‘This Is the First Time We Are Having a Serious Impact on State Schools’

By Yen Saning 5 April 2014

The director and cultural attaché at the British Council in Burma, Kevin Mackenzie, sees an expanding role for Britain in helping revitalize the country’s education sector. Mackenzie has been in the post for less than two years, but is no stranger to the region, having served in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, as well as stints in Europe, over the last 23 years.

With the signing late last month of a Memorandum of Understanding between the British Council and Burma’s Ministry of Education, the former hopes to put teachers into more than 20 educational institutions that train teachers in Burma, where they will provide English-language instruction. The Irrawaddy sat down with Mackenzie to discuss that plan, and more.

Question: What is the purposed of the MoU signed between the British Council and the Ministry of Education?

Answer: Ever since the new government took power and started changing the environment here—started to become more openly engaged with the British Council, the international community—we have wanted to define the areas where we will work with the government. The MoU that we have signed describes areas we have already started working at, but we wanted to be clear about those areas and how they contribute to reforms that the country is implementing.

The MoU defines a list of areas where we want to work more and continue to work. Basically, they are around the teaching of English, supporting Myanmar teachers of English, supporting the Ministry of Education through its Comprehensive Education Sector Review [CESR], supporting other groups—the parliamentary committee on education, for example.

We are advising on policy reform. We are supporting UK links. We are supporting the teaching of English and we are supporting the assessment of English and professional skills.

Q: What are the details of the agreement laid out in the MoU?

A: The agreement is basically that we can do all these things. We want to grow our activities in this country. In order to do that, we have to be able to employ teachers from overseas, and so we want to be sure that we can do that. We are asking that the government allow us to bring in overseas teachers to be able to teach in different parts of the country. Not only in Yangon, possibly Mandalay, Naypyidaw and other parts of the country. We want to be able to deliver more and more services and we want an agreement to be able to do that. So, the agreement is a really a quid pro quo—that we will do all of these things and support your education reform, but to do that we need to be able to grow our operation.

Q: As I understand it, there is a project where you will employ two foreign English trainers in nearly all of the education institutions that train teachers in Burma?

A: This is a key part of the MoU. It’s called the English for Education College Trainers [EfECT]. This is a new project that we will start in September of this year. We will be bringing in up to 44 English-language teachers to put into the state education colleges—teacher training colleges that you find in many towns around Myanmar. The idea is that they will provide English-language trainings that the staff of the education colleges need. As you know, much teaching in Myanmar needs to be done through English. The staff who work at education colleges need to improve their English in order to be able to train teachers themselves.

We are focusing on training those people—the staff of the education colleges, not the teachers who come through colleges. But it has multiplying effects in helping to train the teachers who come through those colleges as well.

The funding will come from the British government, both from British Council ourselves and [UK] Department for International Development. There is going to be 4.2 million pounds [US$7.2 million] over two years. This is a significant investment and we believe it will have a very great impact on the quality of English teachers. And also the quality of education generally, because the teachers that we bring in will be bringing in new ideas, new methodology, new techniques for teaching.

Q: Why did you set a two-year duration?

A: We have to have a set time period. We believe two years is a good length of time for this type of activity. We are not committed to anything after those two years. It may continue, it may turn into something else, we don’t know. We are starting in September 2014, and will continue until the same time in 2016.

Q: What do you expect at the end of the two years?

A: We expect that the trainers will improve their level of English by a significant amount. According to the common European framework, which is a framework for assessing levels of English, we expect that the teachers will move up by at least one level within the framework, which is quite a significant step—there are only five levels in the framework. We also hope that they will be exposed to and understand more communicative ways of teaching English, where they’re involving students into a more learner-centered approach. This can be applied in the teaching of English and it can also be applied in teaching other subjects.

Q: Has there been any program like this in the past?

A: It is only with the arrival of the new government here that we have been able to work with the public education sector. Previously, we were working with the informal sector—monastic schools. We did not have a relationship with public schools. This is the first time we are having a proper, serious impact on the state schools, on the public sector.

Q: What is your opinion of Burma’s current system of language instruction?

A: There is a lot of, from what I understand, rote learning and repeating what you have been taught rather than encouraging the students to think for themselves, to express themselves. I think that is typically, partly to do with tradition, and partly to do with a lack of exposure to more contemporary ideas about teachings.

Q: What would you suggest for improvements to teachers?

A: What I would suggest is what I always suggest: ‘experiment,’ that they open their minds to different ways of teachings, to ideas about learning. And they experiment and see what works.

Q: How can Burma’s education policy and laws give space to teachers to be more creative and open to new teaching styles?

A: From my understanding of working with the government, there is interest in working with devolving autonomy to the right level. In my experience, if you want to devolve autonomy, the lowest it can go is the best way. What you want is for your teachers to have autonomy. Obviously, the teachers have to be well-informed; they have to be accountable to their schools for what they are doing. I think you have got to have freedom to make your own decisions in the classroom based on the students that you have encountered.