The role of education in building lasting peace

The role of education in building lasting peace

“Unless young people can analyze the roots of conflict and prevent these roots from regrowing into branches later on, any peace will be fragile.” – Professor Lynn Davies

For a country that has gone through a generation-long internal armed conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and successive Sinhalese led governments, two youth led insurrections, numerous ethnic riots, and so much everyday violence, one would assume that peace takes a central place in the Sri Lankan education system. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This is not to imply that successive governments have not taken any steps to introduce peace education. Some praiseworthy interventions have been made, but implementation is lacking. It is high time that we take more interest in this, as education has the power to heal and transform and is at the heart of bringing about lasting peace.

What is peace education?

Peace education has no universally agreed definition. In fact, given the diversity of conflicts around the world, it is pointless to strive towards such. Each context requires a customized approach to peace education, considering the different historical, geographical, socio-political, economic, and cultural characteristics of the conflict. For the purpose of this article, peace education is considered as the process of acquiring values, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors in order to live in harmony with others. It also adopts a broad understanding of the term, which is not limited to the introduction of one subject, but extends to the whole education system.

To that effect, this article will examine a few thematic areas we should be focusing on, if we are to provide a meaningful peace education to the next generation, so they can avoid repeating the cycle of violence.

Language education

Language has been at the center of the internal armed conflict, with many recognizing the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956 or the Sinhala Only Act, as one of the first seeds of ethnic division. In 1948, the English medium education was replaced with the ‘mother tongue’ education, on the premise of making schools more accessible. However, this resulted in the gap between the Sinhala speaking and Tamil speaking communities widening over the years, as people did not have a common means of communication. 

As a solution, the 1997 General Education Reform stipulated that all pupils should learn both Sinhala and Tamil, the national languages. How many of us have learned either Sinhala or Tamil as the second language? I have. But for myself, and for many people I know, it was not a productive exercise. Only one period (40 minutes) is dedicated per week to the subject with many schools lacking second language teachers. Kids have no or severely limited opportunity to practice the little skills they acquire in the second language too, due to the segregated society they live in.

If the second language education is in an abysmal state, what about the English language education, which is, as per the Constitution the “link language”? Similar to second language teachers, disadvantaged schools often do not get English teachers. The current curriculum with its heavy focus on reading and writing skills does not equip the students to effectively communicate in English in real life scenarios. The  English teachers’ training is said to be inadequate too. 

Many have proposed bilingual education as a remedy, where pupils learn a few selected subjects in English and the rest in their mother tongue. This system would function doubly as the solution to the many vices in English education in the country. However, a comprehensive national policy for bilingual education is yet to be introduced and there is a severe lack of English medium teachers. As per the Annual School Census of Sri Lanka 2020, only 1.1% of the total teacher population are English medium teachers. It is evident that we have a long way to go, if English is to adequately serve as the “link language”. 

Religiously and ethnically segregated schools

Sri Lanka has a culture of schools taking pride in the fact that they are guardians of certain ethno-religious cultural values, mostly prevalent among sex-segregated national schools in Colombo. You would see people who have left school even decades ago parading this identity around, from profile picture frames to car stickers. The loyalty to these identities manifest in most unexpected places too, such as elections. 

One of the main reasons for this is the religious and ethnic segregation prevalent within the school system. A while ago I saw a social media post which had criticised the education system for denying the chance to mingle with people belonging to different ethno-religious identities as a child. The comments section had largely been attacking the sentiment, saying that one should engage in voluntary and other community work and get the required exposure, without waiting for the government to do everything.  But isn’t it the role of the government to facilitate informed coexistence, to eliminate the ways in which we institutionalize segregation? 

