The rise and fall of the Central Colleges: A cursory glance

by C. T. M. Fernando

Though it is too early to write the epitaph the Central College system is as good as dead. The epitaph might have to read "All glory and fame are tine though thou art no more!" Yet it has not the remotest semblance too. "The Sparrow killing Cock Robin". The accusing finger of judgment cannot be pointed at one single person or section. More than one have contributed to the down fall of the once-popular Central Colleges system. Among them the politician too is included of course aided and abetted by bureaucrats of the ministry individually and collectively.

They were motivated either by a mere sense of sycophancy or sheer ignorance of the worthwhileness of the very concept. Platitudinal references and lip service to the cause only helped to sustain themselves when the sustenance of the very system was at Jeopardy.

A brief chronological sketch of the Central College system will not be out of place in a paper like this. The earliest reference to Central Colleges was by the Central Schools Commission way back in 1841 in respect of the establishment of three Central Colleges in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna on the lines of the then Colombo Acadamy (Present Royal College) extended to Kandy later on. Subsequently in 1867 a subcommittee of three headed by R. F. Morgan recommended the retention of the Central College with certain modifications to its curriculum. Then there was a fairly long lapse and by 1940, consequential to a socio-economic school survey carried out in 1938, it was decided to redesign the Central School on the pattern of the English Senior Secondary School. Four basic aims were identified in respect of the establishment of Central Schools - viz to

(a) Eliminate waste in post-primary education.

(b) Co-relate education to local needs.

(c) Cater to the ranging abilities of children.

(d) Check the shift of the rural population to urban areas.

Based on these recommendations, the Central Schools system was launched in 1943 establishing eleven schools. The aim of the commissioners appeared to have been the provision of a comprehensive education to students selected from a feeder area within a six-mile radius. The number of schools was increased from 11 to 23 the same year and by 1944 the number had been further increased to 54 on the basis of one school per electorate.

The Central College was a well-defined self-contained unit both infrastructurally and institutionally. Each Central was built on a type-plan - a sort of prototype the characteristic buildings being sets of classrooms, assembly hall, science laboratories, library, work shops for special subjects, separate principal’s office, hostels for boys and girls and sometimes a mini-gymnasium. Most importantly, the principal had to reside within the premises in the quarters provided. Teacher’s quarters were provided in certain schools.

Almost all the Central Schools had classes up to HSC/University-entrance in the three streams, Science, Arts and Commerce with adequate facilities provided in all three streams. Regarding teacher cadre there was contentment both among the staff and students and that was a motivating factor.

The selection of teaching and other staff was done according to a predesigned specific cadre. The all round educational needs of the children were reckoned as the all-important factor and more than not, the principal was consulted in the matter of appointments. Some times he was invited to serve on the selection board. There was also the assumption that teachers selected to Central Colleges had to be necessarily proficient in some extra curricular activity and be willing to assist in the afternoons at no extra remuneration.

The authority of the principal was immune to any pressure, political or otherwise. The selection of the principal generally a Grade 1 officer by the PSC was solely on merit. Thus with self-confidence he could stand undeterred by fear (or favour) in the discharge of his duties. The principal’s ability, capacity in management and supervision were accepted not only by the local education office but also by other government departments. This recognition was vital in preserving the principal’s image.

That all Central Colleges without exception served the purpose for which they were established is borne out by the fact that a vast majority of our professionals and other governmental and non-governmental executives are the products of these Central Colleges. There are some critics though, who argue that these institutions did not serve the purpose for which they were originally meant, on the basis that most of the products of these schools have alienated themselves from the village! It just cannot be avoided. Can a qualified engineer or an accountant or a medical specialist be confined to his village! Social mobility cannot and should not be denied. Nor does it imply that they have ignored their roots.

Also do these critics realize that today, scholarship holders from the remotest parts of the island seek admission to the popular schools in the big cities, mainly Colombo, bypassing the erstwhile well-run Central colleges located in their own electorates or districts and that too, with the official approval of the ministry. Because, a majority of the original 54 Central Colleges have been neglected shorn off their early usefulness, many a student from the outstations and their parents have lost faith in these institutions.

When reflecting upon Central Colleges one cannot but visualize an aesthetically selected ideally located, self-contained unit all geared to cater to the diverse educational needs of a predominantly rural population giving effect to a sublime vision. It generates confidence in those that simply see it from without as well as those who have entered its portals. The mere sight of those early impressive buildings, evenly spread out over a spacious area is inspiring. Nestled among the verdant vegetation the site of a Central College, with hardly and exception offered a striking contrast to the urban school thrust into an environment of drabness, more by necessity than by choice, and none will disagree that such a healthy conducive environment is a sinequa-non to the all round development of children.

If there was an institution that gave validity to the axiom of equality of educational opportunity, it was the Central College. In whatever part of the island the opportunities afforded by these schools were similar, irrespective of any other differences.

In the good old forties judicious decisions were taken by statesmen-like representatives of the people. Once taken they were implemented unfalteringly. Both the policy makers and implementing officials were selflessly committed to a cause and a hierarchy of values was respected. Thus the system worked with sincerity of purpose, accountability and genuine transparency that characterized the period. Was it the nature of the legacy left behind by the very colonial masters whom we were later hoaxed by our own Brown Sahibs, to despise? All these too, contributed to the success of the then Central schools, in addition to the special attributes inherent in the system itself. If all the pros of the system are to be enumerated, the list would surely be too lengthy, to mention.

