President Kumaratunga’s presidency implemented policies aimed at building upon Sri Lanka’s standing as the regional success story in education (with a 92.5% adult literacy rate and 95% primary school enrollment rate even in war time) by gearing students at all levels with the knowledge, critical and creative thinking skills, and resources needed to gain a competitive edge in an English speaking and science and information technology oriented global economy.
Concurrently, the Navodya schools infrastructure development initiative and the provision of non-formal education centers and adult literacy programmes sought to overcome remaining national infrastructure inadequacies and obstacles to access. Moreover, strategic investment in teacher and administrator training along with the institution of a competitive and evaluative process for textbook selection was integral to strengthening the classroom experience.
Her tenure also saw the establishment of seven new universities island-wide and the creation of interdisciplinary courses to meet the demand from the growing number of capable and ambitious and high-school graduates. A much needed private education regulatory framework was also introduced to assess private educational opportunities that could help balance the capacity issues faced at the public level.
The tens of thousands of casualties and widespread destruction of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami near the end of her final term presented President Kumaratunga with perhaps the greatest challenge to the immense progress made. Spearheading the rehabilitation process the she crafted plans to rebuild damaged school and improve neighboring ones on the foundation of resilience and resolve of the Sri Lankan people and herself.
President Kumaratunga envisioned enriching education to empower future generations. Her overarching mission was to modernize education to help young people to be valuable citizens of Sri Lanka with a competitive edge in a global setting.
A Presidential Task Force was appointed including academics, experts from the education sector and private sector to study the recommendations of the National Education Commission and help formulate a National Policy.
The set of reforms based on the recommendations of the National Education Commission were implemented beginning in 1997. The National Education Commission's findings and recommendations were based on wider public consultation on existing problems and issues in the education sector. The recommendations covered General education, University education and Technical and Vocational education.
Education Reforms of 1997
• 1997 was designated as the "Year of Educational Reforms" and propelled Sri Lanka to a new dimension in education; a major breakthrough away from traditional methods was achieved and focused progress made creating a new culture of creative thinking and learning.
• Educating 'Human Capital' was recognized as a primary tool in leveraging the country's prospects by the Government, which showed a will and an unwavering commitment to expand and enrich the quality of education.
• The reforms of 1997 were grounded on enhancing life competencies and upholding the value of peace and social cohesion. The task at hand was to lay a firm foundation from which the existing culture of memory based, examination oriented teaching could be transformed into a thinking, creative and problem solving learning culture.
• High on the agenda was to minimize the gap between the education and the labour market requirements by making quantum improvements; in education, promoting access, ensuring equitable allocation of resources and providing adequate infrastructure facilities and support.
• Exceptional emphasis was given to competency-based education, special education and inclusive education, empowering students with knowledge in ICT and English education to reduce regional disparities in enrolment, achievements in improving teacher competence and commitment was also introduced.
• The reforms of 1997 have already reaped rich dividends and Sri Lanka has made impressive advances in education. Further enhancements are planned in the coming years as the country forges ahead towards excellence in education.
Setting the foundation towards Education Reform
1994 - Sri Lanka Teacher Service set up to enhance status of teachers.
Sri Lanka Principal Service set up to enhance status of school principals.
1995 - Non-formal technical unit assumes role of provider of non-formal education to non- school going children and provide literacy programmes for adults.
1997 - Major education reforms stimulating a wave of progress in primary, secondary and tertiary education.
National ICT education drive launched.
Implementation of the second phase and third generation education reforms. During the second wave curriculum reforms, examination and text book reforms were also launched.
1998 - Compulsory Education Regulations introduced to ensure the enrollment of all children aged 5-14 in schools. School Attendance Committees and School Attendance monitoring Committees were established to facilitate enrollment.
1999 - 'Navodya Schools Programme' was launched to develop at least one school of excellence per administrative division.
2001 -English medium education was reintroduced in GCE A/L
Science and for selected subjects in secondary schools
The subsequent increased investment in education has paid rich dividends and the country is widely considered a success story in achieving high levels of human development. The primary paradigm shift witnessed was in the philosophy of education; where from 'teaching rudimentary' to 'learning competencies', paved the way for a vibrant 21st century generation of creative thinkers ready to take on the challengers of knowledge -based economies in the globalized world.
Government Expenditure for Education (in Million)
Enactment of Compulsory Education Regulations
This paved the way for School Attendance Committees, who were tasked with ensuring that all children of school going age (5 to 14 years) enrolled at a school. Once students were enrolled, the Committees also monitored their attendance and this in turn was monitored at Divisional Levels.
