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Who was "Father" of free education in Sri Lanka?: C.W.W. Kannangara or A. Ratnayake?

by Carlo Fonseka

I have been invited to give the Dr C.W.W. Kannangara Memorial Lecture for 2009. He was a great and good man. In order to prepare the lecture, I have been reading avidly whatever I could access easily about him. So it was with great interest that I read WTA Leslie Fernando’s tribute to him titled Dr CWW Kannangara, Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka published in The Island of 24 September 2009. Leslie Fernando was a former High Court Judge.

In his judgment, it was "on the initiative taken by A Ratnayake, the Member for Dumbara in the State Council, that the Special Committee on Education headed by Dr CWW Kannangara, the Minister recommended Free Education". If it is indeed true that the seminal initiative on Free Education was taken by A Ratnayake, the critical question immediately poses itself: Who was the real Father of Free Education in our country? Was the true father the man who conceived and initiated it, or the one who fostered and nurtured it?

Disputed paternity

Disputing paternity is a serious matter with traps for the unwary. So one must tread the ground with utmost caution. The most reliable scientific test of paternity, the DNA test, is clearly not applicable in this case. Therefore we have to rely on circumstantial evidence and we must perforce lay great store by the credibility of the witnesses we cite.

Objective evidence

The autobiography of Sir Ivor Jennings (1903 – 1965) was posthumously published in 2005. Edited and introduced by HAI Goonetileke, it is titled: The Road to Peradeniya. It has a chapter with the heading The Educational Problem. It gives a fascinating account of the activities of the Special Committee on Education appointed in 1940 to recommend measures for reforming the educational system in our country (I strongly recommend that the Editor of The Island should publish this chapter in two or three installments during this period when Dr Kannangara is being gratefully commemorated.)

Conception of free education

According to Sir Ivor, the Special Committee on Education, headed by the Minister of Education CWWK, consisted of 23 members who included 10 members of the State Council and 3 from the University College. Soon after Jennings arrived in the country in 1940, Prof Pakeman had resigned and Jennings had been appointed in his place. Jennings had become a member of the Committee from the 31st meeting of the Special Committee. At the 88th meeting, when the Committee was ready to sign the report, a member of the Committee (whom Jennings does not name) who had rarely attended meetings because he had been ill, had at last turned up and asked whether the report provided for free education.

Here is what Sir Ivor says about the matter: "The Minister explained that it provided for free education up to 14 and 25 per cent scholarship thereafter. Our colleague asked whether in this age of the common man we were prepared to deprive the poor boy of education by charging fees and thus making education a middle-class monopoly. The politicians with one accord answered that they were not, and they were right, for they thought that they would lose their 5seats if it was known that free education had been proposed and they had rejected it; though the event showed that most of them would lose their seats anyway. I said that I had no objection to free education, but in that case we must reconsider the whole report and that would take us 12 months.

Of course, I was overruled and the Secretary was directed to bring up next time, the amendments necessary to provide free education. The secretary’s amendments consisted of a new draft of the chapter on educational finance. I was not at the eighty ninth meeting…When I received the minutes I discovered to my astonishment that the whole report had been completed and we were being summoned to sign it at the ninetieth meeting. Since I clearly couldn’t sign a report without reading it, I asked the secretary for a copy of the latest version. He replied that we were not being supplied with revised proofs… it then became plain that I could not sign the report… The Committee had already assumed a vast increase in educational expenditure. The waiver of fees in the English schools would not cost much. But these fees were being paid by the wealthier parents, and if all that was intended was to relieve the wealthy of school fees, the talk about free education for the "poor boy" was political humbug. The poor boy had free education already…"

Midwife of free education

In May 1944, Dr Kannangara presented to the State Council the recommendations of the Special Committee on Education, whose report had been published in late 1943. In concluding his speech, which he considered to be the greatest of his long career, he declared: "… Sir, it was the boast of great Augustus that he found Rome of brick and left it of marble. How much nobler will be the state of the State Council boast when we shall be able to say that we found education dear and left it cheap; that we found it a sealed book and left it an open letter; that we found it the patrimony of the rich and left it the inheritance of the poor…".

Self assessment

In January 1947, Dr Kannangara made a self-assessment of the significance of his reforms: "In spite of abuse and calumny, vilification and ridicule, I have succeeded in obtaining the sanction of the State Council for a scheme of free education providing for children of the land equal opportunities to climb to the highest rung of the university, irrespective of the status or financial capacity of their parents and for obtaining for our national languages, their rightful place in that scheme, as an essential pre-requisite for building up a free, united and independent nation."

