Quadrangle will embark on a journey to search and record the History of Schools (College Education) in Sri Lanka. A series of articles on each school to follow and here’s the story from early days…

By Sujith Silva
Prof. W. I. Siriweera, (Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Peradeniya) expressed his concerns on the misuse of history in Sri Lanka in saying that “the challenge for Sri Lankan historians today is to study, teach and write history, stripped of its myths, distortions, deformations and communal or religious bias…We are one people. Patriotism should encourage living in harmony” (The Sunday Times, March 17, 2013).

Sri Lanka has a rich culture and history which can boast of a written history dating back to more than 2500 years. It is believed that the Sanskrit language was brought to the island during the era of King Devanampiya Tissa (307 BC-267 BC) from North India through Mahinda Thero (and Buddhist monks), sent by his close friend Emperor Asoka of India. With the arrival of Buddhism, an education system intended for clergy was built around the Buddhist temples and Pirivenas (monastic colleges). These Buddhist monks later went on to teach laymen including members of royal families and their associates.

377 BC Fact Box

As per some of the ancient ‘Shila Lipi’ (stone inscriptions) belonging to the first established kingdom in ancient Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura Kingdom founded by King Pandukabhaya in 377 BC, mention is made about those who lived in ‘Abhayagiri’ including the monks and their ability to read and write and they were engaged in leaning, teaching mostly on Buddhism

There had been two renowned monasteries ‘Pirivenas’, Mahavihara and Abhayagiri which functioned as education centres of monks in Anuradhapura period and managed by Buddhist monks. There had been many local and foreign monks who were housed there and trained. By the 5th century, the “Mahavihara” was regarded as the most sophisticated university in Southern Asia with many international scholars visiting and learning many disciplines under highly structured instruction systems.

Renowned Chinese monk Fa- Hsien, who travelled to Sri Lanka during this period has stated in his accounts that there were over 5000 monks residing at Abayagiri Viharaya, exceeding the count at Maha Viharaya in 5th century BC

It is found that some of the early Sigiri Kurutu Gee (Graffiti on the Mirror Wall at Sigiriya Rock fortress) were written by women, dating back to the 8th century. Aptly exemplifying the standard of literate and literature

The Sinhala-Buddhist culture and the civilisation also has had many interruptions starting from many invasions from South India or from those traders travelling from Arabia and the far east and through explorers who set foot on this Island from far and wide. Through military invasions, diplomatic relations or marriages to Royal families they had their influence on the Island be it culture, civilisation, administration or on beliefs.

It is documented that in the 5th century, during Sigiriya period, Christian missionaries were living in the Island, namely St. Thomas’ Christians from India and Nestorian (Persian) Christians from Persia who travelled to the Island through India or through sea routes along with traders. They had settled down in the northern coastal regions and later moved and had settled down in the Kingdom city of Anuradhapura too. It is also believed that St. Thomas, the Apostle of Jesus who travelled and lived in Kerala, India (AD 52) did preach the Gospel in Sri Lanka (AD 72).

Then the Portuguese who arrived in Sri Lanka by accident in 1505 went onto occupy the Island, ruling mainly coastal regions for 153 years. During this period whilst they spread Catholicism they set up schools to educate children of natives, mainly the poor. There had been many Church Schools (Catholic “Swabasha” or vernacular School) run by the Catholic priests in the native language in the coastal areas such as in Negombo.

Fact Box - Franciscans who were the first missionaries to arrive in 1543....

Franciscans who were the first missionaries to arrive in 1543 started parish schools. During that century there had been Parish Schools in Kotte (56) and Jaffna (25) and they mainly taught reading, writing, singing, Latin & Religion to natives. They also had seminaries to train Catholic priests.

Jesuits arrived in 1602 and they introduced primary, secondary and tertiary education under priests as they realised the value of providing proper teaching and education to natives and families of Portuguese.

Dominicans arrived in 1605 and Augustines in 1606 

The Dutch who arrived in the Island (1602) at the invitation of the Kandyan King Vimaladharmasuriya I to evict the Portuguese, went onto occupy Sri Lanka for almost 140 years (1658-1796). The Dutch banned Catholicism in the Island and expelled all Catholic priests, took over Catholic churches and Parish schools.

Fact Box - During the first five years of Dutch rule...

