School Students who Benefit from the Sri Lankan Education System and its Evolution
School Students who Benefit from the Sri Lankan Education System and its Evolution

Are you another explorer who is mesmerized by the beautiful land of Sri Lanka? Indeed, you must be dreaming of exploring the history of Sri Lanka and its even incredible ruins too. While enjoying every bit of this beautiful Island –”the pearl of the Indian ocean” as it is famous worldwide, it is worth getting to know about the Sri Lankan education system, its history, its evolution, and so much more! Still, you have nothing to worry about! Towards the end of this article, you will be exposed to a complete overview of the history, the current education system in Sri Lanka, and its pros and cons.

Generally, Sri Lanka is a country that has a higher rate of literacy compared to that of the other South Asian countries. The latest literacy rate (of 2021) of adults over 15 years in Sri Lanka is 91.7%. As a developing country, there is a significant reason for Sri Lanka to be that literate. Mainly, it is a result of rich culture and education descending over centuries from ancient eras.  Thus, it is indeed important to have a look at the history of the Sri Lankan education system.

The education system in Sri Lanka has been evolving over several eras as follows.

It is an exciting journey of evolution with ups and downs in the system during each era. Further, it is worth discussing the challenges that the Sri Lankan education System faced during these eras. Furthermore, it is essential to have a look at the current moves and also future moves expected.

History of the Sri Lankan Education System before Independence

Under this topic, let us look back into the history of Sri Lankan education under a few sub-topics as follows.

  1. History of Sri Lankan Education System before the Arrival of King Vijaya
  2. The Arrival of Buddhism and the Refinement of the History of the Sri Lankan Education
  3. History of Sri Lankan Education during the Kingdom Eras
  4. History of Sri Lankan Education during the Colonial Period
  5. The Status of Sri Lankan Education after Independence

Let us now begin our exploration under each of these topics! 

1. History of the Sri Lankan Education System before the Arrival of King Vijaya

Before the arrival of King Vijaya, four main clans inhabited Sri Lanka. They were namely Yakka, Naga, Deva, and Raksha. Those tribes were separate groups who were less-cultured or not guided by true religion. There is no record of their educational system in the history of Sri Lanka. They were tribes who worshipped physical things like trees and unique animals or reptiles such as cobras.

Thus, there has not been a formal language or education during this time. People in those tribes may have gained day-to-day knowledge and guidance through their experience. The reason for the history not having been recorded during this period might probably be owing to the unavailability of a formal language or a system of writing during this period. 

However, Vijaya arrived here from India, where it had a rich culture enriched with Buddhism. Thus, the Brahmanical tradition began to educate the people in Thambapanni (Sri Lanka). The children of some higher families went to the Brahmins to receive lessons. Further, the student had to go to the teacher’s residence to receive lessons. Even today, we can find ancient inscriptions containing Brahmin characters at some historical places in Sri Lankan.      

2. The Arrival of Buddhism and the Refinement of the History of Sri Lankan Education

The very first language of the Island Lanka Dweepa then was Sanskrit. As the chronicles such as Mahawamsa reveal, Lanka inherited the Sanskrit language from North India. A group of Buddhist Monks arrived on the Island carrying the most valued Buddhism during King Devanampiyatissa’s reign. It is the best example to say that the history of Sri Lankan education dates back to more than 2300 long years! 

With the arrival of Buddhism and the introduction of Sanskrit, an education system began to start basically around the Buddhist temples. But this opportunity was open only for the males. The Buddhist monks were the teachers at the initial stages as they were adequately thorough in the language. The Buddhist monks learnt through the ‘Pirivena’ education or monastic colleges. As a result of this educational trend, the ancient people began to record history, unlike before. Those records are the world-famous Mahawamsa, Dipawamsa etc., which we use as great and most valued chronicles of Sri Lankan history.

3. The History of Sri Lankan Education during the Kingdom Eras

Education at the beginning of the Kingdom Eras mainly benefited the children of upper classes and casts. The Buddhist monks continued to deliver the lessons at the temples and ‘Piriwenas’.

