Education in Sri Lanka

By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews

Despite years of civil war between Sri Lanka’s ruling Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, the country boasts one of the most literate populations in the developing world. Almost 91 percent of the adult population and over 97 percent of the youth population are literate, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2006). This compares to a South and West Asian regional average of 62 percent and 80 percent respectively (2008).

Sri Lanka’s current system of education is still influenced by its colonial past. The British, who incorporated the South Asian nation as part of its empire from 1796 to 1948, had a major influence on the development of Sri Lankan education. Until the 1960s, all university instruction was conducted in English, and until this day, school examinations and curricular content remain modeled on the British examinations of the same names (Sri Lankan GCE O-Levels and A-Levels).

The right to a free education was enshrined in the Sri Lankan Constitution of 1978, which also mandates compulsory schooling between the ages of five and 14. The current school system – in place since 1985 – is 13 years total and based on a structure of: 5 + 4 + 2 + 2 (primary, junior secondary, senior secondary, collegiate or pre-university). Higher education is based on a structure of 3+2+2 to 5.

The two main languages of instruction are Sinhala and Tamil. English is taught as a compulsory subject through all 13 years of school study. International private schools typically offer instruction in English. At the tertiary level, Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages of instruction; however, English is frequently used, especially in universities.

The academic year runs from October to June at the university level, while school education is conducted from January to December and divided into three terms.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for setting and maintaining education policies and managing public institutions of education at the primary and secondary level. School administration is delegated to eight provincial departments of education, which operate under the purview of the ministry. These departments are responsible for the oversight of 9,074 schools, while the ministry administers directly the 336 elite national schools (2009, MOE). The Department of Examinations is responsible for administrating O-Level and A-Level examinations.

At the higher education level, the University Grants Commission is the primary university administrator responsible for allocating funds, maintaining academic standards, and regulating university admissions. The Department of Technical Education and Training, under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, oversees non-university higher studies, while the Ministry of Higher Education sets policies and oversees the broader tertiary sector as a whole.

Compulsory Education
All children aged six through 14 are required by law to attend the first nine years of Sri Lankan schooling. This includes five years of primary education and four years of junior secondary schooling.

At the primary level, female school attendance is essentially universal, according to government statistics, while it stands at 99 percent for boys. All children are entitled to attend school free of charge, a provision that includes free books and free school uniforms up to Year 11.

Primary School
Primary schooling runs from Year 1 to Year 5 (typically ages 6 – 10). The curriculum at the primary level is integrated and based on basic language and numerical skills. Main areas of study are: native tongue (Sinhala or Tamil), mathematics, environmental activities, religion, and English. Students are required to pass end-of-year promotion examinations to move on to the next Year.

Primary completion rates currently stand at 98 percent (UIS 2008), with 96 percent of graduating primary school students progressing to secondary studies.

Junior Secondary
Junior secondary schooling runs from Year 6 to Year 9 (typically ages 10 -14), with Year 6 being considered a transitional year between primary and secondary education.

The curriculum at most public schools includes instruction in the student’s first language, English, a second national language, mathematics, religion, history, science and technology, health and physical education, practical and technical skills, social studies, life competencies and aesthetic studies.

Students are assessed through a series of school-based exams, projects and practical work.

Senior Secondary
Years 10 and 11 are the senior secondary stage of schooling in Sri Lanka. These two years are focused on preparing students for the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level (O/Ls) examinations.

Students who wish to continue their studies at the tertiary level must pass the GCE O Levels in order to enter the Collegiate Level to study for another two years (Years 12-13) to sit for the GCE Advanced Level (A/L) examinations. Students must pass five O Level subject examinations, including first language and mathematics, with 3 credits in order to advance to the Collegiate Level. One of these credits must be in the subject stream that the student wishes to pursue in the final two years of schooling.

The GCE ‘O’ Level is the final school certificate for most students and the conclusion of the general phase of school education. A little over a third of all senior secondary school students go on to pre-university studies. Most students take eight to 10 subject examinations for their O Levels.

The senior secondary curriculum includes most of the same subjects covered at the junior secondary level, but with the addition of some technical subjects such as woodwork, agriculture and home economics.

‘Collegiate’ or ‘Pre-University’
Upon completion of Year 11, students can finish their secondary schooling in one of the four main A Level streams: Arts, Commerce, Biological Science or Physical Science. Typically, students will take three subjects linked to their stream, and these choices will have a strong bearing on the program of study that they will pursue at university.

The GCE A Level examinations are taken at the end of Year 13. In addition to individual subject exams, students are expected to take a common general paper and an examination in English.


National Schools
National Schools are funded and administered directly by the Ministry of Education. A majority of theses schools were established before independence from British rule and are limited in number compared to provincially administered schools. Most of these institutions are considered elite schools, with better facilities and teaching staff than most public schools. In recent years, some newer schools and central colleges have been upgraded to national schools. The ministry currently (2009) counts a total of 336 national schools nationwide.

