Dr. Harsha Alles is a visionary who advocate towards private and international education. He is the son of the late great Ralph Ignatius Thomas Alles, who is the pioneer behind revolutionary educational establishments; D.S. Senanayake College and the Gateway group. Following in his father’s footsteps is Dr. Harsha, who is a medical doctor by profession [...]


Private and International Education- The Holistic approach which preserves national identity


Dr. Harsha Alles

Dr. Harsha Alles is a visionary who advocate towards private and international education. He is the son of the late great Ralph Ignatius Thomas Alles, who is the pioneer behind revolutionary educational establishments; D.S. Senanayake College and the Gateway group. Following in his father’s footsteps is Dr. Harsha, who is a medical doctor by profession and crowned with a PhD from the University of Colombo. He is the current Chairman of the Gateway group, as well as the Founder Chairman of The International Schools of Sri Lanka (TISSL). Furthermore, he is widely revered due to the placement of the Gateway Brand on the map as a provider of technology-based, high quality education through a large network of international schools, a graduate school, schools offering the national curriculum in English medium, computer schools, language schools, etc.. Dr. Alles actively addresses key issues which restrict education, and attempts to ensure a country where education is readily accessible. He provided an insight on the value of Private and International education and emphasized on the importance to preserve the national identity whilst seeking such knowledge.

Where did it all start for
Gateway College?

Gateway College was first established right after my father R.I.T.Alles left D.S.Senanayake College. It established its roots as a tutoring institute in 1986.1997 saw the launch of the prestigious Gateway group. There were many challenges that had to be combatted during the initial stages (I was a medical student at that time). The first was in the form of financial investment, since procuring the required capital to establish a school was a difficult task. The Alles residence was mortgaged to obtain a loan, and a converted house in Rodney Street, Borella was acquired. Gateway had a humble beginning with 33 students and 6 teachers. Thereafter, a primary school was established in Gothami Road.

Even though the school was small in structure, and lacking decent infrastructure, the vision we had was large which compensated for the shortcomings. Our vision was to establish an international school which provided world class/global education while retaining the Sri Lankan identity. Everything that was done during the past 22 years was achieved due to the foundation that was set at the beginning. The clear vision, and the strategic investment decisions taken acted as the catalyst towards the imminent growth.99% of earnings where reinvested continuously that has resulted in us having fully fledged state-of-the-art campuses that are fully owned by the organisation.

There are no converted buildings now, and each building serves a specific purpose. Our investment decisions have brought the success that is crystal clear today. Every attempt that was made was done with the intention of ensuring a better future for the children. Currently the Gateway group consist of 5 Gateway and 2 Springfield Colleges. All schools provide extremely good facilities. The investments made during the formative years and thus far, places the organization at a strong and stable position.

What is your role in the TISSL group?

The International Schools Association started in the late 1980s, as an informal group where they met every 3 to 4 months. I took over the responsibility of representing Gateway from my father about 7-8 years ago. I impressed the members that operating as a group would wield better results than operating as individual entities and stressed on the urgency to incorporate a proper association supported by a constitution, a logo and a website. The purpose was to brand International Schools in a stronger manner. After several rounds of discussions, TISSL – The International Schools of Sri Lanka, was formed and I was nominated as the chairman. From there onwards, the TISSL brand has become a force to be reckoned with. As the ‘Founder Chairman’ I still engage in crucial operational processes from within the Executive Committee.

The goal of the TISSL group is to foster unity, to promote quality education and to network with the Ministry of Education. There are diverse classifications of schools in Sri Lanka (Private, International and Government etc.) and international schools are looked at to be ‘different’. The purpose is to prove otherwise. All 24 member school chains within the group cater to approximately 50,000 students island-wide and around 95% are Sri Lankan nationals. There are around 10,000 schools in Sri Lanka (local/Government) but only about 70 have an actual demand for admissions. Admission to TISSL schools, however, is fairly difficult. This alone shows that we are doing something right. Together, we desire to improve quality, maintain standards and be a part of the Sri Lankan system, rather than remaining as a separate entity.

