Little Power for Local School Officials in Burma: Report

By Samantha Michaels 18 February 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s government is loosening its grip on the public school system, but education officials and school administrators at the local level say most decisions are still made from above, according to a new report.

For decades the former military regime maintained firm control over schools because students were known to play a crucial role as leaders of anti-government protests. In 2012, President Thein Sein’s administration pledged to change that by decentralizing the formal education system.

Two years later, education officials and school principals in Rangoon Division and Mon State say the government’s promise has yet to be realized, according to a report released on Monday by the Asia Foundation and the Myanmar Development Resource Institute (MDRI), an independent think-tank that is led by Thein Sein’s top economic adviser.

The Ministry of Education has transferred some responsibilities from the national level to the district and township levels, according to the report, but it has given little in the way of decision-making power over school administration, budgets and curricula.

“The government of Myanmar [Burma] has said they will make a commitment to decentralization. The reality, however, is that many ministries, and particularly the Ministry of Education, are highly centralized and top down,” Patrick McCormick, a researcher and consultant who co-authored the report, said at a launch event Monday in Rangoon. “The Ministry of Education is probably one of the most conservative, if not the most conservative, ministries in the government.”

The 2008 Constitution declares that state and divisional legislatures cannot enact legislation on education, which is strictly the purview of the national legislature. However, in 2012 Thein Sein’s government released its Framework for Economic and Social Reform (FESR), a national planning document, which said decentralization would be a key strategy for education reform.

Since then, the administration has taken some steps toward that goal. It created district-level education offices, which will in the future take over the township-level responsibility of aggregating education data, according to the report. The district offices will also have the authority to move teachers from school to school within a district, which in the past could only be done at the state or divisional level, the report added.

It said state and divisional officials from the Ministry of Education were also allowed last year for the first time in recent memory to appoint junior assistant teachers. However, more qualified teachers continued to be appointed at the national level, while school principals also lacked the authority to discipline or fire teachers without approval from higher up the chain.

The Ministry of Education controls schools’ budgets, the report added. It said a small “discretionary” budget had been given to schools—but with preset plans that narrowly allocated the expenses, down to how much money could be spent on stationery.

“Although school principals have this discretionary budget, they don’t have a lot of discretion,” said report co-author Brooke Zobrist, who has worked as a research and education consultant in Burma for the past four years. “They have more responsibility to ensure these funds are managed and documented properly. There’s added responsibility without a lot of authority.”

Curriculum is also still controlled at the national level, with decisions coming from the Ministry of Education. Local-level ministry officials and school principals interviewed for the report said it was their duty to implement decisions, rather than offering input.

Many said they were more concerned with more tangible issues, such as their lack of authority to raise money if they wanted to create a sports program and needed to buy equipment, or their inability to write up a teacher for an infraction without first receiving permission from the government.

“The school principal has no authority to hire, fire, write up or discipline a teacher, so the idea of working with curriculum and developing a larger school plan, or developing and promoting a different type of education in your area, is so much bigger,” Zobrist said.

Summing up her overall view of the situation, she said, “in some ways the government is starting to pass down tasks to lower levels. However, authority and decision-making power has for the most part not moved to outside the center.”

The report, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), is the first of a new series of papers by the Asia Foundation and the MDRI about decentralization and local governance in Burma. It was a preliminary assessment that was based on a literature review and 12 interviews in Rangoon Division and Mon State with members of the Ministry of Education, including officials at state, district and township levels, as well as school principals.

While Rangoon Division is home to the country’s former capital and fully under government control, Mon State includes many areas under partial or full control by ethnic rebels that have signed ceasefires after decades of conflict with the government army.

Given this history, education offerings in Mon State are more varied. Like ethnic rebel groups elsewhere in the country, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) has developed a distinct school system that operates outside the government system through the Mon National Education Committee, which runs more than 150 schools. Students are taught solely in the Mon language during primary school and transition to Burmese language in middle school. In high school they are taught the government curriculum, allowing for easier matriculation to universities.

The Mon education committee has an informal agreement with the government that also allows it to offer lessons in the Mon language and Mon history at government schools. This arrangement is not strictly legal, but was agreed as part of a ceasefire deal.

Also outside the government’s public school system, private schools have recently been allowed to register and operate in the country. They have greater academic freedom but are still legally required to teach the government curriculum, according to the report. In addition, monastic schools supervised by the Ministry of Religious Affairs have long been a crucial component of education in Burma, especially for students whose families cannot afford school-related fees.

“We have a picture where the Ministry of Education has taken tight control over the entire system from top to bottom. However, outside of that there are pockets where private actors, community actors, religious leaders and other groups are maintaining full education systems, training their own teachers and preparing their own curriculum,” Zobrist said.

She said decentralization could encourage a system whereby ethnic schools that are already established and supported by the community might be integrated into a larger framework of education. “Standards could be created to include all the ethnic national schools into a governance structure that allows for different types of education through different types of service providers across the country,” she said.

These changes would require political will from the top, however, and would largely depend upon the results of ongoing peace negotiations between the government and ethnic rebel groups.

Still, the Ministry of Education is studying options for reallocating authority over budgets, administration and curriculum as part of its Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), a two-year review of the school system that will lead to a new education sector development plan later this year. Officials involved in the review have said the ministry is interested in moving forward with decentralization, and is still considering strategies for how this might be done.

While citing a number of benefits to decentralization, including more efficient management and a school system that is more responsive to local needs, the report warned of possible concerns. If decentralization takes the form of shifting responsibilities to lower levels of administration without providing enough resources, it said inequities for poor and rural areas might widen.

Aung Thu Nyein, a senior research fellow for the MDRI’s Centre for Economic and Social Development (CESD), said the report would be shared with officials in the President’s Office.

“Some of our CESD colleagues have been working quite closely with the President’s Office, especially with U Tin Naing Thein, President’s Office minister No. 5, who is leading the education reform committee. And in that committee, some of our colleagues are working,” he told The Irrawaddy.

The MDRI’s executive director is Zaw Oo, an economic adviser for Thein Sein on the National Economic and Social Advisory Council. The Asia Foundation is a nonprofit international development organization focused on governance, economic development, women’s empowerment, environmental issues and regional cooperation in Asia. Both groups said opinions expressed by the authors in the education report did not necessarily reflect their own beliefs.