22nd October 2000
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Uthpala Gunethilake reports on the proposed English medium streams in schools

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  • A timely move
  • Going to be hard
  • Nearly everyone agrees that Sri Lanka's education system needs a major overhaul if it is to meet the needs of a country trying to catch up with the rapidly developing world. With this in mind, in 1998, major reforms intended to revamp the entire system from year one to university level were launched. 

    Now, yet another significant step in these reforms is in the offing: reintroducing English medium in schools.

    Before Independence and for some few years after, the official medium of instruction in schools was English. This changed when in 1956 under then Premier S.W.R.D Bandaranaike's 'Sinhala Only' policy, Sinhala was made the official language. Students then had to study in their mother tongue_ Sinhala or Tamil with English as a second language. The changes were many, but today no one seems to be too happy about the results.

    Change is in the air from next year, with students being offered the option of studying in the English medium. The English medium will be first introduced from the GCE A/L science stream in 2001. Professor R. P. Gunawardane, Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education said that plans have been made to introduce the English medium in a number of schools islandwide. 

    Clearing doubts raised about whether this is legal as according to Article 19 and 21(1) of the constitution, the medium of instruction in schools should be either of the two National Languages, Sinhala and Tamil, Professor Gunawardane says there is no problem. "Bringing back English is not in violation of the constitution. By reintroducing English we are only giving students an optional- not compulsory- medium to study, besides Sinhala and Tamil. We have received a ruling from the Attorney General that it is not contradictory to the constitution," he explained. 

    Bringing back the English medium is a move that cannot be postponed anymore, Prof. Gunawardene says. "English is an international language. You need English to continue higher studies in many areas, especially in demanding fields like information technology, molecular biology, and electronics where employment opportunities are now growing." 

    "Also, at present English language education is available only to a handful of students in private schools and International schools. There is a need to take English education to schools outside the main cities. We are particularly interested in rural students who are asking for this opportunity."

    Many parents welcome the move. "I was in the final batch which got to study in the English medium. We were lucky. And we haven't forgotten Sinhala just because we learnt in English. If they do introduce the English medium I will definitely guide my child that way," says one father Dr. P. Dissanayake.

    "We are not forcing anyone to study in the English medium: those who wish to can continue in Sinhala or Tamil. But there are students who want to study in English and we are trying to give them a chance, mainly those in government schools, which don't have resources," Prof. Gunawardene said.

    "Having discussed this fully, we realized that we can't postpone this for another ten years," he said, explaining that due to problems such as the scarcity of teachers, it was decided to bring back the English medium in stages. The first stage is to start teaching the local A/L science stream in English medium, from 2001. 

    According to Prof Gunawardane, the A/L science stream was selected, because A/L textbooks are not provided by the government, hence the question of translating and printing textbooks in English does not arise. "Also A/L science is taught by science graduates who have completed their degree programmes in English. We have thus decided to start English medium classes in the 560 government schools which have the A/L science stream, in 2001."

    Preparations are now underway. Explained Professor Gunawardane, "The syllabi are already available and another 30000 copies are being printed along with teacher guides, practical guides and various booklets on subject areas, produced by the National Institute of Education (NIE). I have given instructions with a December 31 deadline to translate and print all necessary material and we have released the funds too."

    The next step is to train teachers. Teacher-training programmes will be conducted from January to April next year, after the principals nominate at least one teacher per subject from their schools. "A series of training programmes and workshops will be conducted in the universities- Colombo, Kelaniya, Peradeniya, Sri Jayawardhanapura, Batticaloa and Ruhuna- with assistance from the university staff," he explained. The training is to be in two parts, language and presentation of the subject. 

    Subsequently the English medium would be introduced to the other A/L subject areas and to science and mathematics from grade 6-11. This will be in 2002. According to Professor Gunawardane, translating and preparing material for this will begin next year. By this time, however, he said that private schools will be given permission to start the English medium in all classes if they have the resources to do so. "Due to limited resources and funds, we have to continue in stages in government schools," he said. "In rural districts where there are 10 or 15 schools, we can't start the English medium in all of them at once. We'll start in a few schools and by a system of transferring, allow children from other schools who want to study in English, to do so." 

    Principals of schools, by and large, felt bringing back the English medium was very opportune. Mrs. K. S. Lakshman, Principal of Devi Balika Vidyalaya Colombo 8, feels it could contribute towards solving many of our social problems. "The ethnic problem has cropped up due to lack of mutual understanding. To create understanding, you need a common medium-English can be that common medium. So may be by giving all our children a sound English education we can sidestep the ethnic problem," she says.

    Agrees K. Chandrasekara, teacher at Royal College, Panadura, "Things went wrong in this country because of the Sinhala Only policy. So reintroducing the English medium is the solution to the ethnic and language problems we face. Children will start learning though it will be hard at first. After all, even in the rural areas students go for numerous English tuition classes. They understand the importance of it"

    Continues Mrs.Lakshman, "Students will choose the English medium because they know that especially in science, they have to study in English in university." She adds however that much work would have to go into making the project a success.