During this period, the Sri Lankan education system mainly focused on religion, literature, arts and other self-defence arts or martial arts.

After following the martial art lessons for a particular period, the students participate in a talent show. This talent show took place in an arena. The students need to show their best talents in front of their teacher, parents and other invitees.

When talking about literature education, several talented poets and writers became popular during the Kingdom eras. The Kotte era is the best example of the same.

Religious education was majorly on Buddhism and Hinduism. These teachings and the education system were very well and firmly established in Lanka by this time. It provided a solid foundation for those who studied.

4. History of Sri Lankan Education during the Colonial Period

There is a historical argument that education has been a principal instrument in colonialism, being the education could help the rulers to build up a generation with their voice. It also helped to create a set of people who have inherited their social attributes and thinking patterns.

As you are aware, Sri Lanka is a country that underwent colonization over several centuries. Primarily, the control of the country’s coastal areas was in the hands of the Portuguese. The Portuguese then handed over the control to the Dutch, and finally the British.

The specialty in education during this period was the emergence of Christian missionary societies. Initially, during the Dutch period, the Anglican church took over the monopoly of government schools. However, the situation soon came to an end due to the establishment of the Colebrooke commission by the British rulers. However, still, several such schools exist in Sri Lanka. St. Thomas college-Mount Lavinia, Trinity College- Kandy, St. Paul’s Girls school-Milagiriya, and convents are schools as such.

Before this period, the main languages used in education were Sinhala and Pali. Nevertheless, with colonization, English became the teaching language of most educational institutes. This change took place mainly in schools in central cities. Catholicism became a subject at schools. One of the principal intentions of the colonial education system was to establish Catholicism in Ceylon and to make people learn and convert to the same. The schools taught Catholicism in Latin as well.

However, the people who benefited from the colonial education system were from the coastal areas. The Kandyans remained learning under the Sinhalese education system as before.

Meanwhile, the priority was given for the people educated in English, especially during the British period, to work in the state or administrative sector afterwards.

Education Towards the End of the Colonial Period

It is exciting and essential to see how the education system in Ceylon was towards the end of the colonial period, as is revealed by the historical, educational reports. Even the current education system has attributed the practices and the principles of the same design.

Significantly, the importance and the essentiality of the English language emerged during this period. It was considered as one of the factors for success. The English language was taught very successfully. In the beginning, the Dutch burghers received the benefit of being quickly educated in English. However, towards the latter part, around the 19th century, the English speaking Sinhalese and Tamil people coped up with the English education system.

It is not a secret that the said Sri Lankan education system created a class difference among society. Further, schools also began to be in two different types. They were the aided schools by the Government and the non –aided schools from the Government. The aided mainly were the schools which had the English education system. Some schools conducted the education bilingually while some in rural areas still practised in Sinhala medium.

The Challenges during the History of the Sri Lankan Education System

As mentioned earlier, the Sri Lankan education system also had to face different challenges from time to time. They were as follows.

  1. Decrease of attendance at schools
  2. Education in Ceylon for the females

The following sections would provide you a deeper insight with regard.

Decrease of Attendance at Schools

It was around the period between 1920-1930, that the country was hit by Malaria and food drought, due to which many students refrained from attending schools. While some caught the disease, most of the elder children earned a living for their families.

At this moment, that was in 1936, the requirement of supplying some food rather than education emerged. The introduction of the free mid-day meal for the school children in the rural areas took place at this juncture. The new practice was a success. It replied to both the issues-the health and attendance.

Another practice conducted in line with the education in Ceylon during the latter part of the colonization was agriculture. The food required for the free meals began to be grown on the school premises.

Education in Ceylon for the Females

The attention given to educating the females was significantly less in the olden days in Ceylon, whereas today, it is entirely the opposite. 

Later, C.W.W. Kannangara, who became the first education minister in Ceylon, initiated a great move. It led to an increase in the attendance of girls at schools. He set up a method to learn and master practical work through the subjects they know. These schemes provided knowledge of their roles in the future society as adults. Thus he could make way for the female students also to increase their attendance at the schools.