Free education was subsequently introduced in 1947. Free education has been popularly attributed to C. W. W. Kannangara, hailed as (the Father of free education.) However the paternity of the system has been, not infrequently, attributed to A. Ratnayake as well. Both were members of the then State Council in which Mr. Kannangara was in charge of the subject of education. It is a wellknown fact that Mr. Ratnayake representing Dumbara was very sensitive to the prevalent backwardness of the Kandyan peasantly due to their low literacy level and was quite eager to pulift them. It was only natural for a man of his sincerity, who having received his education at Royal College and ending up as the first graduate from the hill country, to strive to share those benefits of education with his less fortunate fellow beings, at least to an extent permissible. He saw free education as a means to achieve that end.

Hailing from the hamlet of Karannagoda, a few miles off Matugama, Kannangara’s experiences were somewhat different. The impact of missionary education at that time was being felt all along the western coastal belt, reaching a few miles inland to places like Hanwella, Hiniduma, Matugama etc. Contrasts and comparisons between the state run vernacular schools and the missionary schools were only too apparent to be lost sight of. The difference between the English educated upper middle class and the rest, representing the vernacular schools was becoming quite obvious. C. W. W. Kannangara no doubt, was a witness to this bifurcated socio-economic metamorphosis, in a changing social milieu. What other influences were brought to bear upon him, one cannot surmise. But one can safely assume that this secnario was germane to the establishment of Central Colleges in the nineteen forties, on an islandwide scale. With the introduction of free - education in 1947 there was a great influx of rural children to these newly established Central schools. Education of the rural masses was made more meaningful by making Central school Education absolutely free. It was C. W. W. Kannangara’s resolve that the type of education thus far considered exclusive to Colleges like Royal a prerogative of urban dwellers, be extended to rural children who were deserving of it. Never was taken a bolder step or a decision in the entire history of Sri Lanka’s education. He was the father of the Central school system.

The scholarship scheme and free - education enhanced such opportunities for the lesser privileged but deserving students from the rural areas. An islandwide survey of achievements by the Central College students at school and university levels plus the positions they hold in the various professional fields, has amply demonstrated the efficacy and success of the system.

With the introduction of free - education however there was naturally a clamour for admission to the newly established full-fledged Central schools. As was to be, political expediency motivated the then State Councillors to demand more Central Colleges for their respective districts. With the resulting expansion and other adjustment in the curriculum, there was a dilution in the original aims and objectives, to be achieved through a practical bias in education. The new emphasis was to model the Central College curriculum on the type of the urban English school, in the face of mounting pressure from the parent clientele. By 1947 - the year of free education - only 27 of the original 54 Central schools had the practical subject departments. In fact in 1951 the Kandyan Peasantry Commission in its observation deplored the complete absence of the agricultural bias in education. Still, for other reasons the popularity of the Central school continued to grow unabated during the fifties and early sixties. It was only a shift of emphasis in respect of the aims that had really taken place.

Periods of transition of education are as regular as the changing years. Not infrequently they became the plausible excuse both for political and bureaucratic lethargy and inaptitude, bungling not excluded. Central Colleges too were subjected to these so-called periods of transition in fact they were the victims of ad hoc changes. The early symptoms of the gradual decline can be traced to these periods. The tragedy was heightened by a gross inability of the administration to define the priorities in keeping with the original aims and also to interpret them correctly. Concurrently politicization too had gradually begun extending its tentacular grasp over the appointments to the public service. The M.Ps felt free to request the ministry authorities to "upgrade" existing Maha Vidyalayas (secondary schools) to Madya Maha Vidyalaya status, such requests were granted no sooner than they were made. There was a spate of such Madya Maha Vidyalayas (Central Colleges) with large name boards more copiously displayed were sans all those the attributes Central Colleges were endowed with. No student hostels, no playgrounds, no workshops for special subjects, no quarters for a resident principal or teachers. Appointments of Central College principals (Gr. 1 & Super Grade) which were hitherto the exclusive right of the PSC were taken over by the ministry, facilitating the numerous requests by the M.Ps who were keen to have their sycophants "looked after" reciprocating political favours. "This new breed of politically appointed principals were often accommodated to "look after the duties of the principal" as they lacked the requisite qualification and the experience, not to mention personality. Some of them lacked any competence in English it was argued that English was not needed in the "Swabhasha system". Their knowledge of education and educational administration was woefully pathetic; but none dared comment; the old order was changing yielding place to the new. Discontent, frustration, evasiveness, lethargy were the side-effects corollory to the rot that was setting in. Politicization, which was impacting the very institutions, was not considered unusual any more: rather it was accepted as the norm. Even the education office staff were eventually getting politically involved creating problems of internal administration. Accountability and decision making at staff officer levels were best evaded in such a set-up. One has to visualize the survival of the once popular, well-regulated Central Colleges in such a scenario as this.

By now the 54 original Central Colleges were gasping for breath. The powers that be, lacked the resolve to resuscitate them. Even if they had, they were incapable. And, did they dare? Probably not! - They were administratively impotent in the face of ascending political clout. The few old-time central school principals held on, fighting a losing battle against several odds. Changes were taking place fast. But were they changes for the better?

With political interference in appointments including that of the principals, performance levels came down perilously. Professionalism was being blatantly replaced by sycophancy. Indulgence in political manoeuvring by the generality of employees ranging form the principal to peon was a new phenomenon resorted to with a flourish. The few capable officials - if any were left by them - were relegated to a position of no significance. Threats in public and intimidation of officials by politicians became so rampant that rejuvenation of the public officer was beyond all possibility. No doubt the sychophant principal and the officers themselves too, were culprits guilty as major offenders.

Right now there is a search for the apparent inadequacy of the present education system. Every one seems to be talking of an effective National System, which they even fail to define. Depending on the microcosmic nature of the Central College, I personally feel at least a bit of what is probably meant by a "National System" could be achieved by expanding opportunities in education through a large network of resuscitated Central Schools extended to the remotest periphery.