Fifty years of Overseas in Sri Lanka
The Overseas School of Colombo celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has earned its place in our country's history, by being the first of its kind here.
It has certainly come a long way from its inception as The Hill School based in Nuwara Eliya. At that time, it was established for the benefit of planters and expatriates, who needed a primary boarding school in the British tradition of boarding their children, before they were sent to the UK for further education.
|Prof. David Robson and Laurie McLellan
In Sri Lanka presently is former Chairman of the Board at The Overseas School, Professor David Robson. Recounting the early days, when the school was relocated at Muthiah Road in premises then owned by The Commercial Company in the early sixties he said, “The student population steadily increased and our premises consisted of a large villa with a big garden, which was used for sports and a row of classrooms built on one side.
“The school was licensed to exist, one of the conditions being that we could not admit Sri Lankan children. The student population consisted of children from the planting and commercial sectors and later on from the diplomatic sector.”
Among the first directors on the Board were the late Mark Bostock, a Swiss national and Mr. Chanson, who was Charge D' Affairs for Norway. Later on, the complexion of the Board changed with more diplomats being included. “I recall the Egyptian Ambassador and the Head of USAID being among them. In 1977, with the open economy, and many investors coming in, the number of pupils grew by leaps and bounds.”
“I returned to Sri Lanka in 1979, to work with the late President Premadasa, who was the Minister of Housing. My wife and children arrived here in the early eighties, and my association with the school grew stronger and closer when my children were admitted to the school.
“It was found that the accommodation was insufficient and I recall that the late Geoffrey Bawa designed a line of classrooms. “There were about 200 children at this stage from 40 different nationalities. It was a very affordable school with all Sri Lankan teachers, who placed great emphasis on every aspect of the development of the students in their care.
The students, all children of expats were 12 years old or under. The Headmaster was British. I was asked to be on the Board as I was an architect and was able to help the school in its building projects. I recall building a laboratory block, an additional classroom block and KG block during this period. In 1980, the Chairman of the Board left the country and I was asked to be the new Chairman.
“By that time, we were beginning to face problems. The school seemed to be a 'hot potato'. The ownership of the premises had changed with the taking over of The Commercial Company, and the government, who were the owners, wanted the premises. It seemed I was in a hot seat, and the diplomats on the Board would seek private meetings with me urging me to resist all moves to shift.
We were offered various other sites in Nugegoda and Rajagiriya and would go and visit them at the request of the government, but most of them were far from appropriate and unhealthy, one of them even being a garbage dump. Battaramulla at that time was just a distant village with no proper road built.
"By this time, parents were urging us to get more expert teachers. Salaries of teachers were based on academic qualifications and experience, so we evolved a scheme where we gave the skilled teachers a cost of living allowance. I must stress that we wanted to protect and reward the local teachers who were excellent. Our deputy Head was Mr. Eardley Edirisinghe (who sadly passed away this year).
“The school was in very good shape when I retired as Chairman in 1982. The Board requested me to go to a Hiring Fair in Athens to hire a new Headmaster. It was an incredible experience; you post your details on a notice board, sit in your room waiting for people to knock on your door. One of the people we had heard about was Jim Ambrose, who now incidentally is a partner in one of the biggest recruitment agencies in international education, Search Associates. Jim Ambrose was highly recommended but we thought we would never get him. He was one of those who knocked on the door and I had no hesitation at all in hiring him.
“The pressure from the government to leave Muttiah Road was growing and the Board of The Overseas School finally accepted land given to them by the government in Battaramulla. The school buildings were designed by Kahawita and De Silva, in very pleasant spacious surroundings using a high proportion of local materials.”
Professor Robson recalls that his daughters were given the best foundation at The Overseas School and is emphatic that the Sri Lankan teachers who taught them were outstanding.
Laurie McLellan, a charming Scotsman from Edinburgh and the current Head of School, was enthusiastic about the present day OSC and its 50th anniversary celebrations. "I have been here for four years and we have 420 pupils at the moment; about 12% Sri Lankans from the business community, children of expat parents who are with NGO's, and those whose parents are diplomats.
I recall some teachers telling me that when they were first taken in a bus to see the new school premises, they thought they were being taken to the jungle. They couldn't believe it when they saw the school on completion, it was so beautiful.
The Board made a request to the government in 1983, to rename the school The International School of Sri Lanka, but this was rejected. But the name was subsequently changed from The Overseas Children’s School to The Overseas School in Colombo. The British boarding school concept is not an international concept so it is feasible to have a day school.
“We give scholarships only to Sri Lankan children to enter our IB programme and one of these students, Subhanu Samarajeeva, got a 100% scholarship to Stanford University.”
According to Mr. McLellan, service projects are compulsory in the school and although the children are sometimes not too enthusiastic before they join, he has found that they really put both heart and soul into it once they start. "They get very involved with the people they help. One such project is visits to the women's prison where they play with the children of these prisoners, the Cancer Hospital, where we have built a classroom and employ a fulltime teacher to teach the children. We help the RCCI (Rehabilitation Centre for the Communication Impaired) with their rehabilitation and Sunflower Village, where our students do swimming therapy.
“We have international donors contributing to a sustainable fund with which we built 8 preschools in the Hambantota area, where we also pay for the teachers. We have built a preschool near Batticaloa, but are unable to visit there as much as we would like to owing to the prevailing conditions.
McLellan stressed the fact that as Headmaster, his goal is for the school to be one of the best small schools in the world, to be known internationally for the crucial elements like academic standards and service to the community.
One of his most treasured memories is of a reunion of the alumni of OSC that he attended in London. "It was overwhelming that the school had made such an impact on them. What impressed me most were their passionate feelings of adoration for Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan teaching staff at the school. They spoke of their friendship with Sri Lankan friends with whom they continue to keep in touch. They were passionate about the school and what it had done for them.
“The culmination of our 50th anniversary celebrations is a Ball at The Colombo Hilton. Past students are flying in from various parts of the world for it. It is in aid of a new building for the RCCI. We hope that the money we raise will create momentum for others to get involved in this very worthwhile project,” said Mr. McLellan.