During the first five years of Dutch rule, it is estimated that there was a student population of about 18,000 studying under their school system. It was supposed to be better than what the English had in the 18th century

In 1642 there had been a Franciscan College in Colombo called San Antonio College (later continued as St. Anthony’s College till 19th century. Current whereabouts unknown). During the same time an Orphanage for boys in Modera (or Mutwal now Colombo 15), two schools in Nawagamuwa and in Jaffna. These are apart from the established Parish Schools.

The Jesuits had their main school in Colombo and they are regarded as the pioneers of Drama in Ceylon as they taught Stage & Drama as a subject and had stage plays at the Colombo School

The Dutch who took over the reins from the Portuguese reorganised schools and introduced ‘School Inspectors’ to monitor schools. Introduced fines for parents who are not sending their children for schools in 1663. That rule lasted till 1745.

In 1690 the Colombo Seminary was started with Rev. Simon Cut as Director and the Jaffna Seminary was started with 24 students in Nallur to educate Tamil youth in the peninsula. It was closed down in 1723 and all students were transferred to Colombo. 

During the Dutch period there were less number of schools in Galle & Matara compared to Colombo & Jaffna. This was mainly due to issues they faced in running schools inside the Galle and Matara Forts as natives opposed these schools. There had been a High School inside the Matara Fort called ‘Nanayakkara School’ or ‘Appuhamy School’ for children of Sinhala Noblemen and a school outside the Fort for low cast natives in 1760. 

The Dutch India (East India), the political body which governed Ceylon neglected education (1796-1802) as their priority was trade & business. This resulted in the collapse of a well-organized education system as teachers were not paid and schools across the Island being shut down or hardly maintained. However some teachers and masters continued to engage in education without being paid purely due to their passion for teaching with the little money they earned from other work (translating documents, letters etc)

Then came the British in 1796, who chased the Dutch out and ruled the coastal region for 19 years before capturing the Hill Capital Kandy (1815) and made Ceylon a colony of their empire till 1948.

Arrival of Missionaries

With the onset of the colonial expansion on the island, first in the coastal provinces and then in the interior, Christian missionary societies became active in education. In fact, it is said that when the British captured the Island (starting from 1796), they neglected the spread of education for many years in which they finally took an interest almost forty years later in 1832.

However they were interested in developing their colony. So the government invited institutions that could help in education and welfare to come forward. This is since they believed the pirivena education could not provide secular education. Therefore, foreign missionaries were welcomed.

Rev. James Lynch
Rev. James Cordiner (1775 – 1836)

Rev. James Cordiner who was the Chaplain to the Garrison of Colombo (1799-1804) and also the Superintendent of Schools appointed by the first Governor of Ceylon Fredrick North (1798-1805) recorded in his book ‘A Description of Ceylon,’ that the majority natives he met in his extensive travels across the country could read and write very well because of high education standards of the Buddhist Temple ‘pirivena’ schools with descriptions on how the Temple education system functioned strikingly, how sacred the books and the learning was to the teachers and the students alike and how the villagers respected the Buddhist monk.

From the start of British rule, the colonial administrators stressed the value of English and Christianity. Fredrick North, the first British Governor on the island (1798-1805) saw that there was some immediate gain in propagating the language and religion of the rulers, and therefore laid the foundation for a language policy which linked the English language with an elite class (Ludowyk, 1966)

The colonial administrators realized the functional value of English in the creation of a class of English-educated officials who would serve as an essential link between the British rulers and the masses. They seem to have expected English to spread gradually and ultimately to become the language of the country.

First Governor of Ceylon Fredrick North (1798 – 1805)

In 1799, three years after British occupation began, Rev. James Cordiner, the first Colonial Chaplain and Principal of Schools, proposed the establishment of a “training school for the sons of Mudaliyars and other chiefs who would supply English-speaking officers to various Government Departments” (Gratiaen, 1929: 26). The first English school – the Academy at Wolvendhal – was established by North in early 1800 as a step to produce a set of well qualified candidates for all the offices

In the meantime, a considerable amount of work had been done by various missionary bodies who were engaged in setting up schools, educating the Ceylonese while also promoting their faith. The Baptists arrived in 1812 and started their schools, Wesleyans followed in 1814, American missionaries came in 1816 and Church Mission Society came in 1818. In addition, the Catholic Church which was already present were running schools alongside their churches. The dedicated Catholic & other Christian denomination priests, nuns and women who came here full of zeal, laid the foundations of a new educational order.