Dr C.W.W. Kannangara  and The History of Sri Lankan Free Education 

C.W.W. Kannangara or Cristopher William Wijekoon Kannangara was from the South of Sri Lanka. He was the first education minister who received the appointment at the state council of Ceylon in the 1920s. Formally, he was a mathematics teacher, and then he became one of those great personalities who worked for achieving independence in Sri Lanka. He was a lawyer and also a good speaker.

In the 1940s, his service to education in Sri Lanka was immense. There were significant educational reforms that took place during his period. The most valued was to provide free education to all students island-wide from the pre-grade up to the university. Besides 1945, was a remarkable year in the history of Sri Lankan education. Mr Kannangara could make free education a reality after facing all the hurdles which confronted him concerning this idea. It made way for the students, even in the rural areas, to benefit equally from the teaching. Unlike before, the class of the cast was no longer a measurement when receiving education. The primary language used in teaching changed to Sinhalese, which is the mother tongue of Sri Lanka. He also made English a subject taught at schools from Primary under this reform and the other native languages.

Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara stressed that the “educational system should provide for the training of the proper men and women for filling the proper places in the nation’s life”. He was so determined in this move. This reason made him famous among Sri Lankans as the ‘Father of Free Education’. He was in the position of the education minister in Sri Lanka for 16 long years. Sri Lankans commemorate him even at present due to this reason with great respect.

Further Services of C.W.W. Kannangara in the History of Sri Lankan Education

The establishment of central schools in every electorate was also one of his initiations that maintained equality. Along with the schools, the first university of Sri Lanka was also established under Dr C.W.W. Kannangara. As discussed before, Pirivenas also continued providing education to the Buddhist monks, and they were also facilitated accordingly.

After setting all these up, an advisory committee was also established to supervise if things happen as expected and to research how the changes should take place in the education system of Sri Lanka with the social changes from time to time.  

However, there was tension from the Catholic church against the reforms. They fought to establish a denominational system in the 19th century.

5. History of Sri Lankan Education after Independence

Receiving the free education facility during the latter part of colonization, Sri Lankans in sophisticated areas and rural areas benefited immensely.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948. By then, Sri Lanka stood as an independent state with no interference by any foreign ruler. After the educational reforms by Dr Kannangara, many other educational reforms took place following this.

Present Status of Education in Sri Lanka

Currently, Sri Lanka has a systematic and well-organized education system. The students are guided through the education path starting from the age of five until their higher studies are completed through more than 15 years in their lives. 

What are the Levels of Education in Sri Lanka?

The prevailing education system in Sri Lanka can be divided into three stages. They are namely : 

  1. Primary Education
  2. Secondary Education
  3. Tertiary Education

Let us have a look at what each stage looks like for a student in Sri Lanka.

1. Primary Education in Sri Lanka

The students start primary education at the age of 5 at the government schools. It is a span of 5 years from the 1st grade to the 5th grade and finishes after sitting for the scholarship exam at the age of 10.

A scholarship exam is a competitive examination. It is conducted for all the 5th Grade students at the government schools by the Department of Examinations under the Ministry of Education. The students who pass this exam, especially those from provincial schools, get the opportunity to enter the facilitated national schools or central schools in the country.

However, this is just a glimpse of Primary Education in Sri Lanka. Read our article on ‘Best Things to Know About Primary Education in Sri Lanka’ for a full overview.

2. Secondary Education in Sri Lanka

Secondary education in Sri Lanka consists of three parts. They are the Junior secondary, Senior secondary, and Collegiate levels.

i) Junior Secondary Level

This period is between the age of 10 to 14 of a student who enters a local school. The students in Sri Lanka receive junior secondary education from the 6th grade up to the 9th grade. The students are selected to continue their learning either in English or Sinhala/Tamil medium in the national schools. In Sri Lanka, education up to this level is compulsory for students between the ages 5-16 years of age.

