C. W. W. Kannangara

Father of free Education in Sri Lanka

Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara was a Sri Lankan lawyer and politician. Rising up the ranks of Sri Lanka's movement for independence in the early part of the 20th century, he became the first Minister of Education in the State Council of Ceylon, and was instrumental in introducing extensive reforms to the country's education system that opened up education to children from all levels of society.

Born in the Southern coastal town of Balapitiya, his academic prowess enabled him to win a scholarship to Richmond College, Galle, a prestigious national school at the time. Initially working as a lawyer after leaving school, he entered politics as the movement for independence was gathering strength in Sri Lanka. Kannangara was first elected to the Ceylon Legislative Council in 1923 and then to the State Council. He also served as the President of the Ceylon National Congress.

As Minister of Education in the State Council, Kannangara introduced extensive reforms to the education system of Sri Lanka throughout the 1940s. They benefitted thousands of underprivileged students in rural parts of the country by making education free for all students. He also began a Central Colleges scheme, which established high quality secondary schools in rural areas of the country. Kannangara's significant achievements in areas of education have led him to being commonly referred to as the Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka.


13 October 1884
Weebadu Walawwa, Wewala, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka


23 September 1969 (aged 84)
Colombo General Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka


Sri Lankan/Ceylonese


Ceylon National Congress


Mrs.Edith Kannangara


Son (Dr.Chithraranjan Swarajweera Wijekoon Kannangara MBBS-Consultant Gynecologist)

Daughter (Mrs.Kusumawathi Wijekoon Senevirathne -nee Kannangara)

Alma mater

Richmond College, Galle



Kannangara joined Anagarika Dharmapala's historically significant temperance movement, and worked actively with its leaders, including Sir D.B. Jayatilleke, D.S. Senanayake, F.R. Senanayake and Arthur V. Dias. He rose to national prominence as a lawyer defending leaders of the Sri Lankan independence movement and others who were persecuted by the colonial British administration during the period of martial law which following the Riots of 1915. This also drew him into national politics, and in 1923 he entered the Legislative Council of Ceylon, winning a by-election on 13 April 1923 for a seat in the Galle District made vacant by the demise of O.C. Tillekaratne by 1969 votes to 115. He was re-elected the following year polling 4,177 votes, opposed to 2310 for his nearest opponent. Following the recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission, the State Council was established in 1931, succeeding the Legislative Council as the national legislature.

For the first time, the State Council, which had its members elected via universal suffrage, compromised Executive Committees and Ministers. Kannangara was appointed as the first chairman of the Executive Committee of Education in the State Council and thus became the first Minister of Education of Sri Lanka in 1931. Apart from Kannangara, the Executive Committee of Education consisted of H. W. Amarasuriya, W.T.B. Karaliyadda, A. Ratnayaka G.R. De Zoysa, P.E. Madawela and Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe. He is also notable for being the first minister to wear the National costume in the State Council. During World War II, he was a member of the War Council. Kannangara was elected to the State Council in 1931 and again in 1936. He also became the President of the Ceylon National Congress in 1931.

Executive Committee of Education exercised its powers to create new regulations paving the way for the establishment of a new system of education in Sri Lanka. The new system was expected to ensure that education was provided with equal opportunities for all children in the country, irrespective of social class, economic condition, religion and ethnic origin. Whilst the education in vernacular schools had been free prior to the reforms due to government grants to cover the cost of teaching and local philanthropists providing the buildings, equipment and the books, it was not standardised. In 1942 a special committee was appointed with Kannangara as chairman to report on the status of education in the country. Among the recommendations for providing "lasting value to the nation" given in the report, which was published in 1943, were that

Education should be free from the Kindergarten to the University.
The mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in the Primary Schools.
English should be taught in all schools from standard III.
A curriculum for the child which would develop its "head, heart and hands" should be introduced. In other words, the education of the emotions is as necessary as the education of intellect and practical ability for the well-being of the child.

Kannangara proposed that central schools be modelled upon Royal College, Colombo, one of the leading schools in the country.
As Minister of Education Kannagara was placed in charge of implementing the recommendations. Among the reforms he introduced, which came into operation on 1 October 1945, were to make education free of charge for all students, to ensure that every student was provided with instruction in the religion of his/her parents, to prevent teachers from been exploited by managers of schools by having their wages paid directly by the government and to make adequate provisions for adult education in the country.

He also established a series of central schools (Madhya Vidhyala), modelled on Royal College, Colombo, in locations outside major cities. These took high quality secondary education to the rural outstations of the country. His objective was to create a central school in every electorate in the country, and as such, while in 1941 there were three central schools in the country; by 1945 the number had increased to 35, and to 50 by 1950. First Central College established in Akuramboda, Matale.In 1943 Kannangara also launched an annual scholarship program, which provided the opportunity for the 20 best performers of the scholarship exam to get free board and lodging in Central School hostels. During his 16-year period as Minister of Education, he also upgraded ancient pirivenas, educational establishments for Buddhist monks, and established the University of Ceylon, the first University in Sri Lanka. Further, Kannangara took steps to abolish the two tier school system, where English was taught to privileged students and the vernacular language was taught to the rural masses. While he laid emphasis on teaching Swabasha (native languages) in schools, he also advised that students should learn English to compete in the modern world