Rev. Benjamin Clough (1791-1853)

According to records the first Methodist Missionaries who arrived in Galle on 29th June 1814, had a conference on the 11th of July and decided jointly, by ballot, the stations where they were to serve in Ceylon then. Rev. Benjamin Clough (1791-1853) who decided to stay in Galle started The Galle School as an English school on 25th July 1814 thus becoming arguably Sri Lanka’s oldest school in the established education sector and also the first Methodist School to be established in Asia.

The Galle School later became a collegiate school on 1st May 1876 by upgrading and being

Rev. William Ault

renamed The Galle High School. Thereafter in 1882 it was renamed again as Richmond College.

Two other schools established by Methodist ministers, namely Rev. George Erskine and John Callaway in Matara in 1814 and 1816 respectively were later closed down due to lack of interest by our countrymen. Subsequently another school opened by

Rev. William Ault in Batticaloa on 29th August 1814 known later as Methodist Central College ceased to function but later revived in 1816 by Rev. Elijah Jackson.

Rev. James Lynch

Rev. James Lynch and Rev. Thomas Hall Squance then started the Jaffna Central College in 1817 and Wesleyan Mission Central School in Point Pedro in 1818 which now functions as Hartley College.

In 1815, the government transferred the Colombo Magistrate and his interpreter Muhandiram L. E. Pereira to Negombo. Rev. Clough had asked Muhandiram Pereira to start a Sabbath School, a Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School in Negombo if he could and had given several religious books to assist him. Rev. Clough had had his doubts about starting a Methodist school in Negombo, as it was a known Catholic enclave. In 1816 when Rev. Clough visited Negombo on inspection, he found that there were many children interested in learning from Muhandiram Pereira and he started a day school in Negombo which today is known as Newstead College.

Rev. Thomas Hall Squance

The American Missionary Rev. Samuel Newell sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission in India arrived in the Jaffna peninsula on 7th September 1813 and he occupied the Dutch Hall in the Town of Tellippalai. He was soon joined by Rev. Daniel Poor and Rev. Edward Warren and in 1816 they founded the American Ceylon Mission (ACM) in Jaffna. The ACM established numerous schools on the peninsula, the first school being the Common Free School ‘Union College’ in Tellippalai in 1816. In 1820 the Uduvil Seminary was established in Uduvil.

It was situated in an abandoned Franciscan mission built by the Portuguese. Harriet Winslow (1796–1823), a missionary turned this into an all-girls boarding school in 1824. It was called the Missionary Seminary and Female Central School. It was Asia’s first all-girls boarding school and is now called Uduvil Girls’ College.

In 1817 the Anglican Church Mission Society (CMS) approved the establishment of missions in Ceylon. On 20th December 1817 four missionaries namely Rev. Joseph Knight, Rev. Samuel Lambrick, Rev. Robert Major and Rev. Benjamin Ward left England and sailed to Ceylon. They arrived in late June 1818 and Rev. Knight went to Jaffna, Rev. Lambrick went to Colombo, Rev. Major and his wife to Galle and Rev. Ward and his wife to Trincomalee.

Rev. Knight started his missionary work in 1818 in Nallur and in March 1823 the Nallur English Seminary was established in Knight’s bungalow. In 1845 the school was relocated to Chundikuli and renamed the Chundikuli Seminary. The school was renamed St. John’s College in 1891.

Rev. Samuel Lambrick, who moved to Colombo settled down in an area known as Cotta (Kotte) in 1822 to undertake pioneering work which later blossomed into a Church and a Christian community at Kotte. He commenced a school teaching English and Sinhalese for 20 students in the verandah of his bungalow. The “verandah school” later became the Christian College, Kotte now known as (since 1963) Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya.