ii) Senior Secondary Level

A Sri Lankan student benefits from the senior secondary level in school from the age of 15 until he or she completes 16 years. The grades that belong to this level are grade 10 to 11. In the 11th grade, they sit for the ordinary level examination (G.C.E. O/L) to complete their secondary education. The students in this level learn nine or ten subjects: Maths, Science, English, Sinhala, History, and religion as main subjects and other three or four subjects as the optional subjects. The optional subjects include aesthetic subjects, languages, or commerce. Each student should pass at least six subjects out of nine or ten subjects faced at the ordinary level exam, and that should include at least 3 C passes for the compulsory subjects (Maths, Science, Sinhala) to enter the Collegiate Level.

iii) Collegiate Level

Students can join the collegiate level in the same school or another school with better facilities depending on their ordinary level results. Students in the collegiate are between the ages 16-18 and in the grades 12 and 13. In the 13th grade, the students sit for their last examination in school life, which is the Advanced level examination (G.C.E. A/L)  

Children between 5 and 18 years of age must attend school under Sri Lanka’s education. During this period, the Government takes the responsibility to offer the textbooks related to each syllabus free of charge.

However, these are just a few features of secondary education in Sri Lanka. Refer to our article on ‘Best Things to Know About Secondary Education in Sri Lanka‘ for a better overview.

Besides, there are both government schools and private schools which include international schools covering primary and secondary education. So, let us get to know a bit about the international schools in Sri Lanka as well.

International Schools in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has International schools in almost every main city. The very first establishment was Colombo International School or C.I.S. as it is popular. It was in 1982. Then onwards there are many international schools which were established around the island. Most of them are registered under the BOI (Board of Investment).

Most international schools operated in Sri Lanka have classes from the Kindergarten level up to the Advanced level. There is no scholarship exam for the students in International schools as the government schools. However, at the age of 16, the students sit for the ordinary level examination and advanced level examination in the 13th grade. That is under the Cambridge syllabus. They teach both the local and the Cambridge syllabuses at certain international schools, while at the other international schools, they teach only the Cambridge syllabus. The international schools are mainly aiming to serve the students who migrate to Sri Lanka from foreign countries. That includes the Sri Lankans and also the students who belong to other nationalities.

3. Tertiary Level of Education

The tertiary level of education in Sri Lanka means university education after passing through the National Advanced level examination in the 13th grade. Only the students who pass up to a certain expectation (decided by an average score called the ‘z score’) would get the university entrance opportunity.

State Universities of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has 15 state-owned universities. All these universities offer free education and even for students who come from low-income families.

There are academic faculties at these universities, namely Medicine, Engineering, Science, social sciences, commerce, and arts. These universities offer 3 to 5-year bachelor’s degrees or postgraduate-level degrees.

  1. Certificate (After one or two years at the university) – Level 1
  2. Diploma – Level 2
  3. Bachelor’s Degree – Level 3: After three years as a  general degree or after four years as an especial degree. In medicine faculty, it is after five years, including an internship of one year


  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
  • Bachelor of Science (BSc.)
  • General and Special Degrees Bachelor of Commerce (BCom)
  • Bachelor of Medicine &  Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS)
  • Bachelor of Laws (L.L.B.)

It is completing the first stage in higher education in Sri Lanka in a state university.

Upon completing the first stage, a student can continue on to the second stage of studies.

4. Master Degree – Level 4: Achievable after two years of studies following the Bachelor’s Degree and could be continued up to 3 years after the Master’s Degree


  • MA: Master of Arts
  • MSc: Master of Science
  • MBA: Master of Business Administration
  • Ph.D.: Doctor of Philosophy

Several postgraduate institutes in Sri Lanka where the students can follow their Master’s studies are as follows.


  • Postgraduate Institute of English
  • Postgraduate Institute of Science
  • The Postgraduate Institute of Management Postgraduate institute
  • Postgraduate Institute of Medicine
  •  Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies
  • The Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture
  • Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology

However, entering a state university is a challenge as there are fewer facilities. Generally, from the achievers at the GCE A/L examination, only around 6% of the students can enter these universities for the same reason.

What happens if Someone becomes Ineligible for a State University?

Nevertheless, if a student could not enter a state university in Sri Lanka, there are many other higher education opportunities available within the country. Some of those institutes are owned and managed by the government where students could receive free higher education or for a concessional rate.