    Will there be a demand from students? "Initially I hope to start one or two classes in each school. The demand will grow because parents know the need for English. It's good for the children. And it's their choice, so after sometime they will make the choice without hesitation. We are just providing facilities; they have to decide," said Professor Gunawardane.

    "Our aim is to take English to the rural children. We are not trying to create an elite group: the elite are already there. But I can't give all the facilities immediately. Hopefully once we start, things will develop," says Prof Gunawardane.

    A timely move

    "This is a very timely move in school education. You can't continue higher education without English and then students fall behind at higher levels," says Principal of Richmond College, Galle W. N. R. P. Daniyas.

    "However, you must tread carefully at first" he warns. "Our society is always wary of change and there will be problems. But if you carry this out well, in four or five years we will see a huge success."

    "It's good that children are given a choice of studying in whatever medium they like. Nobody is being forced, and every one will have the equal opportunity to choose their medium." Students should be given a language training first, he suggests.

    "Initially it might not be successful specially in schools like ours where students don't have the basic background to study in English," says Principal, Anuradhapura MMV S. D. Ratnayake. Agreeing with Mr. Daniyas he says that students should be coached, especially A/L science students, before they start studying in English. He says that this can be done during the period after the O/L exam (December), and before A/L classes start in May, according to the reforms. "Teacher training should begin without delay."

    "I don't think our students would opt to study in English medium in the beginning. But if they gain the basic knowledge, they would not hesitate," he says.

    "In the job market the demand is for those who are fluent in English. But in our schools only a few pass even the English subject. There are many who would want to study their subjects in English medium. But they'll find it difficult at the beginning," says U. G. Somasiril, Principal of Royal College Panadura.

    "I welcome the idea," says Dunstan Fernando, former principal and currently acting Principal of Wesley College Colombo. "This an area that has been neglected all these years much to the detriment of the country. Many children's future depends on the knowledge of English. The sooner this is done the better it is in the long run."

    He too feels that there'd be a good demand from students. "Many children go to International Schools solely because of English, and parents pay exorbitant fees. Not every parent can afford it. So if they reintroduce the English medium all parents can give their children a good English education."

    "However," he adds, "you have to make sure that our teachers are competent enough, especially in the rural areas."

    Not every one agrees that reintroducing English medium is a timely move. "This is just another political trap. This is not going to help the rural children. It will only be another privilege for the country's elite,' says Ruwan Jayasinghe, English teacher at Royal College, Panadura.

    "The majority of even the English language teachers in the country, especially the ones who are posted in rural schools, cannot speak English. So how can you suppose that the teachers of other subjects will be able to teach their subject in English?" questions Mr. Jayasinghe.

    "Starting from A/L science is a case of putting the cart before the horse. If you start from the lowest class and continue gradually, it might work. But even then you cannot think that the majority will be up to it."

    N. Y Casiechetty, Headmaster of S. Thomas' Preparatory School welcomes the move, but has doubts about its implementation.

    "It's a good idea and the students also will welcome it, but one has to be practical. Because the English medium was knocked off in the 1950s, it would be difficult to find teachers. I find it hard to get competent teachers to teach English language, so how can you suppose that you'll get teachers for science and maths in English? Those who can teach in English are attracted by the salaries in International schools-our salaries are nowhere near that."

    Going to be hard

    So what do students who will now have the opportunity to choose to study in the English medium if they wish to, feel:

    "It is going to be hard, but we would try our best because you can't do further studies without English," says Deepani Fernando, a year 10 student of Sirimavo Bandaranaike Balika Vidyalaya.

    Not all are so positive. A class of year 11 students had different opinions. Madura Illeperuma from D. S. Senanayake College, Colombo who plans to do science says he would not opt for the English medium. "Not all of us can handle it and only a few would want to study in English. Eventually this will create two standards within the class and those who cannot catch up will fall behind. And if you start learning in English and find that you can't catch up it might be too late to switch back to Sinhala. " 

    Sajith Silva from Royal College, Colombo and Senaka Wijewardana from S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia agree with Madura, adding that they too will continue in Sinhala medium for the A/Ls.

    "It's too late and too sudden for us to start at A/Ls, we are used to the Sinhala medium. May be if we were given the choice at grade 6 or 7, we could handle it," said Wasuda Kandane from Mahanama College, Colombo.

    Dilini Mataraarachchi from Visakha Vidyalaya was in two minds. "I plan to study science and I think it's better to study in Sinhala because studying science in English will be hard. Then again, it'll be far easier at University if I do my A/L in English." 

    Ruwanthika Jayasuriya from Good Shepherd Convent, Panadura, however, says that she's ready to give it a shot. "I want to do maths or science, and it'll be hard, but struggling at A/L is better than getting stuck at University."


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