As a person who attended one of the above-mentioned national schools after the grade five scholarship examination, I found myself relating to the person who had posted the above. My school batch was almost entirely Sinhala, and the vast majority of them were Buddhists. There were a couple Muslims, but I do not recall having any Tamil students in our year. True: I cultivated friendships with people belonging to different identities during university and in work settings afterwards, but much had been left to chance, which should not be the case. It is also important to emphasize that interventions made early in a child’s life yield more results, as childhood is the ideal age for kids to broaden their vision, learn to respect and tolerate the other, and adopt inclusive identities. Schools might also be the only place a child can get this kind of exposure, as our families are often very tightly fenced units. Teaching kids differently in school and expecting them to unlearn those by themselves later on is counterproductive. 

This lack of access to people different to one’s own identity contributes to the misrecognition of them, and polarization of the society. Integrated schools where pupils from different ethnic and religious backgrounds are taught together are promoted in the National Policy on Education for Peace and Social Cohesion and a Comprehensive Framework of Actions which was formulated in 2008. However, implementation remains problematic. The national schools in Colombo which have the best chance at bringing students belonging to different identities together are clinging to their respective ethno-religious ethos while the schools outside Colombo are limited by structural constraints as school administration policies have students living in the localities only attending those, and our localities often tend to be homogenous. 

This is why we need specific programs that provide for intercultural interactions.

Intercultural programs

The 1997 General Education Reform formed the Unit for Social Cohesion and Peace Education within the Ministry of Education, to initiate and coordinate activities aimed at uniting pupils and stimulating harmony, such as interschool sports competitions and exchange camps. According to the Sri Lankan peace education expert Balasooriya, “one of the primary functions of peace education is to broaden the vision of pupils, [as] narrow cultural, ethnic, religious, political and parochial views divide mankind, leading to war.” Balasooriya might find it ironic that the aforementioned Unit has been reduced in size and importance since 2008, from the height of the internal armed conflict and in its aftermath where the “victors’ peace” prevails. Budgetary provisions for education have been declining, which makes the implementation of intercultural exchanges impossible.

In addition to these political and policy related limitations, the very structure of the Sri Lankan education system limits opportunities for intercultural exchanges. Our exam-oriented school education system pushes both students and teachers to measure academic excellence based on results on paper, which fosters competitiveness. Only 10% of school leavers being eligible to enter State universities each year is not helpful either. In such a situation, pupils do not want to engage in extracurricular activities, teachers do not have time and space to include notions of peace in their lessons, and school principals are reluctant to initiate programs which may deviate both pupils and teachers from the exams, as their school is judged and ranked solely through exam results.

This brings us to the role of teachers as peace agents.

Teachers as agents of peace

Pre-service training for teachers is given through National Teacher Education Institutions, while in-service education is offered in universities and national and regional in-service teacher training centers. It should also be noted here that teachers appointed through a graduate teacher scheme do not go through pre-service training, and solely depend on in-service training. Peace education is not yet fully integrated in the pre-service and in-service teacher training curricula, and instead, is sometimes delivered through extra-curricular material or activities. Efforts to diversify the teaching corps along gender, ethnicity, religion and other fault lines specific to Sri Lankan society also remain limited.

It is widely accepted that investing in teachers is a necessary condition for countries recovering from conflict, as teachers “provide the fundamental building blocks for healthy schools, empowered students, and democratic communities and play a very important role in peacebuilding and restoring normality in conflict-affected environments”. In Sri Lanka, this role of teachers is limited due to a number of challenges, including the high workload, insufficient salary, limited career perspectives and incentives. Teachers often resort to giving extra-tuition classes to make up for their salary deficiency, which adds to their already heavy workload, limits their opportunities to participate in co-curricular activities, contextualize their lessons or follow in-service training courses. In such a condition, it is of paramount importance that we give the teachers the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding working conditions and the implementation of the peace education policy. Only then we can expect them to fulfill their role as agents of peace.