Any thoughts on the current education system?

I always attempt to look at the positives. We are all products of free education. Sri Lanka is always ahead in the key indices in education and health if you compare ourselves with the neighbouring countries. As a medical professional, I personally know that Sri Lanka has the least infant and maternal mortality rates which is only due to the free healthcare. But free doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be better.

Education is changing, and necessary reforms have to be brought in, every now and then. One must be cautious not to embrace every practice that is prevalent in the West. There are systems that have been tried and tested within this country. Those systems should be encouraged. We need to take note that our motherland had rich education systems that had a holistic approach through establishments such as Jethawanaramaya and Abhayagiriya, long before Oxford and Cambridge Universities were founded. This was in the 5th century AD. This unique educational system was indigenous to Sri Lanka. We need to preserve our heritage. Holistic education is of outmost importance.

The national education of Sri Lanka revolves around values and the culture. That has to be preserved. Adapting to technologies is crucial, but preserving our own systems are of equal importance. To me, some of these new technologies are mere distractions, because there are much more important things that needs attention. To change this, the school should be made into a place where children are happy. This would in turn build their personality. We should change the culture where knowledge is determined according to the examinations that are faced and passed. A school is meant to be a happening and a busy place.

Is government intervention required for Private Education?

It works both ways. It is a worry if schools in Sri Lanka are not concerned with the local setup. International schools in Sri Lanka, operate in Sri Lanka; not in Britain, New Zealand or Australia. Proper comprehension of the Government and its policies are fundamental for any educational institution that operates in the nation. Religion, culture, values and traditions are the value propositions which gives Sri Lanka its pride, and they should be preserved.

Let’s consider a recent policy proposed by the Government. It was proposed that ‘close supervision’ is required for Private Institutions, to ensure high stands and for cultural preservation. There are instances when I am cautious when it comes to embracing western cultures. If institutions do not abide by the local cultures and traditions, supervision is justifiable. On the other hand, if the schools are doing well, it is best to leave things as it is, without unnecessarily adding red tape and as the Government has enough issues to deal with anyway.

Therefore, as mentioned, it works both ways. Private Schools should be competent to comprehend the country’s requirement and cater accordingly. If said requirements are ignored, the Government should intervene immediately. In recent times, it was identified that certain schools teach a single religion, and use a single language to teach the entire syllabus. That is a result of the lack of supervision. It should be based on holistic education. If things continue in that manner, and if the Government fails to intervene, it could escalate into unfortunate situations that we all experienced in the recent past.

All in all, if schools function upholding and respecting the Sri Lankan cultures, traditions and values, and maintaining good standards, it is advisable for the Government to encourage and support them.

How would you defend Private
Education from all the negative
social impressions?

Private Education in Sri Lanka was mainly confined to religious groups (missionary schools) before International Schools were instituted. Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, and no one can change that. We should comprehend and accept that; the diversity itself is an advantage. All schools should think differently. Schools should be flexible to open their doors to all religions and races, at least to accommodate a fair percentage.

Most International Schools, by nature, are open to everyone. However, certain schools attempt to change direction subtly, and discreetly. I believe that should not be tolerated. Incorporation of schools based on religion should be abolished, and multi-cultural and multi- racial environments should be encouraged. Existing schools must be encouraged to open up and accept a few more different ethnicities.

Government assistance for Private Institutions is non-existent. International Schools pay taxes. Every inch of land and every building acquired/ constructed is a cost. No support is given whatsoever. There are certain countries where the Governments assist Private Institutions by leasing out lands but sadly the Sri Lankan establishments lack that luxury. A few international schools that are performing well at the moment obtained the lands through leases. We still continue to pay the bank loans we took to buy land and buildings at Gateway College. Such is the nature of the investment that goes into such ventures. Therefore it is only fair that reasonable fees are charged.

Very often, the public feels that the fees are too expensive. The question is whether you receive a proper service for the amount of money that you spend? I believe most TISSL schools provide value for money. Private Education without fees is impractical and not possible. Whether the charges are reasonable, and delivers maximum value for money is a matter which depends on the educational institute, therefore it is unfair to ‘generalize’ all institutions.

