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The politics, policies and progress of basic education in Sri Lanka

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:33 authored by Angela W Little
Sri Lanka is hailed internationally for her achievements in literacy, educational enrolment and equality of educational opportunity. However, progress has not been straightforward due to the complex interactions between politics, policy formulation, and the implementation of reforms. This dynamic process has often led to contradictory outcomes. This monograph describes and analyses the political drivers and context of educational reform from the colonial era to the present before an in-depth exploration of the origins and implementation of the comprehensive 1997 education reforms. Much of the evidence referring to the later period has been drawn from extensive interviews with 20 senior members of Sri Lanka’s education policy community. From 1931 to 1970 education policies were driven by the need to assert national control over an inherited colonial system and to create a unified system of education. Policy formation relied heavily on debate in public and in parliament, following practices of governance inherited from the former colonial master. The implementation of reforms was largely undertaken by bureaucrats and teachers without interference from politicians. This policy environment changed markedly during the 1970s as decisions regarding education came to be largely driven by the need to contain rising youth unrest. Debate was stifled both in the public domain and in parliament, and politicians became increasingly involved in the day-to-day practices of education, especially those concerning teacher transfers. The 1997 education reforms were comprehensive, including programmes to ensure universal access to basic education and improvements in learning outcomes. They attracted considerable ‘political will’, a vague but much vaunted term in the international policy discourse. Yet, despite seemingly high levels of national political will, reform has not been plain sailing. School rationalisation has been impeded by community resistance and by bureaucratic demands insensitive to local conditions and cost constraints. The reforms in junior secondary education have been inhibited by weak leadership, lack of planning, heavy curriculum demands, and the absence of a pilot programme. The monograph explores the connections between the political and technical drivers and inhibitors of reform in practice and argues that low-level, as well as high-level political will, has played an active part in determining whether formulated policies are translated into action on the ground. Bi-partisan support for education policy is essential if implementation is to endure.


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Brighton, UK

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  • Education Publications


Institute of Education

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