How past and current injustices are recognized and addressed in the formal and informal curriculum reflects the State’s commitment to those most heavily impacted by conflict. However, our curricula do not recognize the need for equity. While they seem to celebrate Sri Lanka’s rich cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, there is no recognition in the formal and informal curricula of any types of equity issues related to ethnicity, language, and gender. For example, the 30-year internal armed conflict and the loss of rights of marginalized groups which may have spurred that have not been addressed in a meaningful way within the current school education system, be it through curricula, classroom discussions, or the wider school environment. It has been noted that Sri Lankan school textbooks on civic education, a subject that is supposed to contain explicit modules on peace, conflict, human values, multiculturalism, and democracy, talk about conflict only in relation to other contexts, such as Rwanda. This is a reflection of the attitude of denial of the conflict at the national political level. It is also a violence of omission that normalizes inequity and injustice to successive generations of children, who have very limited opportunities to get exposed to these concepts outside school education.

One reason for this gap in curricula is the underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups in policy level education institutions. An education governance actor stated in 2011: “The government officials, who are mostly Sinhalese, in charge of education, will they be able to come up with a version of history, of conflict resolution, of peace studies that transcends our ethnicities and is fair by both points of view?” This underrepresentation has resulted in lack of comparative perspectives and bias towards the majority group in teaching material. Prominent examples would be the bias in the history curriculum and the lack of comparative perspective in the religion subject. A Sinhalese history teacher had remarked in 2011 “…especially our history belongs to Buddhism and Sinhala culture. [Therefore,] sometimes we criticize them (Muslim pupils) badly in our history”; while a Tamil history teacher had remarked “Both communities identity should be mentioned equally. However, the current curriculum teaches history mainly from the Sinhala perspective, [and tells] little about Tamil history”. Both teachers had expressed the worry that the excluded groups, respectively Muslim and Tamil pupils, feel discouraged to study the history subject, while several Tamil history teachers noted that due to the full curriculum, they have hardly any time to include notions of Tamil history in their lessons.

Overt emphasis on discipline

In addition to all these issues, the Sri Lankan education system is burdened with an overt, often overbearing emphasis on discipline. The topic of discipline had been at the forefront of many discussions related to the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill as well. Before that, the University of Colombo issued a controversial set of social media guidelines for students. However, the focus on discipline has not been limited to higher education institutions only; the local school system also places a huge importance on “discipline”, which generally equates to not questioning the status quo. This contradicts the essence of education which is to empower the students to question the status quo. It has been shown that corporal punishment (punishment which is intended to cause physical pain), culture of fear, and the emphasis on obedience to authority prevalent in schools can cumulatively serve to fuel the outbreak of conflict and violence. Corporal punishment does not teach kids any constructive conflict resolution skills, conveys that it is okay to stifle disagreement with disproportionate power, and normalizes violence by figures of authority. 

Kids then bring these values to higher education institutions, which materialize in the form of ragging. What many conversations about ragging forgets is that you reap what you sow. Higher education institutions too are a slice of the society, and you cannot eradicate the violence within those without addressing the violence within the larger society. However, many seem to surmise that it boils down to lack of “discipline” and suggest that tighter controls on students’ freedom akin to what is present within the military would solve the problem. We should avoid treating military values as a cure-all, which can be readily imported into civil spheres, especially education, as it has been shown that such values have the potential to transform educational spaces into politicized, gendered, and racialized ones, where political power and control must be carefully negotiated on a day-to-day basis, stifling free thinking, thereby defeating the very purpose of education.  

As was mentioned in the outset, it is of paramount importance that we harness the capacity of education to foster reconciliation and peaceful social renewal, and most importantly make sure that education does not enrich some of the driving forces of conflict, as is happening now in Sri Lanka. The problem is not the lack of policies, but the lack of budgetary allocations for the implementation of the policies, which is a result of the lack of political will to address social injustices that spur conflict. As the government is gearing towards what is already being termed as a “tough budget”, it is important that we as the citizenry critically analyze what the budget will prioritize. One simply cannot talk about development without taking peace seriously as it is at the heart of everything we aspire to achieve as a country, from economic growth to better living standards to increased social security.

Article by Nishadi Gunatilake
(The author can be reached via [email protected])

The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation. 

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