St. Benedict’s College, Colombo 13

The early nineteenth century saw the resurgence of Catholics from disabilities and persecution occasioned by the Dutch. Thanks to the generous initiative of Sir Alexander Johnston, Ceylon’s first Chief Justice, the ‘Act of Freedom’ promised by then Governor Thomas Maitland, was promulgated in 1806. This Act which referred to the Catholics as ‘a numerous and peaceable body’, gave this group the right to open schools for their children. Sir. Alexander Johnston had encouraged the Oratorian fathers to have an English school for the Catholic community. Subscriptions had been collected but nothing definite had been done till Ceylon came to be erected in to a new Vicariate Apostolic in 1834. It had been attached to Cochin since 1557. With the re-organization of popular education in Ceylon after the Colebrooke Reforms, and with the creation of the Colombo Vicariate, there arose enthusiasm for English education among the Catholics. In 1837 Governor Sir Robert Horton helped the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon with a donation of £50 for the first Catholic English School in the Island. On 15th May 1839, the ‘Roman Catholic Seminary’ was declared open on Wolfendhal Street, Colombo by its patron the Rt. Rev. Dr. Vincente de Rosario, Bishop of Tamocene and Vicar Apostolic of Colombo. ‘The Seminary’ as the school was called in those days, was established to provide superior English Education for Catholics in Colombo. This school is now known as St. Benedict’s College Kotahena.

Colonial rulers 

The government adopted the denominational school system, which helped these Christian schools to expand rapidly throughout the country be it English Schools or Anglos-vernacular schools. It took decades before the natives (Ceylonese) realised the value of education and the benefits one would derive. Education during that era had become the means to join the haute bourgeoisie. However, things changed by mid 1800s as the perception of education had changed and parents opted to send their children to superior English schools, which opened in various parts of the Island. English education became important to secure government employment and in the newly opened private enterprises dealing in Coffee and Tea.

In 1829, the British Colonial Office sent a Royal Commission of Eastern Inquiry led by W. M. G. Colebrooke and C. H. Cameron to assess the administration of the island. In 1832, this Commission made some far-reaching recommendations in relation to the administrative, economic, educational and social organization of Sri Lanka (Mendis, 1956). During that period, most of the missionaries saw education as the best method of spreading Christianity and the teaching of Christianity in local languages as the most efficient means of “enlightening the masses of the people” (Ruberu, 1962a: 167). As the missionaries had to counter the influence of the Buddhist and Hindu priesthood and to reach the masses, they favoured the use of vernacular in their schools (De Silva, 1965: 142).


Royal College, Colombo – 07

1834, on the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission, the government made a list of English Schools in the Country and offered grants. After Colebrooke’s reforms the British government embarked on a policy of using English as the principal medium of instruction and maintained the vernacular schools as “subsidiary” to the English schools. Colebrooke also recommended the value of establishing an institution in Colombo for the purpose of educating native youths for different branches of the public service (Mendis, 1956: 215). A model institution for English education – the Colombo Academy – was established in 1836. This was the former private school started by Rev. Joseph Marsh as “The Hill Street Academy” in 1835 in the back of a veranda of St. Paul’s Chapel on Wolfendhal Street Colombo was acquired by Governor Sir. Robert Wilmott Horton after people of Colombo petitioned the Governor as the school become popular. Rev. Joseph Marsh was retained as the principal of ‘Colombo Academy’ which later became Royal College Colombo.

The Anglican Chaplains administered the School Commission which was instituted in 1834 to plan and manage the education in Ceylon but they had many internal quarrels. In 1841, a new Central School Commission comprising Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and other Christian denominational clerics and laity took over the affairs of the former commission, but again disputes reared its ugly head on the issues of disseminating religious knowledge in Schools. In 1865, the government appointed Mr. Richard Morgan to look into the affairs of the Central School Commission and make recommendations. The Morgan Commission recommended the disbanding of the Central School Commission in 1867 and the government released all denominational Mission schools from the list to respective Missions freeing them to follow their own educational programmes as before. The Department of Public Instruction, headed by a Director, replaced the Central School Commission in 1867. The released schools became eligible for the grant only after the School Inspectors inspected and recommended them (Jayasinha, Ananda Dias., 2014).