This is an assessment that has been widely endorsed. Dr Kannangara may not have conceived the idea of free education, but without him, the free education scheme would have been stillborn. But without A Ratnayake, free education would not have been conceived at all.

Who then was the real father of free education? Only a Maushada Pandithuma or a Solomon can judge this rightly.


Dear Prof. Fonseka,

This is an interesting article and gives a different perspective regarding the free education in Sri Lanka. All we know is that within last 20 years regardless of UNP or SLFP governments, there was a campaign against free education in Sri Lanka. This is of course supported by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other IFIs.

Well, what most Sri Lankans don't know is that the 'Father of the Nation' - D.S Senanayake and others such as Sir John Lionel Kotelawala; SWRD Bandaranaike; JR Jayawardhana and many other 'National Heroes' in Sri Lanka were against Free Education. They were really worried that the poor communities in Sri Lanka will become educated and they would loose their status. They executed many cunning plans against Dr. Kannangara and others who supported Free Education.

So, the question is that can we treat the 'Father of the Nation' and national heroes as they are?

This is just another story from our 'Freedom Struggle' and this heroic bunch actually made the mess we are in today.

Posted by: Nali | October 6, 2009 11:54 PM

The very likeable Carlo, charming writer and delightful English-Sinhala orator - has managed to introduce the virus of doubt in an area the paternity of highly
respected Dr. CWW was duly acknowledged and never questioned - with due respects to Arnold R.

But why now, for heaven's sake?


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | October 7, 2009 06:57 AM

yes irrespective of who is the father of free education there are always some elements opposing it. we the beneficiaries are grateful to Dr.Kannagara and others for the opprtunities for free education, some schools still supplementary fees for extra curricular activities sports library etc which out of 10 6 never utilise it no time no space etc.

Posted by: s.angaralingham | October 7, 2009 01:29 PM

Dear Professor Fonseka
In this world there are no free meals and free rides. For anything someone has to pay. Health and education in Sri Lanka are paid by the people. Since we do not have natural resources like petroleum, coal or gold I think most of the money for health and education coming from commodity taxes which include taxes for food and energy. Only thing politicians did at that time was to bring forth a system to equally distribute that wealth collected through taxes via social programs like so called free education and free health. Except for few countries education is free up to A/L (high school) in most of the countries including USA. Irresponsibility we see in Sri Lankan student community is a direct result of this free education misconception. It is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia to bring forth a meaningful debate to educate our student community regarding this important matter.

Posted by: Rohan | October 7, 2009 01:55 PM

We all say CWW Kanangara is the father of free education in Ceylon. But actually the Samasamaja movement should be credited for all that. On June 9, 1936 Dr. N. M. Perera (then leader of the Samasamja Party) moved following resolution in the State Council, "In view of the fact that a good number of the poor children in the villages are unable to attend school because of their inability to buy necessary books, this House is of opinion that all such children should be provided with books by Government without the delay and discrimination now usual in the supply of free books".
In 1942 while in prison Dr.NM wrote a book about Free Education which may have useful to draft the proposals presented to State Council by Dr. CWW.

Posted by: Nalith Karunaratne | October 7, 2009 09:24 PM

Thanks Prof. for bringing out this topic.

CWWK worked in the time of committees, and as a liberal he had absorbed some of the rhetoric of the LSSP, and brought a softer feel to feudalism of the time, though he was said to be against the vote for women.

I believe the engineer Wimalasurendra, one who foresaw the massive potential of the hydroelectricity, too was a strong supporter of free education in the state council to the chagrin of landed elite DSS, JC, Oliver G, JRJ etc. ably supported by their advisor Ivor jennings. Martin Wickramasinghe calls the latter the 'Purohithaya' of the set.

Today from the few glimpses I see the education is priviatised as students depend more on what they learn from Tuition classes than from teachers and public libraries are non existent. But the book based education is valued more that ever and not many take up the entreprenuership.

Teachers rearely take the plunge to rely solely on tuition as do the doctors and Principals have a hard task to ensure thatt teachers deliver the quality in the school hours. Society as a whole want the state run schools, hospitals, but are not ready to pay the cost to keep it at the level they need and richer folks prefer the private school.

Topping up your kid's education with tuition for your own child is fine but remember that brings down the quality of what comes free to the rest.

Another side is the tremendous service by itinerant tuition masters who provide the service in large halls. They have raised the level of science, English in many a locality.

Posted by: Wije | October 8, 2009 03:58 AM

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