Provincial Schools
Most secondary schools in Sri Lanka are administered and funded by provincial authorities and local governments. There are over 9,000 provincial schools in Sri Lanka.

Private schools
There are a total of 66 private schools in Sri Lanka, according to government figures, and all were established before independence from colonial rule. Approximately half of these schools are funded by tuition fees and they are entirely autonomous from the government, while the other half receive funding from the state and charge only limited tuition fees.

In addition to private schools, Sri Lanka also hosts a network of international schools, which typically charge tuition fees. The schools are mainly for the children of the expatriate community, are autonomous from ministry control, and charge high tuition fees. Most schools follow either the British Edexcel curriculum and examinations system, the Cambridge International Examinations system or the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Religious Schools
Monastic schools, or Piriven, are funded and administered by the ministry of education. The 560 schools are primarily focused on training Buddhist priests, although students also follow academic curricula.

School Grading Scales

General Certificate of Education Ordinary (‘O’) Level (from 2001)

Marks % Grade Description
75-100 A Distinction *
65 – 74 B Very good pass
50 – 64 C Credit
35 – 49 S Pass
0 – 34 F Fail

* Sometimes A is denoted by ‘D’ for distinction

General Certificate of Education ‘O’ Level (until 2001)

Marks % Grade Description
75 -100 D Distinction
50 – 74 C Credit
35 – 49 S Pass
0 -34 F Fail

General Certificate of Education Advanced (‘A’) Level

Marks % Grade Description
75 – 100 A Distinction
65 – 74 B Very good pass
55 – 64 C Credit
40 – 54 S Ordinary pass
0 – 39 C Fail

Between 1971 and 1977, students graduated from junior secondary school with the National Certificate of General Education, and from senior secondary with the National Certificate of Higher Education. Prior to 1971, the same GCE examination system as today was in place.

Vocational Training

The Department of Technical Education & Training (DTET) is responsible for the oversight of all vocational education and training in Sri Lanka. The Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) is the body under the DTET responsible for setting and maintaining standards. It is also responsible for the registration and accreditation of approximately 2,000 private training providers that offer non-formal, lower level qualifications.

The National Vocational Qualifications Systems in Sri Lanka (NVQSL) was introduced by TVEC in 2005 and provides a guide to the structure of the seven national qualification levels available to those taking nationally recognized vocational pathways. The NVQSL identifies seven hierarchical qualification steps from Level 1 to Level 7. Through the NVQSL, the government strives to standardize vocational training at the local, national and international levels, as well as meet labor market demands.

Each level of the vocational framework is tied to a list of expected competencies, national skills standards and a quality assurance system. TVEC has developed a range of competency standards and assessment materials for the seven different levels, in addition to identifying expected skills standards in approximately 50 occupations.

    • Level 1-4: National Certificate. All four levels are tied to ‘craftsmen’ competencies. The holder of a Level 4 award is considered a master craftsman.
    • Level 5-6: Diploma-Higher Diploma
    • Level 7: Bachelor Degree


The National Certificate programs typically require two years of full time study and are open to holders of GCE O Levels or to those with work experience.

The National Diploma programs are typically one to three years in length (depending on field), and require either GCE A Levels or a National Certificate for admission.

The Higher National Diploma is a minimum of three years full-time study, and requires A Levels for admission.

The National Certificate in Technology is an advanced level, three-year program.

Degree level training in vocational fields is carried out at the Open University, Sri Lanka and the newly established University of Vocational Technology. Diploma- and certificate-level training is offered at technical colleges (9) and colleges of technology (29) under the DTET. The Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education has 12 campuses across Sri Lanka also offering diploma and higher diploma level programs.

The National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) is responsible for trade level qualifications and the coordination of an apprentice training system through its network of 104 institutes and centers. It also conducts trade tests.

The Vocational Training Authority (VTA) offers certificate and diploma level training of up to a year through its network of 265 mainly rural training centers. The main focus of its work is to provide training opportunities to youths from rural areas.

A list of public sector schools and programs are available from TVEC here

Higher Education

As with public-sector schooling, higher education at state-run universities and colleges is tuition free in Sri Lanka. However, annual capacity constraints of 21,500 new enrollments (2009/10) mean that many of those who are qualified for admission to public universities do not find places. According to University Grants Commission statistics, just 17 percent of qualified A Level test takers found places at state universities in 2009/10 (and just 10.5 percent of all test-takers).

Admission to university studies is based on the results of the GCE A Level examinations, taken at the end of Year 13. Given the limited public places on offer, many Sri Lankan students seek out educational opportunities abroad – according to some estimates as many as 8 percent of each graduating Year 13 class seek opportunities abroad (almost 3,000 at U.S. institutions of higher education in 2009/10). An increasing number of students in recent years have been enrolling in the expanding private sector (over half of all higher education enrollments in 2004) or as external students at public universities. Of the 125,284 students that met the minimum A Level standards for admission to public universities, just 47,613 applied, and 21,547 gained admission.

