S B Dissanayake - Minister of Higher Education

I was asked recently for a comment regarding what was termed the Higher Education Ministry’s controversial decision to make the Advanced Level General English paper compulsory for those seeking University Entrance beginning from 2011. The question was whether this was fair, given the absence of English teachers at schools. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to which I had spoken on this issue, had also been told that there were over 1,400 schools without a single English teacher.

My response was incorporated in an article, perfectly reasonably, given constraints of space, but I thought I should reproduce it more fully, and with further clarifications given the questions that were raised.

I checked the decision with the Ministry and found that the requirement that has been introduced is that all candidates for university must sit the exam. It is not compulsory to pass.


This will give the universities they enter an idea as to their level so that remedial teaching can be done as needed. Now each university has a placement test after students enter, which takes time and money, ignoring the already existing exam that is in theory compulsory, to the extent that all schools are meant to teach for it.

The reference to the report to the LLRC was about schools in general. There certainly is a shortage, but it is not in schools that have A/L classes. Almost all deprived schools are small urban as well as rural schools. Obviously I cannot speak for all, but no school I know that has A/L classes is without English teachers.

On the contrary, many schools with such teachers do not use them, with the periods allocated for English at Advanced Level being taken for other purposes since English is not compulsory and hence not taken seriously. Though students who go on to university have a chance to catch up, and many now do this seriously, those who do not get into university continue deprived.

Some A/L English teachers have extra free time and indeed, as is well known, there is an excess of English teachers in a few prestigious schools that do A/Ls. Others are used in junior classes. Making taking the exam compulsory will ensure a better use of existing resources.

I suggested therefore, since so many facts are either ignored or else reported misleadingly, a study of all schools that offer A/Ls, which amount to around half of the total I think. Increasing the number of A/L qualified students with English will also increase the pool of potential English teachers, not just for the small schools which now don’t have them, but also for vocational courses.

I was not sure why the JVP insists the new decision will be harmful, since no one is harmed, except in having to sit an examination that has in any case been called compulsory. On the contrary, making schools with resources teach for it, which is now not done, can only help  youngsters who now find getting jobs difficult. We need to remember that the vast majority of those who sit the Advanced Level do not get admission to university, and they can only benefit from added knowledge and skills that are helpful in seeking jobs.

In fact the Ministry must be congratulated for having thought of a scheme that can only benefit everyone, without causing any harm at all. Those of us who were involved in starting a General English paper at Advanced Level, a decade ago, have been wondering for years as to how we could ensure that it was taken seriously. The small numbers sitting for the examination, unlike for the Common General Paper testing General Knowledge and Thinking Skills that we introduced at the same time, show that General English is largely ignored. There were protests at the time the Common General Paper was made compulsory, in a true sense, but results over the years have shown that it is not a problem for our bright and able students nationwide. I have no doubt that the Minister’s decision will ensure that students who now get no English in schools – unlike those in privileged urban schools – will get better treatment, and a more effective use of resources that are now not used.