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Role of a school in Sri Lanka’s economy – Rohantha Athukorala

Posted on 12 February 2014 by admin

Fr. Travis GIn the recent past we have been exposed to allegations and counter claims about a Rector of a leading private sector school, which was very unfortunate, given that this particular school has produced some of the most outstanding citizens for Sri Lanka.

In my view, the overall aura created is a loss for Sri Lanka given that the unemployment level in the country is at below 5% and we know that there is a culture fit issue of the graduates that come out of the traditional university system fitting into the private sector, which takes us to the role of the school in developing the talent for tomorrow.

The challenge

With the booming tourism industry launching almost 3,000 hotel rooms this year, the IT/BPO industry wanting to be a one billion dollar industry from the current $ 0.6 b, the tea industry driving to be a value-added product which can be a $ 2 b business for Sri Lanka not forgetting the Ceylon Cinnamon thrust to be another $ 1 b industry, the million dollar question is, where do we source the hands and feet to achieve these objectives of the private sector?

In simple words, we need quality people and this task is in the hands of the school administrators; the logic being that attitude formation and basic skill development takes place at primary education level and lesser at the graduate level.

Basic skills and attitude

What I mean by basic skills are ability to get on with people and work in teams, sharing of an idea using words and pictures (basic communication skills), respecting authority but also having the skill to challenge an idea for effectiveness, being time conscious, being financially responsible for ‘association’ money, being clean in the way you dress, learning how to take defeat and disappointment and fight back to win.

These are some of the most important attributes that I look for when having to hire a youngster as a management trainee to an organisation of today rather than outstanding academic qualifications. In fact, these skills separate the performers in today’s organisations from the non-performers. Which ones again focuses on the need for strong basic training at the school end. As my mentor Rev. Fr. Joe Wickramasinghe advised me on the day he appointed me as Head Prefect at school, ‘great leaders walk the talk’.

Rohantha AthukoralaTo my mind, Fr. Joe walked the talk on strong values and making sure that our education was well-rounded. I guess it’s these same skills that get polished in the corporate world and the most outstanding personalities that emerge tend to be exceptionally strong on these basic skills that stemmed from schools.

Not trophies but play well

One of the most respected school administrators in the system currently is Rev. Fr. Travis Gabriel, who is Rector at St. Peter’s. Once he invited me to be the Chief Guest at the Prefects’ Day. I asked him what he wanted me to share as the keynote when I addressed the gathering. His words were very clear: “We do not need trophies; we must learn to play well and respect competition.”

Based on this basic grain, the school has produced one of the best performances in the recent past not only in the sports arena but also in the area of education. I guess everything points to the leader’s ethos of what is right and what is wrong. I wish Rev. Fr. Joe Wickramasinghe was alive to see how his training has produced another great Rector for the institution that he built.

I wish Sri Lanka can pick up some these lessons given the ruthless competition that exists at club level and at national level. The reason why China is becoming a super power nation is because of the training that has happened at the school end. Sri Lanka needs to learn a lesson from China on this front.

Problem solving

The latest research on the role of a school is not only just teaching educational content but moving to unearthing the skill of problem solving and solution seeking. This happens mainly not in the classroom but at being involved in societies, be it the Commerce Society, Sinhala Literary Society or the Drama Association. If a child gets trained in these areas, overtime they can grow to becoming a prefect and thereafter a student leader.

This continues at the work place thereafter and the link to the Sri Lankan economy takes form. Once again this points to the strong leadership that must govern a school in Sri Lanka, which fosters training to be good citizens and not just brilliant academics who excel at the Ordinary Level or Advanced Level examinations.

First job

I have seen how people sail through interviews and get into organisations but have not learned the basic social skills that have stunted their growth. They continue going stag for company functions when the people who get ahead have the ability of making sure a partner comes along to key company events. This is where being involved in organisations like Interact and taking part in prefect days of other schools becomes very important. Doing sports where girls and boys train together becomes important.

It’s strange but in today’s Sri Lankan environment it’s only the employee that gets invited company socials and hence once needs to have the skill of mixing around and making the evening enjoyable. This life-skill I see only in the schools in the city given that schools outside Colombo are mixed schools – an interesting dimension that has gone unnoticed.

Early interaction

Another interesting pick up from the likes of Rev Fr. Travis Gabriel was that he personally drives career interactions between the current students and private sector. From the discussions I have had, his ethos is that early interactions with people who have got traction in the private sector tend to form behaviour due to imitation.

This helps push high order learning on the areas of psycho-social, psycho-emotional and more importantly ethical behaviour, which is an interesting point that sure made a lot of sense. I guess this pickup can be extended to the private sector so that when it comes to succession planning, these similar techniques can be followed especially in the coach and mentor roles that are very popular in today’s business world.


An interesting dimension is that Rev. Fr. Travis has the habit of recognising performance not only at formal events like assembly or prize-givings but also at informal setting like walking along the corridors he had this tendency to comment on outstanding performance, be it academically or at sports. His logic was that if one can instil self worth in a youngster, then it builds self respect and this entails one to stay away from the social evils of alcohol, smoking and now the new menace of drugs. It’s an interesting perspective; given that we been an island nation, the overall attitude to life is easygoing and laidback which are characteristics of a country that is surrounded by water. This is based on research done by Sri Jayewardenepura University.

Breaking this cycle and moving the country to a somewhat aggressive and performance-based value must take place at the school end, which is where the concept of reward becomes important at early life and this must be extended at graduate level so that the behaviour can become permanent.

Given that I have had the opportunity of working in India, the difference between Sri Lanka and India is the aggressive nature of the Indians and the drive to get ahead. I guess Sri Lanka will have to move to this domain if we are to be a top 30 country globally. We have no option given the challenges in the global market place.


Hence we see the importance of the role of a school for Sri Lanka’s economy. After all around 400,000 make it to the Ordinary Level examination and then 200,000 get ahead for the Advanced Level. Around 40,000 move to post graduate studies in the Government and private sector, which is incidentally just 10% of the Ordinary Level students. Around 6,000 get an MBA, which is below 1% of Sri Lanka. This explains the role of a school in today’s economy.

[The author Rohantha Athukorala was the Head Prefect, Peterite Gold winner and Peterite honours recipient. Twice the Marketing Achiever award winner in Sri Lanka, Business Achiever and Global Leadership awardee in his multinational business career. Currently works for the United Nations (UNOPS) as the Head of National Portfolio Development – Sri Lanka and Maldives and an independent Board Director on many public and private sector organisations in Sri Lanka. Rohantha is an alumnus of Harvard University (Boston).]

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