In late July, the Union Parliament approved the National Education Bill and the legislation, which is still awaiting approval by the president, is meant to overhaul Burma’s derelict education system. Under previous military governments, the system suffered from neglect, underfunding and outdated teaching methods.
The new bill includes a range of reforms for all education levels, but has come in for criticism from independent organizations, who said it continues unnecessary central government controls on education.
In the basic education sector, the bill strives to ensure enrollment of every school-age child, provision of free schooling and the use of student-centered teaching methods.
San San Yi, director of the Ministry of Education’s No. 3 Basic Education Department, spoke with The Irrawaddy about how the new legislation would change basic education in Burma.
Question: What changes do you think the National Education Bill will bring to the basic education sector?
Answer: The bill will provide equal opportunities to all school-age children to pursue basic education and it paves the way for free, compulsory basic education and [free education at] higher levels. As it is intended to provide each and every school-age child with schooling, we will create an all-inclusive education system so that children with disabilities can also pursue education.
We will try with all our means to bring about quality education. We are also planning to introduce ethnic minority languages into curriculums and will allow local governments the powers to arrange the teaching of local ethnic languages in their respective areas.
Q: How will you ensure that every school-age child gets access to education?
A: The last week of May is designated as school-enrollment week to make sure each and every school-age child has access to schooling. During that week, teachers of the education department have to work together with ward, village and township authorities and NGOs to make sure that every school-age child is enrolled for schooling.
But no matter how hard we try, ensuring that every school-age child in the country goes to school will remain a difficult thing. Even now in the Yangon Region, not 100 percent of all school-age children go to school.
We will provide free informal education to children who can’t afford to go to school. But as informal education is supported for children starting from the age of 9, children aged between 5 and 9 would be left out.
Meanwhile, some children receive education from volunteers and at monastic schools. Some children with disabilities have difficulty in pursuing education in spite of their quest for knowledge. We are also trying to provide them with informal education.
However, informal education still can’t cover the entire nation. Even in Yangon Region, informal education still can’t be provided in all 43 townships. Currently, it is provided in only 13 townships.
Q: Will the Education Ministry provide free education at middle and high school levels as it does at primary level?
A: The ministry’s policy is to expand the scope [of support for students] level by level. It is likely that free education will be provided first at basic education, then at middle and high school levels.
Q: What are the difficulties in undertaking reforms in basic education sector? For example, is the budget sufficient? Some critics have said that the education budget is too small.
A: The education budget has increased significantly in the time of the current government so that many a school has been given a facelift. Unlike the past, study stipends and scholarships are awarded now because of the increased budget.
Q: Will the changes include revisions of curriculums?
A: We’ll only update the current curriculums and won’t completely change them. We’ll just add certain things to improve them.
Q: What is the student-teacher ratio in Rangoon Region? What plans are being carried out to balance the ratio?
A: In Yangon Region, the student-teacher ratio is 30 to 1 at primary schools, 32 to 1 at middle schools, and 29 to 1 at high schools, according to a recent survey. A ratio of 1 teacher to around 30 students is not too bad.
Teachers have also been trained to teach with a student-centered approach, not only in Rangoon but in the entire country.
Q: Is there international donor support for implementing the education system reforms?
UNICEF has been the largest contributor to Myanmar’s education sector. The World Bank and Australia have also started providing assistance to Myanmar.