The Angela W. Little Collection of Education in Sri Lanka

In keeping with the theme of international education research at the UCL Institute of Education Library, this post highlights the acquisition of a new collection in our Special Collections – the Angela W. Little Collection of education in Sri Lanka. The collection was deposited in the Library during the Summer of 2016. We asked Professor Emerita Little to write about her work in Sri Lanka and how she came to collect the materials which are now in the Newsam Library and accessible to researchers working in this area.

Angela W Little, Professor Emerita

Professor Angela W. Little

My interest in education and society in Sri Lanka began in 1975 when, as a member of a comparative education research team based at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, I had an opportunity to visit schools and villages in the remote district of Moneragala as well as in the capital, Colombo. At that time I was exploring the causes and consequences of ‘examination backwash’ on the quality of teaching and learning in schools. This was motivated by concerns to understand the causes of the widespread youth insurrection just a few years earlier that had come close to toppling the government. The insurrection was borne of the frustration among educated youth unable to find the government jobs that their education and qualifications had led them to expect.   The very high unemployment rate among this group intensified the competition between students in schools and universities for examination success and qualifications that gave access to jobs and higher education.  It also meant that examination syllabi largely determined the quality of teaching and learning and led to an emphasis on rote learning and a narrow focus on that which could be examined. This resulted in what was termed by Ronald Dore ‘Diploma Disease’ (1976, 1996).  Historically, government jobs were allocated through educational qualifications and merit based interviews. By the mid-1970s political affiliations were gradually becoming an additional prerequisite. Thus it became important (especially for an ‘outsider’ researcher) to understand not only the nexus between the education system, the examination/qualification system and youth aspirations – but also that between the labour market, the occupational structure, income distribution and the political system. And that nexus needed to be understood historically as well as contemporaneously. The writings of J E Jayasuriya and Swarna Jayaweera, both Institute of Education alumni, and K H M Sumathipala, were particularly helpful in understanding the history of education in Sri Lanka.

Alongside this work on society, economy and pedagogy I undertook research of a more social-psychological nature – on the attributions that children of different ages make for academic success and failure. This work was rooted in a very new but rapidly developing theory of ‘attribution’, and the more established child development theory of Piaget, personal construct theory of Bannister, Kelly and Salmon and cross cultural psychology.  It was a new area of research in Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, I was able to draw on Sri Lankan writings on Buddhist psychology and philosophy, on research on child development by Kotalawala and others, and selected anthropological works. Related work on student motivation with Chandra Gunawardene, S Rupasinghe and Ariya de Silva explored secondary school students perceptions of the value of learning and education.


Children learn under the shade of a tree

During the 1980s my attention shifted to social disadvantage and disparities in the access to education of different ethnic groups, classes and gender. This involved a change in emphasis from urban to rural, from majority to minority social groups, from the school to labour market transition to the home to school transition and from classroom pedagogy and examination pass rates to differential rates of enrolment, repetition and dropout and the reasons for them. My interest in social disadvantage was fuelled by an opportunity to work as a development worker-cum-researcher with development organisations such as SIDA, UNICEF and GTZ who, during the 1980s were working to promote educational opportunity among rural disadvantaged communities. It was enriched by writings on social disparity by S B Ekanayake, Swarna Wijetunge and K D Ariyadasa among others. I developed a special interest in the development of educational opportunity among communities residing in the tea and rubber plantations and drew on writings by G Gnanamuttu, K. Jayawardene, S Sandarasegaram, Sunil Bastian, P P Mannikam and Rachel Kurian. Involvement in the planning and implementation of education programmes in the plantations provided insights often out of reach to the non-participant researcher. It highlighted the daily political realities of project and programme implementation, and the intersection of interests between government departments, development agencies, individual politicians and educational leaders. All of these were reflected in the daily realities of teachers endeavouring to improve the quality of teaching and learning.


Mother engages in a literacy exercise while daughter looks on

From the mid-1990s I became extensively involved in the work of education planning teams designing provincial and national plans for primary education. This close collaboration with government officials, the veteran educator, Kamala Peiris and school teachers kept my work grounded in the opportunities for and resistances to innovation at the ground level. Many of these plans are included in the collection and draw on education planning writings by Sri Lankan authors such as Jinapala Alles, E L Wijemanne, George Wijesuriya, D Guneratne, S Malawarrachchi and Muthu Sivagnanam.