By the end of 19th century schools were becoming commercial enterprises as they charged fees from the scholars. The Missions that owned schools had to generate an income to pay competitive salaries to the teachers and keep the schools profitable. The grant alone could not sustain a school that offered extracurricular activities as a part of the curriculum. Except in the rural areas, the population in the cities had become literate and the Missions found no use in continuing with vernacular schools in principal cities. Although called Vernacular Schools, they were not in the strictest sense. The schools imparted vernacular education in the lower classes and English in the upper classes. It is appropriate to call the schools Anglo-vernacular. Anglos-vernacular schools and English schools are different from the Colleges. The schools that prepared pupils to enter Universities by forming the final two years as part of University education were referred as Colleges or University Collegiate Establishments (Jayasinha, Ananda Dias., 2014). Much of these schools attracted large numbers of Buddhist children because they were the only places where young men were trained for high government offices. Previously the temples ‘pirivenas’ had been the village school with priests acting as teachers or instructors for the village children in secular learning. They also provided much needed spiritual wisdom. However under the Colonial rulers little or no support was given to temples and for their education. At the same time, they as a Government did not openly support the Missionaries. Same time these temples or ‘pirivenas’ could not provide the learning necessary for government employment. Thus the Buddhist parents who wished to see their children progressing life and obtain high government offices were forced to send their children to missionary schools.

The Buddhist uprising

At “the Kandyan Convention” held on 14th February 1815 a treaty was signed between the British rulers and the Kandyan chiefs, by which the chiefs handed over the country to the British and the British promised to safeguard Buddhism, declaring its rites and ceremonies sacred and inviolate. However the actions of the Colonial rulers in safeguarding Buddhism became a concern though Buddhism was regarded as the state religion and the British authorities at certain times acted as the de facto guardians of Buddhism. Soon after British took control of the country they flouted many conditions of the agreement leaving Ceylonese the Sinhala-Buddhist majority disappointed and in a dilemma, not knowing what the country would be. The agitated, disappointed Sinhala patriots did revolt, as early as in 1817 but without much success as the British rulers suppressed many rebellion movements, leaders and their freedom struggles through military power or by their tactical administrative decisions.

By middle of 19th century, a surge of nationalism against the colonialists occurred which also gave impetus to Buddhist Education and most importantly to the independence movement. The anti-Christian feelings were high among the Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalists, and the expression of such feelings in debates as in the Panadura debate of 1873 also turned into a violent clash at Kotahena in 1883.

By about 1860, a young Buddhist monk Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero who earlier obtained his education in Christian school thus studied the Christian scriptures and was also well versed in the Buddha’s teachings seeing Buddhism being undermined through publications and missionary education took up the challenge of propagating Buddhism and safeguarding its interests. He went from village to village making public speeches and held meetings in several Christian strongholds, often challenging the Christian clergy to face him in open debate. Soon he earned a great reputation for his eloquence and people flocked in thousands to hear him. The Christian clergy at first did not react to him but later accepted his challenge for an open debate (Perera, H.R., 2007). Though Panadura debate made headlines it was the culmination of a series of five disputations, the first two of which were held through printed work (Skuce, S., 2005). In Baddegama, February 1865; Waragoda, August 1865; Udanwita, February 1866: Gampola January 1871 and Panadura, August 1873. At Waragoda Baptists missionaries were involved but elsewhere it was Methodists in dispute with Buddhists. It is said, the specific reasons for the debate in Panadura in 1873 were the publications by Revd Daniel Gogerly and a series of sermons denouncing Buddhism preached by Revd David de Silva in Panadura Methodist Church. The Venerable, a robust spokesman for Buddhism, took exception to the sermons and challenged de Silva to defend his remarks (Skuce, S., 2005).

There was wide coverage in the Press for the Panadura Debate where rules were laid down for fair play. It lasted for one week and Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero lead the Buddhists to victory. The Methodist account of the incident differs from the Buddhist. WJT Small, the historian of Sri Lankan Methodism recorded, ‘The results of the debate were, from the nature of the case, inconclusive’ (Skuce,S., 2005). That was at a time when Ceylonese society was unable to challenge the political and military dominance the British held on the island, Buddhism was able to successfully challenge Christianity.

Henry Steel Olcott (1832 – 1907)

An American scholar named Dr.Peebles, who happened to be in Sri Lanka on a visit about the time of this Panadura debate, was so impressed with it that he published its proceedings in book form on his return to America. This caught the attention of young American lawyer, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott who happened to read the report in a public library in America. Having being inspired by the debate and the efforts made by the Sinhala Buddhists to safeguard their rights, Henry Steele Olcott came to Sri Lanka in May 1880 to further study on Buddhism and fight the Buddhist cause (Perera, H.R., 2007).