Literacy Centre Programmes were launched by the Non-Formal Education Branch to provide alternative education opportunities to non-school going children. The literacy centers conducted classes at flexible times and implemented a condensed curriculum seeking to instill essential skills.
These were launched with the support of non-governmental organizations to create awareness.
A four pronged strategy was adopted in 1997 to bring about quality improvements to the existing education system:
Revision of school curricula and text books
Primary, junior secondary and senior secondary curricula have been revised with the focus on modernizing knowledge, made more child centered, activity based and towards employment opportunities.
Introducing new methodology for teaching and learning
New curriculum reforms were introduced to the teaching cadre through an orientation programme while in-service. Teacher training, both pre-service and in-service was emphasized in-depth under the new reforms. Interaction between students in the learning process and the increased use of education technology was also encouraged.
Providing quality input to schools
With the focus shifting to activity-based learning methods, schools required teaching aids and material for classrooms. A large amount of funds were allocated to upgrade classrooms and to purchase other requirements.
Improving the management of educational institutions
It was recognized that reforms could only be implemented successfully if schools were managed efficiently. Thus schools principals were given management training. The reform programme was assisted by major international development partners including; the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UNICEF, DFID, JICA/JBIC, GTZ and CIDA who undertook specific activities. It was however important to note that 90% of the expenditure was financed by the state.
There are three stages of education provided within the system in Sri Lanka:
• General education
- Junior Secondary
- Senior Secondary
• Tertiary and University education
• Vocational Training
1 to 5
Junior Secondary Education
6 to 9
Senior Secondary Education
GCE(O/L) & GCE(A/L)
The Government of Sri Lanka, as a policy, provides free education from the primary stage to general education, to the first-degree level of university education. According to regulations enacted under the Education Ordinance, education is compulsory from age 5 to 14 years. This span covers grades one to nine. Although the compulsory span ends at Grade 9, over 83% of children proceed to the next grade. The Government contemplated extending the upper age limit of compulsory education to 16 years.
Under the reforms of 1997, curricular and teaching methods across all these stages were revamped with focus shifting to the creation of a generation of well-rounded citizens who were employable and ready to face the challengers of the future.
All public schools examinations are conducted by the National Evaluation and Testing Services of the Ministry of Education. Since 2000, the Ministry was vested with a new building equipped with modern facilities. The following reforms were made in the examination and testing services under the reforms of 1997:
• The Grade 5 Scholarship examination paper was been revised and remodeled to test deductive thinking, analytical and application skills of students.
• Both GCE O/L and A/L examinations were reviewed to raise the standards of achievement to be on par with developed countries.
• General knowledge was been introduced as a compulsory examination paper at the GCE A/L.
• Introduction of School-Based Assessment (SBA). The grades achieved by students during term assessments are also taken into consideration towards the General Education Certificates.
• The newly created National Evaluation and Testing Services was tasked with reducing delays in releasing annual evaluation reports of exam results on students' performance at the GCE (O/L) and GCE A/L examinations. This provided a performance profile of students by school, education zone and province to facilitate comparisons at various levels for follow-up action.
The present schools system which has evolved over the past two centuries, now involves 9766 government schools and 54 private schools as well as 607 Buddhist Centers of learning.
Categories of Schools:
Type of Schools
Most senior class offered
GCE(A/L)(Science, Commerce and Arts)
GCE(A/L)Arts and Commerce only)
Grade 5,and some cases Grade 8
Schools, Students and Teachers in government schools by Provinces (2004):
Total Number of Schools
Total Number of Students
Total Number of Teachers
Students Per Schools
Student – Teacher Ratio
Many of these schools had only basic facilities and the reforms of 1997 proposed refurbishment and improvement in schools to suit modern learning needs.
Steps were taken to refurbish and rebuild modern facilities such as upgrade classrooms, IT laboratories, introduce fully fledged science laboratories, activity rooms, libraries, aesthetic units, home science units and play areas.
The Total Quality Development (TQD) Programme
This Programme undertook to develop the physical infrastructure in schools with modern facilities. The TQD was first implemented at 440 Navodya Schools and 324 National Schools and then rolled out across all schools countrywide.
Navodya Schools - Taking education to the periphery:
The Navodya Schools concept was formulated by President Kumaratunga as part of her electoral programme in 1994, in keeping with her vision to expand opportunities of quality education to children in disadvantaged and deprived areas of the country, and to ensure equity in the provision of quality education.
Under the Navodya Programme, a Center for Education Excellence was created and sustained in each of the administrative divisions in the country. President Kumaratunga herself developed a new approach while she was Chief Minister of the Western Province, which was then adopted by the Government after 1994.
