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Fitting tribute to a leader with a vision


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Education Minister of the State Council era, C.W.W. Kannangara – known to everyone as the Father of Free Education – well deserves to be with the early Prime Ministers in the premises of the one-time Parliament premises which was a familiar place for him for two decades. 

He was Minister of Education for 16 years at a stretch, and as Minister of Local Government for a short stint of four years being denied the education portfolio when he returned to Parliament in 1952 staging a comeback after losing the general election in 1947.

For Central Colleges’ Past Pupils’ Association to come up with the idea of setting up a bronze statue at this venue (now the Presidential Secretariat) with the blessings of the President’s office is a fine token of gratitude. The association was set up with the participation of students of the first 54 Madya Maha Vidyalayas (first known as Central Schools and later as Central Colleges) set up during Minister Kannangara’s lifetime. (He passed away on 23 September 1969 at the age of 85 – born on 13 October 1884).

Hailing from Randombe, Ambalangoda, Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara was an exceptionally bright student at Richmond College – Galle, excelling in mathematics. He was a lawyer by profession and entered national politics when he was elected to the Legislative Council of 1923 winning a by-election for a seat in the Galle District. 

After entering the State Council in 1931, he was elected Chairman of the Executive Committee on Education thereby becoming the first Minister of Education of Sri Lanka. The other members of the Committee of were H.W. Amarasuriya, W.T.B. Karaliyadda, A. Ratnayaka, G.R. De Zoysa, P.E. Madawela and Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe – most of whom, if not all, continued to be prominent persons in national politics.

He retained the position when he was re-elected in 1936. He also served as a member of the War Council during World War II (1939-45).

Education reforms

With the term of the State Council being extended, the same Executive Committees continued to function thus enabling Minister Kannangara to formulate education reforms hitherto unknown in the country. These were targeted towards ensuring that education was provided with equal opportunities for all children in the country, irrespective of social class, economic condition, religion and ethnic origin.

A special committee appointed in 1942 with Minister Kannangara as chairman to report on the status of education in the country recommended reforms aimed at for providing “lasting value to the nation”. 

Among the main recommendations were that:

nEducation should be free from the Kindergarten to the University.

nThe mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in the Primary Schools.

nEnglish should be taught in all schools from standard III.

nA curriculum for the child which would develop its “head, heart and hands” should be introduced.

In short, it meant that the education of the emotions is as necessary as the education of intellect and practical ability for the well-being of the child.

The establishment of Central Schools be modelled upon Royal College in locations outside major cities was also proposed by him. (The first Central School was established in Matugama.)

His was not an easy path. While some recommendations were accepted, he had to fight hard to implement others, particularly to push through the Free Education Bill. Those with vested interests, especially the socially and economically privileged groups opposed him. After two years, on 1 October 1945 education was made free of charge for all students. It was also decided to ensure that every student was provided with instruction in the religion of his/her parents, to prevent teachers from being exploited by managers of schools (they were in charge of assisted schools) by having their wages paid directly by the government and to make adequate provisions for adult education in the country.

He summed up his ‘struggle’ thus: “In spite of the fierce and most dogged opposition from a large and very influential section of the people of my land, in spite of abuse and calumny, vilification and ridicule, I have succeeded in obtaining the sanction of the State Council of Ceylon for a scheme of free education, providing for all children of the land equal opportunities to climb to the highest rung of the educational ladder, from the kindergarten to the university, irrespective of the status of financial capacity of their parents, and for obtaining for our national languages their rightful place in that scheme as an essential prerequisite for building up a free, united and independent nation.”

He may not have achieved everything that he wanted to. At least he laid the structural foundations of a new system which have remained to this day. 

(Based on Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Foundation website information.)


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