The argument that private education is only for the ‘elite’ has no truth at all. As elaborated, the fees charged depends on the standards, and facilities provided by each institution. Education is a priority to all Sri Lankans. Willingness to spend on education is so much greater than the willingness to spend on healthcare. Even those who struggle financially have shown preference to seek private education. It cannot be justified that International Schools are only for the elite. There are the children of the elite who attend schools like Royal, Ananda, Nalanda, Visakha, Devi Balika, Sirimavo and D.S.Senanayake College too. So where is the fairness? I believe, some of these parents spend more money on tuition than the parents of International Schools who spend on Private Education.

What changes would you make to
refine the education system?

I am a firm believer that all issues that is prevalent in the country cannot be entirely blamed on politicians. I blame the education system. These problems should be addressed at school level. In our schools we don’t recognize individuals according to race, they are all one family; Sri Lankan. Those values should be inculcated in schools. High standards of education have to be met through constant monitoring while updating the curriculum through adoption of what is needed (stem education, robotics etc). Schools should be schools, and not tutories, All students ought to be encouraged to take part in sports and co-curricular activities.

Schools must incorporate diverse clubs and societies to develop the personality of every child. Each child has something special. In taking this approach, Gateway provides every child with a broad curriculum; a wholesome education which isn’t limited to a single aspect. When everything is offered, certain students shall excel in certain areas and such areas should be identified and supported further. Gateway has several notable national athletes, and I go out of my way to provide transport from Sugathadasa back to the school to these athletes when they are training with the national squad; but I advise them to balance studies and sports accordingly.

Certain individuals claims that examinations are irrelevant. On the contrary, exams are very important. Children have to work hard and prepare, since life is never easy. Life is full of challenges. Examinations are meant to discover the extent of what the children actually know, and not to scrutinize what is unknown. Sri Lankan exams, at times tend to be inconsistent. It all depends on the examiner. Some examiners assume that their success is measured on the rate that students fail. That shouldn’t be the case.

When it comes to IGCSE or IALs, people usually blame Gateway that too many subjects are offered (students study 11-12 subjects). My thinking is that overall education is like a pyramid. At the lower levels, a broad exposure should be given. As they progress in life, they tend to specialize. A degree, often is in one area, at Masters level it is narrowed down further and a PhD could be as specialized as studying a strand of DNA. They must be given maximum exposure in various subject areas when they are young. I don’t believe in simplifying education by merely reducing examinations. However, things could be done differently. The exams and assessments too can be different bringing in more variety. If you consider the Japanese system, the primary education is spent mainly on developing values, manners etc.. Therefore they are programmed from a very young age to be polite and disciplined. All good qualities are drilled into their system before they leave school.

The scholarship exams is perceived as a ‘bit of a killer’. Instead you could have an exam on religious education. I am a firm believer that while learning of one’s own religion is very important, they should also be aware of the other religions. Therefore, there can be an exam on Religious Education at the end of primary level that is not competitive. Similarly, children also can be taught and tested on a link language that will also not be competitive in nature. That basic training alone, will resolve most of these current conflicts.

What is the message that you wish to give the society?

My advice to students is to make the maximum use of the time spent in school. When we look back and ask ourselves ‘what was the best time in our lives?’, the automatic answer is school life. Think of the best friends that you have and you will appreciate that they are the ones whom you met at school. At school we associate people not for what they are or for who they are. Society is quite the opposite.

School life to me is the greatest. Children must be allowed to enjoy it to the maximum. This tuition industry is an absolute menace. Children should study and engage in academics during school hours. Afternoon hours should be dedicated for sports and extra curricular activities. Parents should understand the value of this balance. The fear psychosis that exams bring, which lead parents and students to think that you cannot live without tuition should be cured. See the recent events, students still went to tuition classes that had no security, but were scared to come to school. These are the best years of your lives, so do not waste it in tuition classes. I applaud the government for 13 years of school initiative. They should make the higher education sector too understand this and not allow anyone steal the best years of a child life.

Randheer Mallawaarachchi


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