Schools were developed in a holistic manner. The traditional approach of providing fragmented ad-hoc facilities, failed to improve the quality of infrastructure in schools. Under the holistic approach which spearheaded infrastructure development, the current infrastructure stock of a school was matched against the infrastructure needs of the particular school for qualitative improvement. The needs gap was identified through this exercise and resources channeled to fill these needs.
The schools were modernized with pleasing landscape, and enhanced attractive physical appearance. The classrooms, laboratories, libraries, computer labs, aesthetic units, activity rooms, play areas multimedia units of these schools were being transformed into hives of activity where teachers and students enthusiastically engaged in well planned learning activities.
When the killer waves of 26 December 2004 receded, it rapidly become clear that education was one of the worst hit areas of civic life.
182 schools took the brunt of the disaster; 74 were completely destroyed and 108 partially damaged, while 444 others were used as welfare camps to house the hundreds left homeless. The tsunami was experienced by nearly 91,000 students and 3700 teachers. It was also witnessed by another 264,000 schoolchildren.
President Kumaratunga headed the entire tsunami Reconstruction Programme and paid special attention to the Education and Health Sectors as well as Housing. As the Minister of Education, she directed her officials within a few days of the disaster, to commence relief and recovery activities.
The Ministry of Education assessed and evaluated the damage caused to schools across the affected areas, recognizing that its response must be speedy with strategic direction to suit the emergency. Mindful of the donor driven agenda, post-tsunami education recovery programmes were formulated within the guild lines of the Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies.
In January 2005, reconstruction and rebuilding got underway to reconstruct 182 schools damaged by the Tsunami at a cost of Rs. 10 Billion. Another x schools situated in close proximity to the damaged schools were also rehabilitated at an estimated cost of Rs. 3 Billion.
The priority of the education Ministry was to ensure that affected communities were empowered and encouraged to actively participate in the reconstruction process, and to ensure that mere symbolic consultation and token participation avoided.
The number of universities in Sri Lanka has doubled since 1994; from nine to sixteen. In order to increase enrolment seven new universities were established in the country since 1997.
• Rajarata University of Sri Lanka
• Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka
• Eastern University of Sri Lanka
• South Eastern University of Sri Lanka
• Wayamba University of Sri Lanka
• Uva University of Sri Lanka
• Visual and Performing Arts university
The establishment of new universities has helped increase the intake in 1993 by twofold in 2005. However nearly 85% of qualified students are still denied a place in University as there remains an insufficient number of universities.
Student Enrolment in Conventional State Universities:
Year of A/L Examination
The policy on University Admission involves a quota system, whereby students are students are selected on the following basis
Reforms in the University education:
All Island Merit - 40%
District Merit - 55%
Educationally Underprivileged Districts - 5%
Government Expenditure for University Education (in Million):
Reforms in the University Education:
The Reforms have brought immense improvements to the quality of undergraduate programmes available at Sri Lankan Universities
A course unit and modular system of education together with continuous assessment have been successfully implemented across the higher education sector, while the semesters at universities across the country have been subject to synchronization.
Curricula were reformed and broad-based, with greater emphasis on new relevant areas such as IT, English and Management while peace and social cohesion were woven into the under graduates programmes.
Under graduates are now provided with greater flexibility in selecting their subject combinations. Meanwhile standards at universities are constantly being monitored through quality assurance and accreditation.
New degrees in other areas available at seven national universities:
• Environment conservation and Management
• Facility Management
• Transport and Logistic Management
• Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
• Statistical and Operations Research
• Computation and Management
• Marine and Fisheries Biology
• Islamic Studies and Arabic Language
• Science and Technology
• Computer Science and Technology
• Entrepreneurship and management studies
• Animal science and Export Agriculture
New Paramedical degrees are also available at four national universities.
Achieving universal primary education is considered an MDG of central importance to child welfare and the economic future of a country.
By 2002, Sri Lanka had accomplished all the Millennium Development Goals in Education and according to the World Bank report titled ‘Attaining the Millennium Development Goals in Sri Lanka’, February 2005, the report states ‘Sri Lanka is easily the best performer in South Asia when it comes to its performance on primary schooling indicators’.
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
Target 3: Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling
6. Net enrolment ratio in primary education
1996 - 95.7
2002 - 96.3
11 - 14 years
1996 - 93.8
2002 - 96.3
7. Proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach grade 5
1990 - 68.1
2002 - 95.6
8. Literacy rate of 15-24 year-olds
2001 - 95.6
Source: Selected Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Indicators – Department of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka, January 2005