach religion at all, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing! Actually, they are likely to celebrate “Commercialised Western Feativities” like Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Should they?

    But most of the more “Sri Lankan International Schools” teach each separate religion with fervour, without ever trying to broach that dangerous area of “Comparative Religion”. Significantly, Minister Ranawaka has not mentioned religion, but the author, Uditha Devapriya, sees International Schools as overcoming religious disparities. I would say that most religious groups content themselves with exhibiting the various cultural and celebratory aspects of each religion, without ever giving much thought to the philosophies enshrined in each religious tradition. I know that I’m on dangerous ground now!

    However, I have deliberately brought this subject in, because even if there is perfect religious amity within a school, students must have some awareness of the need to actively counter strife caused in our society by religion. Commercialisation, high profile employment and material success in life are the desired goals of these schools. Those are the ambitions inculcated in students. Do we not need some further goals related to social living and interaction?

  • 2

    Initially he made his first observation saying in times to come Muslims will dominate the public sector as they study in english after having started international schools. Therefore it is time we start English medium in the govt schools.

    Still it is limping in state schools due to reasons best known to lethargic officials of the Ministry of Education.

    I want to make a public announcement Muslims are not extremists as some influential misguided Monks/Politicians trying to portray and create a picture among again the mis guided Sinhala Buddhists. What Muslims are pto is they are intrinsically trained to take up the challenge by referring the responsibility to Almighty. That is why they do not take to liquor or commit suicide in the event of any failure of their efforts like the majority community.

    It gives them a thigh of relief and what an easy way to live in this world where every thing is temporary (anithya).

    So Muslim community who had their living hood with doing business were compelled to switch to Education when they were denied as the citizen of this country the fair share to do business in the towns.As the stupid majority though they claim that it is the country only for the Sinhala Buddhists as misguided in the Mahawamsa fallacies they demarcated areas for them for business and muslims were chased out from such areas.

    Then Muslims opted to education but they found endless barriers in providing quality education. There are no Muslim Schools in the country where it could be called popular with all necessary resources. There is a calculated move on the part of the officials of the education ministry to deny the quality education to Muslims. Unfortunately the government politicians of the governments are in the dark.

    If we go and ask for a teacher the lethargic officials will say if there is a teacher who is willing to serve in your school bring a consent letter from him and if he is in a provincial school get him released to the national school from the provincial service.If it is we who have to get all these things done why should we pay officials there.if there is a clerk that will do as if we bring the consent letter what they have to do is type a letter and send it.

    Muslims realized there is no political leadership for Muslims and there is a surreptitious move on the part of officials to deny the Muslims their right as the citizen of this country. Then later they switched to International schools. This is where Mr Champika Ranawaka revealed through one of his books on the needs to start english medium education in govt schools.Despite all this still the Muslims do not get equal or equity share to admit their children to these popular schools as they belongs to Sinhala students.

  • 2

    Reading the article and the comments I can hear the attitude of the people .We were so concerned about the two school system that existed before the schools take over and then ideology of structuring our education on a vocational model came up in 1972 and no one care even to study these changes .models found even in Australia . ….All that is the past of our formal education system where the aspiration of the parent was a white collar job in a office for social mobility . moving him away from the tedious work of his father that was related to the land . .and a new two school system has evolved today that is the reality on the aspirations of the parents ….where education takes us further into foreign Uni may be to live over there or comeback with a certificate that carries more weight at a Job interview .with the service sector too getting privatized yes the scope for the returnee is better !.Its a whole new attitude to work out there in the first world ..the snobbery is subtle but the norms are more egalitarian .. ..so the International schools have to prepare the students not only to sit an overseas exam to get the needed criteria for this overseas education but immerse the student in a school culture away from the traditional may look alien to most ..nay not completely so .but another side of working while you learn means a different idea of your self from the one at home … ..So what ever noises The Ministers make it is just a mere noise that will be just news fro a day nothing profound or in depth to debate about .,..Incidentally on teaching history my area of teaching , I found that one school has introduced Ceylon History to a grade 6 class as stories from the Ramayanaya. Is this a starting point of introducing the history of this country ?..well I need to be educated . I suppose this is only at this middle school level soon to be overtaken by what is more in keeping with the O’level syllabus from London so why worry … Education today is a lucrative business and it is one way of cloning the kids Exams stifle the student but we have not found an alternative for we still believe in the Elitism as was in Plato’s time ..so these comments at public meetings will go on but the attitudes remain .for even those who preach find it hard to practice with their progeny ..Many a retired teacher use their long experience at a state school to bargain for positions and wages ..so why worry .

    • 2

      “Dot”, you’re quite right about the need for Vocational Training.

      At least the author of the article, Uditha Devapriya, obviously a very young man from Colombo, acknowledged that “culture was . . . the product of . . . the vilified villager”. But I’m sure that even he is not “viscerally” aware of how many remain in that category, or how it is the dregs of education that is given to them.

      All of us who commented were talking about the sort of education that is relevant to no more than 20% or so of our population. However, well over 50% of families must now be afflicted my this “modernising syndrome”. The children in these families aspire to the Westernised life-style we are placing before them as desirable, and they don’t fit in anywhere.

      After a wasted decade of frustration, some will resentfully get back, in their thirties, to doing the sort of things that their parents did to sustain them. What “Dot”, above, describes as “the tedious work of his father that was related to the land.” Let’s hope the rest don’t become just goons.

      There has to be a transformation of attitudes so that traditional life-styles become actually desirable and attractive. It seems to be too much of a paradigm change to realistically expect.

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