Despite Reforms, Burma’s Schools Resume With Textbook and Teacher Shortages

By Samantha Michaels 3 June 2014

RANGOON— As students return to classes after the summer holiday in Burma, the government says that despite education reforms, some public schools are still understaffed and have been unable to provide adequate supplies of textbooks.

Classes resumed across the country on Monday at Burma’s public schools. For the first time this academic year, the government plans to enforce a compulsory primary education policy, state-run media reported, adding that “doubts persist [whether] preparations have been efficient.”

“Despite the government’s pledges to enroll all school-aged children this term for basic education, in a move aimed at boosting the country’s literacy level, many parents have complained about the lack of learning material and qualified teachers,” the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Tuesday.

The teacher-student ratio in government schools is about 1:29, the newspaper reported, but at some schools the situation is worse. “My class has 75 students this year. We have requested more teachers to be able to provide adequate education, but we have been accustomed to these situations for some years,” Su Su, a fifth grade teacher, was quoted as saying.

Parents, meanwhile, complained to the newspaper that their children had not received textbooks for certain subjects, although the government did provide some free books for others.

Public primary and secondary schools in Burma do not charge tuition, but families are often forced to pay for other school-related fees, such as uniforms, textbooks and school repairs.

Education reform has begun under President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, with efforts to hire additional teachers and make schools accessible to low-income students. Starting in 2011, the government promised to produce a new textbook in every subject for every child.

“They managed to do it,” Julian Watson, an education consultant for the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), under the Ministry of Education, told The Irrawaddy last year. “It was 40 million books, and every one of those was bound by hand. The books were delivered.”

As part of reform efforts, the government is also drafting new education legislation and considering changes to school curricula.

However, some teachers and civil society groups say the reform process has not been inclusive.

Sai Naw Kham, from the Rural Development Foundation of Shan State, said government education officials were not familiar with the educational challenges in remote ethnic states, where students often walk long distances to school and may struggle to understand lessons because they speak ethnic languages at home.

“They don’t know what is really happening on the ground,” he told The Irrawaddy of government officials.

The Ministry of Education has held consultation meetings with civil society groups, but it is unclear how open those meetings have been.

“There was limited time for questions and limited room for us to give our opinions,” said Saw Kapi, who attended one meeting as executive director of Thabyay Education Foundation, a Thailand-registered foundation that focuses on education in Burma.

Saw Kapi, who is also a member of the Myanmar Indigenous Network for Education (MINE), said he worried Parliament would pass an education law that allowed the central government to control most aspects of education, rather than decentralizing authority to the state and divisional levels. “Centralization is my biggest concern,” he said.

Unicef, which is supporting Burma’s education reform process along with other international development partners, called on the government on Monday to be more inclusive.

“Although much progress has been made by the government with support from partners, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the reforms address and respond to the needs of all children, especially children who are living with disabilities, who are living in remote areas, who do not speak Myanmar [Burmese] language at home, who are poor and/or working and who are affected by conflict and emergencies,” the UN agency said in a statement.

The agency urged the government to provide greater support to teachers, to reinforce “pro-poor policies toward education,” and to increase the education budget.

“In addition, exciting new efforts to decentralize the management of education processes at state, township and community levels should be further strengthened so that the combined efforts from all stakeholders across Myanmar [Burma] can ensure all children are able to enjoy their rights to the best quality education,” it said.