The tragedy of Tamil
medium education in schools
Northeastern Herald, 20 September 2002
It is now a generally accepted fact of Sri Lankan
history that the Jaffna Youth Congress in its search of ‘poorna
swaraj’ for the entire country put forward the revival of the
national languages, and education in the national languages, as one
of its basic demands. Taking the cue from the Gandhian School, it
did much better than in India and made ‘swabasha’ indispensable in
the country’s struggle for independence.
Meaningful steps were taken during the State Council and the early
days of independence for a gradual shift towards the learning in
‘swabasha’ and ultimately to a vernacular medium of education. Even
in the worst of times, education for the average Sri Lankan child up
to the 50’s was first in the vernacular. It was only after
completing the third standard in the vernacular school curriculum
that the child went to an English medium school.
This acknowledged at a very basic level, the realisation of the need
to begin education in one’s own language. As mentioned in a previous
article, the adoption of free education in the vernaculars led to
radicalisation in the country. It is however unfortunate that what
began as a symbol of equality and democratisation, has now become
one of the bitterest areas of heartburn and muted resistance from
among the Tamils.
At the university level, teaching in the Tamil medium has not
suffered despite difficulties the Tamils face in gaining university
entrance. It is true there are certain university courses, which one
cannot offer in the Tamil medium. But this does not mean Tamil as a
medium of instruction has been incapacitated in university teaching.
What has happened at the school level is a different story. Today,
except for the teaching of Tamil as a language, and Hinduism as a
religion, the use of Tamil as a medium of instruction is limited.
Teaching social studies, science and art in Tamil has become a major
This article attempts to delineate how this situation has arisen and
to describe the status of Tamil as a medium of instruction.
Before the state took over schools, the shift to vernacular
education did not face many problems. There was a generally accepted
syllabus written by various authors prescribed by the government.
Schools used their discretion to choose texts from this syllabus
which they felt suited their needs best.
It should be mentioned however, there was greater depth and breadth
of teaching in state-assisted schools than government schools at
that time. (Royal College, though a government school, was an elite
school. This article refers to mainly to the bulk of government
schools in the island).
When the state began taking over schools in 1961, it wanted take
away undue advantages enjoyed by some and equalise education
opportunities. But as we now know from half a century of hindsight,
it only led to the bureaucratisation of education and the
non-accountability of the bureaucrats.
The 1961 action created the need for a common curriculum for
teaching in schools and perhaps an equal level of teaching
everywhere. Around the 1960s the educational publications
department, which was originally started for translating texts for
A/L and university curricula, gradually moved towards writing texts
At this juncture the Sinhalese and Tamils faced similar problems.
These were the early days of the implementation of Sinhala Only and
the administrative machinery was not fully Sinhalised. The emphasis
of school education was on extending to the Sinhhalese and Tamils
the benefits of western education.
I remember the work of enlightened administrators such as K. D.
Ariyadasa, Kamala Pieris, S. Velayuthampillai and others working
from the education publications department to create a curriculum
suitable to the cultural background of the student. There was open
discussion and any important committee on curricular change or
designing, included Sinhala and Tamil scholars.
Despite Dr. P. Udagama being secretary, ministry of education under
the 1970 government, there started a tendency of Sinhalising the
‘swabasha’ process. This was first manifest in the language and
history readers published by the education publication department,
which were openly communalistic towards the other communities. This
was the conclusion of a study (if I remember right) by Reggie
Siriwardene done in the 1980s. On the other hand, while this going
on in the Sinhala medium readers, the Tamil medium readers were very
efficiently supervised and designed to have a multicultural outlook.
It was in the writing of history textbooks that the slant began to
appear in educational textbooks. Nevertheless it could said other
disciplines like science etc., were not so badly affected. And teams
consisting of writers in Tamil were devising and preparing these
The next major milestone in this trend was President J. R.
Jayewardene’s decision to arrogate to the state the writing and
distribution of textbooks, thus throwing out private booksellers
from the secondary school market. This did not apply to the highly
competitive A/L examinations however, which was ultimately taken
over by the parallel body to the country’s government-run education
system – the tutories. Here too, Tamil students took the lead, which
Sinhala students later took over.
After the Jayewardene decision for state involvement in writing and
publishing textbooks, not only planning, but also transmission of
education became a state monopoly. It was in the mid-1980s that the
National Institute of Education (NIE) was founded and was given the
charge of being the main nerve centre designing and writing of
textbooks. It is at the level of the NIE that school-level Tamil
medium education has suffered worst.
Theoretically speaking, because of the country’s basic position of
teaching ‘swabasha’ from the Kindergarten to the university without
any discrimination to the students, it is bound to have machinery
that caters to both languages equally. In other words, in any
activity, equal weight-age should be given to both languages.
Unfortunately this has not happened.
If one takes most of the subjects other than the Tamil language and
perhaps Hinduism, one does not see an expert from the Tamil medium
of education in the consultant’s group – who basically, design the
what is to go into the book – or in the writer’s group – those who
write the various chapters. This seems to be so in the most
sensitive of all the subjects taught – history and social studies,
in spite of at least two or three academics of non-Sinhala
ethnicity, teaching history in local universities. Their absence
might not have been felt if at least those Sinhala academics of
history who are known for their objectivity were included among the
consultant/writer’s groups. The only person of non-Sinhala origin
who comes into the picture is either a translator or a junior
officer working in the NIE.
