Alternative School Near Inle Reimagines Primary Education
By Tin Htet Paing 23 June 2017
NYAUNG SHWE, Shan State — On a four-acre plot of land in Chaung Sauk village, surrounded by the Shan hills and near one of Myanmar’s most popular tourism locales, three bamboo buildings resembling spaceships draw nearly every passerby’s attention.
At first glance, these bamboo and earthen structures northeast of Inle Lake could be mistaken for another new hotel or guesthouse. But seesaws and slides in front of the compound reveal that it has been built with children in mind.
It is the very first private school in Nyaung Shwe—an area known in Shan as Yawnghwe—and is open to any child in the local community, with an affordable price tag and run by the non-profit Inle Heritage Foundation.
The founder of Inle Heritage, Ma Yin Myo Su, is also managing director of two resorts: Inle Princess Resort near Inle Lake and Mrauk-U Princess Resort in Rakhine State, and has been recognized for efforts to preserve her ancestral ethnic Intha traditions and conservation of the natural beauty of Inle Lake. The 45-year-old’s most recent contribution concerns an investment in education.
“When I see that there are many babies in the families of my team and in my community, I wanted these children to have a childhood that I wanted myself as a child in this area,” said Ma Yin Myo Su, who guided The Irrawaddy’s reporters around the Inle Heritage Private School.
She stressed the need to have an alternative school in the area—recognized by the Ministry of Education, but with more activities than typical government-run schools—such as art, sports, storytelling, and innovative and creative talks about the environment, heritage, culture, nature and community.
“I live here. I was born here and I make my living here. So I want to give back in any way that I can, especially when the country is changing,” she explained.
In 2012 when Myanmar started allowing private schools, more than 60 schools registered. In the 2016-17 academic year, there were 585 private schools registered with the Ministry of Education, U Kyaw Thu, of the ministry’s department of basic education, told The Irrawaddy.
In a time when the private and international school sector is growing rapidly, fees for Myanmar’s most expensive international schools can run up to US$2,000 per month, per child. Private schools with a government-drafted curriculum start at around 50,000 kyats ($37) per month.
It took Ma Yin Myo Su and her team one year to complete the construction of the Inle Heritage Private School’s first three buildings. The school then launched its first class on June 1. It currently has a total of five classrooms hosting 118 students, from nursery to second grade, and boasts two playgrounds in the compound.
She plans to expand the school to host up to 12 buildings, eventually providing middle and high school education as well. The school’s monthly fees are 35,000 kyats ($25) for nursery and kindergarten and 40,000 kyats (US$30) for first and second grades.
Bamboo As A Building Material
The unique architecture of the school is another reason why it stands out from other standard school facilities in Myanmar, which are typically multi-story concrete buildings with limited play space. Yin Myo Su described it as a mix of contemporary and traditional architectural forms that fits into the local culture and remains close to nature.
To have a school that is made up of funky, strange and irregular shapes yet still stands in harmony with the surrounding area and environment inspired Ma Yin Myo Su’s fundamental vision to use bamboo as a building material for the project.
While Asian cultures have been building with bamboo since the 10th century, the medium has become increasingly popular in modern architecture and interior design as a sustainable and cheaper alternative to timber. Its advantage is that it is fast growing and does not contribute to deforestation, Ma Yin Myo Su explained.
“I want children to start thinking about sustainability, from the building itself, up to anything that they can see and imagine,” she said. “Whoever is going to build either businesses or schools or clinics or houses, it is possible to build in the most sustainable way possible, and there is alternative material that we could use with what we have around us.”
With proper insecticide treatment, bamboo structures can last several decades. It is non-polluting and, according to architects, arguably more earthquake resistant than cement and timber.
Ma Yin Myo Su also highlighted the school’s construction as a chance for her employees to learn how to preserve bamboo and how to treat it so that it is more resistant and durable for longer periods. The project was completed in partnership with Thailand-based architectural and design company Bamboo Family.
Building Children’s Character
The school of five classrooms currently runs with a total of 17 staff including eleven teachers, two academic consultants and the principal.
Being the first private school in the region, one of the challenges it faces are the expectations from parents who want their children to be outstanding students in terms of grades and distinctions, Ko Aung Kyaw Swar, the school’s principal told The Irrawaddy.
The principal explained that the school’s first ambition is to train children to be morally sound and disciplined persons, while cultivating an attitude of care for the community.
“Education to me is beyond the recognitions of degrees or certificates,” he said. “I personally do not [put] a lot of grand visions or objectives on our kids, but I want them to become responsible for themselves on their own and to at least care for their community.”
After only the first two weeks of the school’s operation, Ko Aung Kyaw Swar said he was initially afraid that parents would give up on the school and that no children would show up to attend anymore. However, he had received positive feedback from parents that their children had become more independent in their daily lives.
“It’s the very, very first step of a long journey and [parents] need to believe in what we are doing, so we also try to closely collaborate with them,” he added.
Ma Yin Myo Su also said that she dreams of having a small animal farm and vegetable garden in the school compound where students can learn respect for animals, responsible consumption, and environmentally friendly habits.
“We have to give our children the best education, since they are going to lead our country’s next generation one day and decide its future,” she said.