It is possible to argue that the single event of Panadura completely changed the social and religious context of Sri Lanka. Not because the event in itself was of ultimate significance but it was a printed account of this disputation that attracted Col Alcott to Buddhism, prompted his travel to Ceylon and ‘with his arrival in the island a new phase in the revival of the sacred religion arose’. Colonel Olcott helped re-found Buddhism in Sri Lanka which transformed the nation, increased national awareness and paved the way for independence

Col. Olcott landed in Galle on 17th May 1880 in the company of Madame H. P. Blavatsky. They became Buddhists at the Wijeyananda temple in Galle. They were grieved at the treatment the Buddhists, their institutions and the religion received at the hands of the colonial rulers and the Christian hierarchy. They identified that the greatest danger came from the proselytization of the children of Buddhist parents through education. To combat this they founded the Buddhist Theosophical Society with branches in Colombo, Kandy & Galle and set about opening up Buddhist English schools. He opened up the B.T.S. English School at Pettigalawatta on September 15, 1880. This school had a short existence.

He was ably supported by the Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera– hero of the ‘Panadura Vadaya’, the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, the Venerable Dodanduwe Piyarathana Thero, the Venerable Walane Sri Siddhartha Thero and the Venerable Ratmalane Dhammaloka Thero, along with Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra, and Don Agaris Divakara Mohottige, Mudaliyar of Central Province.

Ananda College

Following a meeting of Buddhists at Pettah Colombo under the patronage of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, an English-Buddhist school with 37 students was inaugurated on 1st November 1886 at No. 61 Maliban Street, Colombo which is known today as Ananda College Colombo. In 1887 Sir Olcott visited Kandy and expressed his wish to start an English-medium Buddhist School with the help of Sumangala Thero and the Mudaliyar of Kandy at that time; D.M Agaris. On 30th June 1887, Dharmaraja College, under the name of ‘Kandy Buddhist High School’, was opened at plot of land in front of the Old Palace, adjoining the Natha Devalaya. In June 1888 a new school with one student was opened at a place in Bodhiraja Mawatha in Kurunegala named Kurunegala Buddhist Institution which is known today as ‘Maliyadeva College’. Women’s Education Society of Ceylon with help and guidance from Peter De Abrew and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, founded the Sangamitta Girls’ School at Tichborne Place, Maradana on 18th October 1889.  Madam Mari Musaeus Higgins who was its Principal later with the support of Peter De Abrew found the Musaeus Girls’ Boarding School at Rosmead Place, Cinnamon Gardens in 1891. With the arrival of Dr. Bowles Daly (LLD), an Irish clergyman and a theosophist, Mahinda College was opened on 1st March 1892 at Pedlar Street in Galle Fort.

The Establishment of Muslim education

Marhoom Sidde Lebbe
Mahroom Ahmed Urabi Pasha

Meanwhile the traditional and conservative Muslims in Ceylon, mostly in Colombo did not have much choice but to send their children to Christian Schools. At the same time, they had their fear that English education may lead their children to Christianity, as they witnessed in Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Marhoom Sidde Lebbe a lawyer, educationist, scholar, philosopher, writer and a visionary social reformer wanted to establish

separate schools for Muslims as did the Buddhist and Hindu revivalists.



Zahira College, Colombo 10

In the meantime, Mahroom Ahmed Urabi Pasha, who was known as Colonel Ahmed ‘Urabi an Egyptian revolutionary leader was exiled from Egypt to Ceylon by the British on 28th December 1882. Whilst in the Island (till 1901) ‘Urabi worked to improve the quality of education amongst the Muslims and together with Marhoom Sidde Lebbe and Marhoom Wapichi Marikkar they established Ceylon’s first Muslim School ‘AL Madurasathul Khairiyyatul Islamiah’ in Colombo on

15th November 1884. This school is now known as Hameed Al Husseinie College Colombo 12. After eight years, Zahira College Colombo was established on 22nd August 1892 under their patronage.



The Expansions & Reforms

The pioneer Buddhist Schools started in competition to the Christian Schools and taught only in English. They promoted the indigenous culture, and sought to distance the natives from the Western culture (Jayasinha, Anada Dias., 2014). As the missionaries had to counter the influence of the Buddhist and Hindu priesthood and to reach the masses, they favoured the use of vernaculars – Sinhala and Tamil – in their schools (De Silva, 1965: 142).