Here are a few of such institutes.

  1. Vocational and technical schools
  2. National colleges of education
  3. Vocational training

The following sections briefs about each for your information.

Vocational and Technical Schools

There are around 39 technical colleges in Sri Lanka. They are functioning under the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training. These schools create space for the students to obtain technical educational and professional training related. They offer diplomas with durations such as one or two years.

National Colleges of Education

There are around 19 colleges of education in Sri Lanka. The students who did not grant university entrance could join these colleges. The minimum qualification for admission is three passes at the GCE A/L examination. These colleges offer three -year teacher training diplomas. 

Vocational Training

There is a Vocational training Institute in Sri Lanka through which the students can learn up to the degree level. There are more than 150 courses aiming at several popular occupations, and there are around 263 vocational training centers island-wide. 

Private Universities in Sri Lanka

Currently, there are a number of private universities in Sri Lanka, as the Sri Lankan government has recognized the value and the role of non-governmental universities. Most of them are inter-connected with the well recognized foreign universities and work under their curriculum. Non-governmental or private universities are one reason local and international students attract Sri Lanka. These universities display high colours at the national and international level after evolving over the years.

However, all these universities are under a legal framework by the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure quality, accreditation, registration, and regularization. During their journey from the past until today, the private universities of Sri Lanka have improved in many facets. They include the constantly improving quality of education and other facilities such as infrastructure.

Education at the Private Universities in Sri Lanka

They offer several undergraduate and postgraduate diplomas and degrees for students who wish to accomplish their higher education. Accredited by the relevant educational authorities, these private universities have an excellent cadre of lecturers. Generally, the lecturers in private universities are qualified people who are engaged in the relevant field. Thus, they share first-hand experience with the students, enabling them to face their future career life easily.

There are around 51 private higher education institutions in Sri Lanka that have granted BOI permission to conduct degree programs. Twenty-nine out of those are correctly functioning.

Meanwhile, there are many other properly functioning private universities such as the aviation colleges, where international students come to follow courses under local instructors. It is always better to contact the university you select. You should go through their details before selection and know which foreign university it is connected to. As a student, you need to carefully select the best out of the best in Sri Lanka.

Besides, if you need to learn more about the Higher education facilities in Sri Lanka, make sure you read our article on ‘Higher Education in Sri Lanka, the Best Path for a Professional Career‘ as well.

Current Issues in Sri Lanka Education System

The commencement of the free education system in Sri Lanka dates back to nearly 75 years from today. At that time, the relevant authorities of education had organised the education system to bring better results; thus, it supported the future of those who studied.

However, the issue is, the shadows of the same education system still exist in the current education system in Sri Lanka. Despite some changes made from time to time after discussions of these issues, there is no complete change made to eliminate the system’s negative impact on the professional, economic and social life of the people in Sri Lanka.

Let’s discuss some of the significant issues identified in the education system in Sri Lanka in detail.

1. Lack of Equal Access to Quality Education

Sri Lanka has indeed managed to secure its place as a highly literate country. It has also become a country with one of the best education systems in South Asia based on primary and secondary education. Nevertheless, when it comes to tertiary education, there is an issue. It is a somewhat serious matter but not appropriately addressed yet. Namely, the issue is the discrepancy in access to quality education in Sri Lanka.

The students in the estate areas and the most rural areas do not receive tertiary education of the same quality as students in an urban area. One reason for this is the lack of infrastructure. That includes lab equipment, computers and internet facilities. Further, in some places, there are no sufficient desks and chairs or proper buildings. When it comes to education in this era, students worldwide are capable of searching and researching the subject matter on computers and gaining first-hand knowledge through experiments. But this facility is far from reaching those far apart from the country’s capital. A significant part of the money allocated for education in the country benefits the famous schools in the capital and other urban areas.