Coming to NIE-authored textbooks, it is true the mistake of an
earlier era of brandishing every Tamil ruler as a vandal in not
there any more. But there some very interesting political overtones
in the textbooks that need to be analysed. The current textbook for
social studies for grade eight, speaks of Sri Lanka as a centralised
monarchy with a single king ruling the entire Island (page 86). One
also comes across the term ‘central government’ (maththiya
arasangam) and army (iranuvam) that are bones of contention in the
Tamil-speaking areas. [The word iranuvam is a contemporary term for
the military and refers to the security forces].
It is also interesting to read references to the Kingdom of Jaffna.
It is referred to not as the ‘Kingdom of Jaffna’ but as the ‘Kingdom
of the Jaffna region’ (Yalppana pirandhiyam). And Sapumal Kumaraya
is said to have defeated the King of Jaffna to reassert the unitary
state in the country. Evidently, the translator’s inability to
express clearly the ideas in the original text adds to the
confusion. One hopes this type of imbalance is rectified and the
Tamil student is taught history, which is real and objective.
The NIE seems to be however learning through its past mistakes. The
previous editions of the textbook used for arithmetic (ganitha) in
grades seven, eight and nine used terms to refer to the northeast,
southeast and southwest directions that were transliterations of the
Sinhala: ‘isana,’ ‘agni moolai’ etc. Of course this is the way
directions are referred to in the Hindu temple tradition. But though
this might be comprehensible to the Hindu, it was unfair by the
Christian and Muslim children. I understand the terms ‘isana’ and
‘agni moolai’ are no longer in use and the common term is used
Is it not the duty of the State education organisation, which under
the Constitution has the sole right to design, devise and write the
curriculum (it has to be noted this power is not given to the
provincial councils) takes at least minimum care to see it does not
make such mistakes? The NIE, surely, cannot argue there are no
objective, eminent, Tamil and Muslim scholars who would be able to
correct such indiscretions? And if the NIE is reluctant to appoint
them to any substantive committee, it could at least refer the
written drafts for comment.
It is also saddening to see there are no Tamil and Muslim teachers
of eminence serving on the consultant’s committees for textbook
preparation in science, arithmetic / maths. I believe the problem
lies in the staffing. As it stands now, the NIE does not have,
besides the Director of Tamil Textbook Writing, any Tamil or Muslim
educationist at a senior administrative position. In other words, no
system has been devised by which a senior officer is made
accountable for what appears in the textbook. One might also recall
representations made by the Ceylon Tamil teachers Union (CTTU),
which is a trade union body, in this regard.
Unfortunately, the problem does not end here. In certain subject
areas there is complete neglect in reflecting the traditions of the
Tamils and Muslims. I refer here to the syllabus for art at the GCE
(O/L). There are no references at all to the aesthetic traditions of
the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. One should be very careful when
handling areas of cultural studies. The objective of the course of
study should be enable the student to know their own culture and
familiarise themselves with other cultures so they do not develop a
sense of superciliousness.
There are also instances of educational intrusions. Almost one-third
of bharathanatiyam syllabus for the GCE A/L is on the Sinhala dances
(called desiya natum). The local folk-level dances of the Tamils do
not come within this ‘desiya.’ It is no doubt welcome that many
Sinhala students are learning bharathanatyam and doing well too, but
defusing a bharathanatyam syllabus is something entirely different.
It should be remembered even by the Tamils that bharathanatyam is
not all Tamil as it stands today; the Telugus, Kanneries and
Malyalies share it. It should also be understood working for
national integration is one thing, but this type of dilution is
It is a pity our educationists lack the vision of teaching the Tamil
or Muslim child Sinhala culture in Tamil and the Sinhala student
Tamil and Muslim culture in Sinhala. One regrets to dwell so much on
the NIE. I do accept it does good work, but being the sole authority
of educational and pedagogical dispensation in this country, it
should be aware of its responsibilities. What has really happened is
the Tamil medium schools are losing faith in the NIE. But there
seems to be no one to save it.
The system does not allow any feedback and our Tamil and Muslim
educationists are afraid of being labelled as communalist to
criticise the work of the NIE. Worse still, Tamil MPs seem neither
seem to know or voice these concerns meaningfully.
The administration of education today is a matter for the provincial
councils. Therefore, administratively too, Tamil medium education
has suffered in implementation outside the northeast. For instance,
in many of the schools outside the Northeast Province the
non-teaching staff, including laboratory assistants, is mostly not
conversant in Tamil. There are also instances where Sinhala teachers
are appointed as heads of Tamil medium schools. I cannot understand
the North Western Provincial Council’s response to the call of the
CTTU to appoint a Tamil as the head of the Kurunegala Hindu Tamil
Alienation in education can be very costly to the unification of the
country. If there is anything at all we learn from Tamil youth
militancy it is this.