In 1830, there had been 236 missionary schools with a total student intake of 9,274 as stated in a report on early British educational activities by Ranjt T. Ruberu. As per the above there had been 848 schools by 1886.

C.W.W.Kannangara former lawyer turned a politician, who earlier had his education at Richmond College Galle became the first chairman of the Executive Committee of Education in the State Council and also the first Minister of Education in Ceylon in 1931. C.W.W.Kannangara along with his the Executive Committee of Education came up with recommendations for providing “lasting value to the nation” through education in 1942. They introduced extensive reforms to the country’s education system that opened up education to children from all levels of society irrespective of social class, economic condition, religion and ethnic background. It was also decided to redesign the Central School (by then there were 03 schools) on the pattern of the English Senior Secondary School, or in the model of Royal College Colombo.

With these reforms and to provide free education in Sri Lanka, 54 Central Colleges were established between 1943 and 1947 in Sri Lanka. The first of these was C. W. W. Kannangara Central College in Matugama, followed by others in areas such as Weeraketiya , Kattankudy , Mawathagama, Veyangoda and Dickwella.

By 1958 under the dual system of control, 53% of the 7674 schools were owned by the Government and rest by the private bodies (47%). As of now (Education Ministry Statistics, 2016), there are 10,162 Government Schools along with handful Private Schools managed by Missionaries and host of private International Schools with estimated total 4.2 Million student population.

Almost all of these early schools, apart from teaching English and curriculum and their religious values, strived to impart knowledge on best values, ethics, morale responsibilities and maintaining high standards of discipline. These strict disciplines, the values inculcated and upbringing produced generations of well educated, well-mannered Sri Lankans. However with the introduction of free education post-independence and government take-over of the Christian schools in 1961 changed the dynamism of Colonial based education system. Specifically the latter which was in fact clear where anti-Christian sentiments were institutionalized in the take-over of the Christian schools though this provided an opportunity for poor Christian children the privilege of education in reputable institutions the removal of nuns and missionary priests and also bringing an end to their administrations may have done more damage than good. Which is to be debated and is timely to be revisited when considering the standard of present education system, erosion of values in the modern society and the conduct of some of the University students in Sri Lanka against the state and the educational reforms.

Let the journey continues while we carry forward our learnings and
cherishing memories…..



Chelliah, J.V. (1984 [1922]) A century of English education. Vaddukoddai: Jaffna College.
Coperehewa, S., (2011). Colonialism and problems of language policy: formulation of a colonial language policy in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Journal of Advanced Social Studies.
Cordiner, James (1807) ‘A Description of Ceylon,’ (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme)
Cordington, H.W. (1929) ‘A Short History of Ceylon’
Gratiaen, L.J. (1929) Government schools in Ceylon, 1798-1832. Colombo: Government Press
Holmes, Brian (1967) Education Policy and the Mission Schools: Case studies from the British Empire (London & New York: Routledge, 1967)
Jayasinha, Anada Dias. (2014) Forgotten History of Richmond College
Ludowyk, E.F.C. (1966) The modern history of Ceylon. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966)
Mendis, G.C. (ed.) (1956) Colebrooke – Cameron papers, documents on British colonial policy in Ceylon, 1796-1833 I & II. London: Oxford University Press  bh
Mihindukulasuriya, Prabo. Another Ancient Christian Presence in Sri Lanka: The Ethiopians of Aksum
Panadura Wadaya (2011) The Great debate of Sri Lanka
Perera, H.R. (2007), Buddhism in Sri Lanka. A Short History
Pinto, Leonard. (2013), A Brief History Of Christianity In Sri Lanka.
Ruberu, Ranjit (1962a) Education in colonial Ceylon. Kandy: Kandy Printers.
Ruberu, Ranjit (1962b) ‘School Commission of Ceylon 1834-1867: A Discussion of their educational Policy’ University of Ceylon Review XX/2 : 244-268
Skuce, S. (2005), Pandura Vadaya or Controversy at Panadura by Stephen Skuce Cliff Collegev
Cover image: Richmond Hill 1861 – a painting by the Rev.Jobson when he visited Richmond Hill in 1860 on his way to and from Australia. The provenance Caroline Simpson Library and Research collection, Sydney, Australia.

About Sujith Silva

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  1. A well researched article that deserves a place in school history records

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