Education in Sri Lanka is free from primary school through to university. Sri Lankans view education as a key to success and have one of the highest literacy rates in Asia-over 90%.
Historically, elite Sinhalese students studied at Buddhist pansal or temple schools, where monks taught a Buddhist curriculum. Higher religious education was available at the pirivena schools. Secular schools were introduced during colonization and linked to Christianity. Under British rule, students learned English subjects and language. An English education subsequently became necessary for entry into administrative and professional positions. This requirement divided the country along class and ethnic lines, as Burghers (persons of European descent) and Tamils found the system more accessible than did the Sinhalese.
Since independence in 1948, the government has made universal education a high priority, with instruction offered in both Sinhala and Tamil. Most students attend state-run schools, which are free. Education is compulsory from age 5 to 13, and attendance for both girls and boys is close to 100%. At the primary level, students learn reading, writing and arithmetic, and also attend environment classes. Students begin to study English in the final primary-school year. Schools are formal: children wear uniforms, and teachers are regarded as authority figures, to be respected.
Social studies and life skills are added to the curriculum in junior-high school, which students attend from ages 11 to 15. In senior high (ages 16 to 17), students learn technical subjects, while at the collegiate level, they select their area of interest and specialize in commerce, sciences or the arts.
Sri Lanka's 12 universities are all state-run. However, because of a national university entrance exam, only about 15% of applicants are accepted. An Open University for distance learning, technical and vocational colleges, and various affiliated institutes all offer diplomas in trades such as accounting, agriculture, teaching and business.
Despite the accessibility of education, Sri Lankan children from poorer families are often more urgently needed at home to help their families earn a living; consequently, the dropout rate is high, especially in the countryside.