Schoolboy delivers class registers

Between 2000 and 2005 I embarked on new comparative education research programmes on the reciprocal relations between globalisation and education, with Siri Hettige at the University of Colombo and colleagues from the Institute of Education (notably, Jane Evans, Andy Green, Moses Oketch, Ed Vickers). In some ways this brought me full circle to my 1970s interests in relations between labour markets, qualifications and education. However, by now the process of economic globalisation had intensified, with all that implied for the movement of young persons into globalised as well as national and local labour markets, the attraction and currency of foreign qualifications as well as national qualifications and participation in globalised education as well as national programmes. In keeping with my 1980s interests in social disadvantage this research involved tracing the distribution of opportunities and challenges posed by globalisation for male and female youth from different social and ethnic groups.  From 2006, and as part of the CREATE research consortium (, I explored the realm of policy formulation and the broader political, social and economic imperatives that had ushered in policy change in policies on basic education over time. Here my primary research was enriched by writings on policy by Eric de Silva, M D D Pieris, G B Gunawardene,  and M U Sedere, among others.  Finally, from around 2010, I was privileged to be invited to join a World Bank team working in collaboration with the National and Provincial Ministries and Departments of Education in the delivery of a long term programme for transforming the quality of primary and secondary education and to lead teams evaluating the delivery of education programmes sponsored by the government, UNICEF and AusAID. The World Bank writings of Harsha Aturupane were particularly helpful

So what does the collection consist of and how did I assemble it? The collection includes writings by Sri Lankan and foreign authors and offers a wealth of information about the Sri Lankan education system, culture, economy and society. It is organised around six themes

  1. Education in Sri Lanka
  2. Primary Education Project Plans and Evaluations
  3. Socio-economic and Political Development in Sri Lanka
  4. Statistics: Education, Socio-economic and Demographic
  5. Journal Issues and pamphlets covering Education, Socio-economic and Political developments (not otherwise kept by UCL/IOE library)
  6. Published bibliographies

While the collection focuses on education it contains a number of economic, social and political texts of value to all social scientists. Many are published and/or printed in Sri


Randombe girls discuss the impact of the tsunami

Lanka and are not readily available internationally. While some are government publications others are published by a modest number of Sri Lankan publishing houses such as Lake House Vijitha Yapa and Sarasavi  or are produced by a printer for a Sri Lankan author and distributed/sold by him/her personally. The Department of Census and Statistics has a useful retail outlet and the bookshops found in a few hotels hold small stocks of books of interest to academic researchers. Research institutes such as the National Institute of Education, Marga Institute, the Centre for Women’s Research the Social Scientist’s Association and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies publish and sell books, reports and pamphlets. I have visited such outlets regularly for over forty years in search of research material. I have also visited ‘rare books’ shops in different corners of Colombo, especially on Slave Island, and stumbled upon gems such as the two volume Centenary History of Education of Ceylon published by the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs and the 1917 issue of the Ceylon Educational Review.  I have exchanged writings with authors keen for me to read their work and myself keen for them to read mine. I have included issues of Sri Lanka education and social science journals generally unavailable in University libraries in the UK and copies of lectures by Sri Lankan educationalists delivered at annual events in memory of Sri Lanka’s great educationalists such as C W W Kannangara and J E Jayasuriya. Over the years my students have gifted me many documents and I hope that I have reciprocated in kind. Through my involvement in planning, implementation and evaluation of myriad education programmes over four decades I have collected countless education programme documents rarely available or accessible in the public domain.  I decided to include these for their immense potential value to research students. Several MA and PhD students have used these in the past.

Muslim girls and boys attend after-school classes

Muslim girls and boys attend after-school classes

Most of my own writings on education in Sri Lanka are not included in this collection as these are available in the Institute of Education’s main catalogue and collection, my personal website ( or via . Some of the writings of notable Institute of Education alumni, including J E Jayasuriya, Swarna Jayaweera, T Kariyewasam, Elsie Kotalalawa, R Ruberu, Jayanthi Gunesekere, Madura Wehella, Manjula Withanapathirana, Jayantha Balasuriya and S Malawarrachchi, are included but many are not, as these too are available in the Institute of Education library’s main collection of books, journals and dissertations or via . While a few key historical texts such as those written by K M de Silva are included, many of his works are also available in the SOAS and UCL main collections. Included too, and providing a valuable glimpse of  rural life in the early 20th century are some writings and diaries of Leonard Woolf   The researcher may notice a gap in the material on education in the Northern and Eastern areas of Sri Lanka, especially in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Between 1983 and 2009 the Sri Lankan civil war, prosecuted mainly in the North and the East of the country, restricted the participation of Sri Lankan children and youth in education and restricted the access of education researchers to these areas even more. Those restrictions are lifting and it is hoped that educational research in these areas will begin to grow.

One of my former Sri Lankan students asked me why I was donating the collection to the UCL Institute of Education Library rather than to a library in Sri Lanka. My response was that much of the material was available already in Sri Lankan libraries but unavailable beyond Sri Lanka. Moreover, it is often the case that Sri Lankan educators enjoy the luxury of time for reading and research on education only when studying beyond Sri Lanka’s shores. I hope that the collection will be useful and will help many to understand the complexity, the value and the contribution of education to the development of Sri Lankan society.

Angela W. Little

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
This entry was posted in Library and Archives, Special Collections and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Angela W. Little Collection of Education in Sri Lanka

  1. Nice to seeing Angela after a long time… in fact after my completion of MA (Education and International Development) in 2005. She was my dissertation supervisor and I enjoyed working with her and learnt a wealth of knowledge. Angela’s donation of books will definitely add value to IoE’s library. My complements for Angela.

  2. Thank-you Munawar. I have only just picked up your message in 2019! I hope that your career in education continues apace.

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