Education in Sri lanka

In Search of the Use and Necessity of Volunteer Work in Schools

The System

Education is obligatory in Sri Lanka from the age of six up to sixteen. If a student wants to learn a trade, exemption is possible from the age of fifteen. The number of illiterate people in Sri Lanka is amongst the lowest in Asia: 11%. Depending on the region, lessons are in Singalese or Tamil. One clearly sees the colonial past of the country in its educational system. The English system still applies. In primary school, levels 1 up to and including 5 are taught. Levels 6-9 form the lower level of secondary school, levels 10 and 11 the upper. Levels 12 and 13 prepare for higher education.

During the first five years of school, the focus is on communication, environment, ethics, religion, play, spare time and learning how to learn. Apart from the regular primary schools, there are around 350 Buddhist Pirvena-schools in Sri Lanka, which amongst others educate Buddhist monks. Secondary education is subdivided into a lower and upper level. In secondary school, students take at least six different courses, of which one’s mother tongue and mathematics are obligatory. In year 11, students take an exam which gives access to preparatory higher education. During the last two years, 12 and 13, the focus is on rounding off the obligatory years, in which students choose a certain theme, which together with passing the exam gives access to higher education or university.

Schools for higher education have a selection committee, and only the students with the highest grades are accepted. Nation-wide, 20,000 students are admitted to university yearly (total population 21.2 million). In comparison: in The Netherlands, 276,713 students were registered for a bachelor or master education, on a total population of 17.1 million in September 2017. In Sri Lanka, places are assigned by lot, a process in which apart from the highest grades also the relevance of the courses that were taken in secondary school play a role. University is funded by the government, but travel and accommodation, books and materials are on one’s own account. Scholarships are available for excellent students who do not have the financial means to pay for additional costs.

If you are not one of the 20,000 lucky students, the only option is to study abroad. Because of the costs, this is only an option for the extremely rich.


Because obligatory education starts at the age of six, most children go to primary school completely unprepared. Initiatives for child care and informal kindergarten do exist. These help the children prepare to go to school.

Level of Education

The level of education in the countryside lacks compared to that in the cities. If parents can afford it, they send their children to a school in a town or city. The school where we worked for two weeks, is situated just outside of the city Galle. It is a big school, where all children, able-bodied and disabled, go to school together. The children we taught attended school in two separate classrooms. Their handicaps differed from autism to deafness, down’s syndrome and cognitive impairments.

A better education leads to a better future

A better education creates opportunities for the future. Apart from the economic and financial advantages offered by a good education, the sense of wellbeing also significantly increases. Unfortunately, the educational system in Sri Lanka does not offer this chance to everyone. Although schooling is obligatory and in principle free of charge, much depends on the financial means of the parents. These largely determine the level of education children will be able to follow, which is a significant factor in determining the future of the child. Money offers children an enormous head start. Prosperous families are usually families where both parents work, and where apart from financial means the living circumstances are stable and the parents are emotionally available. This significantly contributes to a bright future.

Children from broken families, for instance because one of the parents died, or because one or both parents work abroad (usually the mother), fall behind. Because of this, the road to a higher education for these children is most often cut off in advance. Apart from that, they usually do not have access to private schools or expensive remedial teaching. Also, travelling to a better school is usually not an option because of the costs.

Children from the poorest families usually do not attend school. Although children with a disability can go to school, they often do not. Because of the shame surrounding a disability, many handicapped children still lead hidden lives.

Plantation Schools

It is clear that obligatory education does not ensure successful schools. Apart from the fact that not all children in Sri Lanka go to school, almost half of them do not finish their education. The situation in plantation schools, where Tamil children are taught, is especially bad. In these schools, there is a severe shortage of materials and certified teachers. Illiteracy among Tamils is twice as severe as in the rest of Sri Lanka.

Village Schools

Under the palm trees, one finds little village schools. These are often very basic and consist of a single wall and some simple furniture. The girls wear a white dress, and their black hair is braided. The boys wear a white shirt and blue pants. The former English rule is easily recognizable.

In secondary school, apart from theoretical lessons, also practical lessens are taught. For children with learning problems, special technical classes exist. A significant cause for learning problems in Sri Lanka is malnutrition.

Volunteer Work in Schools

In many schools, volunteers come and visit for at least two weeks. During our stay, we worked in two different places. Apart from teaching children in the special classes in primary school, we also worked in a home for girls. It was a special experience to teach children with many different special needs. We taught basic English concepts, gave cooking- and swimming lessons.

Volunteer work evokes many critical questions, such as:

  • What is the quality of the lessons?
  • Who ensures continued learning?
  • What is the contribution of volunteers to the pedagogical climate?
  • When a volunteer sees a child getting mistreated, what action should be taken?
Children await there cookinglessons


Our journey added a new dimension to the way we think about the quality of education and the use and function of volunteer projects. We went to Sri Lanka thinking we would mean something for the children. Back in The Netherlands, we wonder what one can really contribute as a volunteer. Is the help of volunteers just a drop in the ocean, or is that single smile which makes someone happy what really counts?

Sri Lanka is a country in which the educational system is based on the British model. It is possible to get an education for any trade or theme, but it is a country in which it is very apparent that obligatory education and a broad array of different kinds of education do not guarantee success.

Unfortunately, photographing in or around schools is not allowed in Sri Lanka. We were able to make a few photo’s with our telephone. To give an impression of what we did, we added some schoolwork.