School choice: the case of Sri Lankan international schools

Virandi Wettewa

PhD thesis, conferred 2015

Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural state comprising of four major ethnic groups speaking three languages. The ‘Swabasha’ policy requires all students to be educated in their mother tongue perpetuating ethnic segregation along linguistic divides. State owned, semi-governmental and private schools follow the National Curriculum under the Ministry for Education. In 1961, Sri Lanka banned the establishment of any new private schools in the country. Private schools as well as English medium education started during British rule were seen to evoke colonial pro-elitist sentiments and symbolize a driving force for social stratification.

Since then, there has been a profusion of institutions claiming to be ‘International Schools’. These schools exist within a loophole in the legal framework, established under the ‘Company’s Act’ and welcome students from all linguistic backgrounds to study in the English medium. However, by imposing high fees, these schools accentuate class-based discrimination. Since the majority of students attending these international schools are locals, this study looks at the government concerns as well as the various stakeholder consternations via a mixed method study conducted in four contrasting case studies.

It was found that opting for an international education was a privileged option open to a minority of Sri Lankans, which ascertained their competitiveness in a global society. However, although English proficiency and foreign credentials allow for a competitive edge in neo-liberal times, grounding oneself in the local culture was of paramount importance. These international schools were giving rise to a generation of Sri Lankans that had more in common with those from the countries where their pedagogical system originated rather than their local counterparts from their immediate vicinity. International schools hence need to incorporate both the local and the global if they are to truly achieve the internationalism that they take pride in.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Nigel Bagnall and Associate Professor Tim Allender