Furthermore, there is a lack of knowledgeable teachers in these schools to deliver the subjects to the students. The talented teachers from the rural areas go to work at the famous schools. Thus, the teachers who are with basic knowledge are left to teach at the small schools. They are not sufficiently computer literate and technically knowledgeable about delivering the knowledge gathered through the internet. Whereas the schools in the capital of Sri Lanka and other national schools in the urban areas receive education through the best and talented teachers using smart devices and computers as aids. 

2. Insufficiency of Technical Education and Practical/Job-related Training

Another problematic feature of the education system in Sri Lanka is the lack of technical education and vocational training within the syllabuses. Being well educated theoretically and practically both in the technical field are skill-trained citizens. It could bring significant benefits for a country for an economically secured future. It can also be beneficial for foreign employment.

However, implementation of such a practice in society happens only if their education delivers it to the people.  Thus, the lack of technical and job-related training during the tertiary level is a matter that should be addressed.

After many debates on this matter occasionally during history, there is considerable progress in the current system of education in the country. A new Advanced Level subject stream on the technical subjects has been introduced since 2013. That includes Science for technology, engineering technology and bio-system technology, Information Technology and some other practical subjects.   Further, there are several vocational training centres established in the country. However, the question still exists whether those vocational training centres provide adequate knowledge and market skills required. It is by looking at the educated unemployment rate in the country. An excellent technical and vocational training system oriented in delivering skills at a greater level to create income-generating jobs is in higher demand.

3. The Qualifications Gained not being Responsive to the Requirements in the Job Market

In Sri Lanka, educated unemployment is very frequent. Here, educated means at least Ordinary level qualified. After completing tertiary education, the youths expect to join the workforce of Sri Lanka. However, the finding is, they are not equipped with the adequate skills demanded by the income-generating work world. The issue is that the qualifications gained at tertiary and even higher education do not adequately address the requirements in the job market. This issue also links with the lack of technical education.

Furthermore, the majority of the unemployed are those who followed the arts streams. The number of people who complete higher education in the art stream is as high as the other streams. It has resulted in generating a group of people who are technically less educated. In the 21st century, a majority of jobs require technical training. At least computer literacy and skills are in high demand for any sector of work. Even the most fundamental teaching jobs need computer literacy skills to deliver primary education to the children at a standard level. Thus, there is a requirement of restructuring the tertiary education system to include practical, technical and skill-generating subjects.

However, the international curriculum practised at the international schools and the education delivered at the private higher educational institutes linked to the foreign universities does not have this issue in their system. The educational authorities in Sri Lanka are in the process of solving this matter for the state sector as well, after accessing current issues that snowball. Thus, there is room for a positive change in the near future in the field of education in Sri Lanka.

Future of the Education System in Sri Lanka

There is no second thought that there would be a higher demand for a workforce that would deliver skills and competencies required for the current and future labour markets in the future. Especially with the coming fourth industrial revolution and the technology-based economy, producing quality and a skilled workforce with an adequate quantity is challenging.

The relevant authorities have identified this need in the educational sector in Sri Lanka. They are also looking into reforms in education and have already started some changes in tertiary education by including Science, Technological, Engineering and Mathematical studies in their syllabuses.

Meanwhile, implementing the online education system with covid 19 is also a positive move in the Sri Lankan education system. It is a path that has automatically opened up for the students to learn and practice in the modern method. Further, several schools, both in the private and state sectors, have started using “smart classroom” methods to broaden the student learning process through “smart boards”.

However, the disparity of resources within the country would not receive a complete solution shortly. Sri Lanka being a developing country, cannot bear the high costs of devices and online learning-related facilities. Thus, the resources are normally limited to the urban areas.

The Bottom Line

To conclude this complete overview of the history of the Sri Lankan education system and its evolvement, it is important to mention that Sri Lanka is a country that has an education system with a strong root. It is currently continuing pretty well, gaining strength from its primary origin. The timely requirements are being identified from time to time. There are places where it should be corrected and can perform better.

The hurdle is being a developing country, but there is potential to make changes little by little. There is an optimistic hope that Sri Lanka would improve the quality of education much better, continuing to be a country with one of the best educational systems in the Asian region. The aim should be to maintain its high literacy rate and reasonably support the future knowledge economy.