Other options include distance education at the Open University of Sri Lanka or at the few state-owned autonomous degree awarding institutes. Foreign institutions have also increased their offerings in Sri Lanka in recent years, typically in conjunction with a domestic institution under program franchise agreements. There are currently 57 private institutions of education offering degree programs in conjunction with foreign partners, according to ministry officials. Currently, there is a law under consideration that, if passed, would allow foreign universities to establish campuses in Sri Lanka (see accompanying article).

Those that cannot find places in the university sector have the opportunity to study for vocational qualifications (see above) at technical colleges, or for professional credentials offered by professional bodies (both foreign and domestic). Most training outside the public university sector is subject to tuition fees.

Most institutions of higher education utilize a three-term year: October to December, January to March, and April to June.

University Education

The University Grants Commission (UGC) is responsible for the funding and regulation of the university sector. There are currently 19 state universities in Sri Lanka. Fifteen of those are considered National Universities under the purview of the UGC. The UGC also has jurisdiction over 17 institutes, of which seven offer graduate-level training.

The four non-UGC universities are: The General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (Ministry of Defense), Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, Buddhasravaka Bhiksu University (Ministry of Higher Education), and University of Vocational Technology (Ministry of Vocational & Technical Training).

There are also a small number of other public higher education institutes in specialized fields and a few private institutions authorized by the University Grants Commission to award specific degrees.

UGC institutions:


In addition to funding and administering the university sector, the UGC is the central body responsible for university admissions at the undergraduate level.

The UGC uses a statistical method known as Z scores for admission. A student’s Z score is a standardized aggregate of their A Level results. Minimum requirements are as follows: at least a Pass (‘S’ grade) in all three A Level subjects, and a minimum grade of 30 percent in the Common General Paper.

Students are ranked both nationally and regionally according to their Z scores, with 40 percent of places available to those who performed best on a national basis, and 55 percent of places awarded to the best-qualified students from each of Sri Lanka’s 25 administrative districts. There is also a 5 percent provision for students from economically disadvantaged regions.

Undergraduate Education

Students are eligible for a range of subject specializations based on the stream they followed for their A Level studies. In addition, professionally oriented programs such as law and architecture are available to any students regardless of A Level stream.

General Degrees
Bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of science (BSc) degrees typically require three years of full time study.

Special Degrees
Four-year degrees are known as BA (Special) and BSc (Special). The first year is considered a qualifying year, and it is followed by three years of study in one subject. Typically, the fourth year involves a research program or dissertation. Those who graduate from these programs with First Class Honours are eligible for admission to doctoral programs.

Professional Degrees
The following professional specializations require four years of study: Agriculture, architecture, commerce, dentistry, engineering, law, and veterinary science. The first degree in medicine requires five years of study, with the final three comprising mainly clinical rotations. Studies are typically undertaken at institutes of higher education.

Postgraduate Diplomas

Entry to these one-year programs requires a bachelor degree. Programs can also be completed on a part-time basis.

Graduate education

Degrees at the graduate level are awarded by universities and postgraduate research institutes.

Graduate education, at both the master’s and doctoral level, has traditionally been research based with very little formal teaching. More recently, institutions have been introducing more taught classes as part of the curriculum. This has especially been the case in the fields of medicine and agriculture.

Admission to two-year master’s level degree programs requires a bachelor degree in at least the Second Division. Students are typically required to undertake research toward the writing of a dissertation, in addition to examinations. Degrees in education and law (MEd and LLM) can be completed in one year.

Doctoral candidates must first have a master’s degree or a Special Bachelor Degree with First Class Honours. Programs typically take between two and five years and require research and a thesis.

Recommended Degree and Grade Conversions

Scale U.S. Grade Equiv.
70-100 A
55-69 B+
40-54 B
30-39 C
0-29 F
Degree Classification U.S. Grade Equiv.
First Class A
Upper Secondary B+
Lower Secondary B-
Pass C

Teacher Training

Teacher training is conducted at Colleges of Education, Teacher Education Institutes, four universities, and the National Institute of Education.

Primary and Junior Secondary Teacher Training
Primary and junior secondary teachers train for three years (two years coursework, one year practicum) at colleges of education in either general or specialized programs. Graduates earn a Trained Teachers Certificate. Admission is based on three A Level passes and 6 O Level passes.

Senior Secondary Teacher Training
Senior secondary school teachers require a Bachelor Degree in a relevant field. University graduates who do not hold a Bachelor of Education complete a 1-year postgraduate Diploma of Education.  The Diploma may be completed over 2 years by correspondence through the Open University.  The Diploma in Education prepares teachers for the senior secondary and pre-university levels of schooling.

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