Prospects and options

Much has been said and written about how poorly Myanmar education is doing. There are, indeed, problems in all levels of education. At the preschool level, an atmosphere of benign neglect exists. There is only a rudimentary and limited teacher-training program for preschool teachers and care givers. The lack of control, standards and training of teachers is evident from the ad hoc system of schools in which three to four-year-olds are being taught the school curriculum of higher grades by rote learning. The joy of learning and the idea that school can be a place for socialising and fun as well as for learning are stifled from the very outset of a child’s life. Most preschools are overcrowded and badly managed. Much will have to be done to ensure quality and acceptable standards.

At present, education in Myanmar is structured into five years of primary school, four years of middle school and two years of high school. In effect, a child receives 11 years of schooling (kindergarten and standards one to 10) before entering tertiary education. Kindergarten is taken to be part of the primary education cycle making it a de facto ‘standard one’. A Myanmar child starts his or her schooling at five years of age and takes his or her matriculation examination at 16 years of age. This system needs to be reformed. The state school system should treat kindergarten as a nursery and school proper should start at standard one, and the cycle should run for 12 years.

Since 69 per cent (UIS 2007) of the population lives in rural areas and approximately 64.1 per cent are employed in the agricultural sector, provision of education to these rural communities should be geared towards their needs. The curriculum and programs used in rural schools should be flexible not rigid. The rigid, monolithic national curriculum, school terms and timetables that exist today will have to be reconsidered. For rural areas, a more flexible curriculum based on local needs should be devised and, where seasonal cropping occurs, school terms should be arranged so that rural family units can make full use of the manpower available to them without disrupting the schooling of their children. In such a way, the massive drop-out rate before completion of the primary cycle of education can be staunched in these disadvantaged areas. If rural schools are programmed as urban schools are and the plight of agrarian families is ignored, the pernicious effect of school drop-out rates on the already weakened education system will be increased further. It will no longer be state education for the masses, but for the elite. Furthermore, the Education Management Information System (EMIS), which has been set up by the Department of Basic Education, should carry out further school-mapping exercises and work out the needs of local communities in rural areas. An urban-school model does not usually work well in a rural setting. A realistic specification of needs for rural areas has to be undertaken and implemented urgently.

It is generally accepted that education, health, agricultural and rural development are the keys to social, economic and environmental reforms in Myanmar. Focus must also be placed on education with an agricultural bias. Kyaw Than (2006) says that Myanmar has 10 agricultural high schools, seven state agricultural institutes and one university of agriculture. It is sad to note, however, that, at present, some agricultural high schools have closed due to the paucity of student intake. This is a sorry state of affairs in an agricultural country such as Myanmar. It could be that the curriculum is too esoteric and is perceived as being of little intrinsic value by those for whom the schools are intended. The situation might improve if agricultural education is decentralised and local education councils are formed and given the room to fit courses to local needs. There should also be more ‘hands-on’ experience shared by agricultural extension personnel with local communities. Collaboration and participation by farmers are essential. They must be provided with practical solutions to their problems. The main thrust should be on improving the productivity of the crops that the poor consume. There is a need to target the areas where the largest numbers of poor people live (Win and Batten 2006). The Asian Development Bank (ADB 2007) supports this: ‘In view of the importance of agriculture and its impact on poverty, strengthening the sector should be a key goal.’

Currently, agriculture is losing out as the nation’s focus is directed towards exploring for natural gas, gemstones and minerals. This is unfortunate, as these resources are finite. On the other hand, agricultural productivity—like human resources—is a renewable factor. Much more should be done for the sons and daughters of rural folk engaged in agriculture. The farmers themselves should also be given an opportunity to gain literacy skills and therefore be able to participate more effectively in agricultural extension endeavours. The Community Learning Centre (CLC) initiative begun by the Myanmar Education Research Bureau (MERB) offers those with no literacy a chance to go from ‘darkness into light’. So far, 71 CLCs have been established under the UNDP’s Human Development Initiative (HDI) project. Other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local and international, have joined the effort. According to MERB, there are now 480 CLCs.

Literacy-promotion programs are not new to Myanmar. In the late 1960s, a national campaign known as ‘the three rs’ was undertaken, involving university students and people from all walks of life—monks, workers, farmers and armed forces personnel. The campaign was deemed a success and lauded by UNESCO, which, in 1971 and 1983, awarded Myanmar its prize for literacy activities.

This important undertaking can be replicated with the cooperation of the five pillars of Myanmar society; however, the campaign model will have to be updated. Incentives must be provided for those illiterate people who join the programs. For example, a farmer who gains literacy through these programs must be rewarded. The reward should not be just a paper certificate, but micro-credit points towards his children’s education. In this way, the father (who invariably is the dominant member of the family) will take pride in his own ‘education’ and feel satisfied that he is also contributing to his children’s education. This will go a long way towards alleviating the problem of large numbers of drop-outs and the non-completion of even the primary cycle of education.

The importance of the professional training of teachers has been stressed repeatedly, but training alone is hardly the answer. Adequate remuneration and incentives must be provided to counter the dubious practices of some of teachers ‘to earn a fast buck’ by operating outside the formal state system. All this highlights the need for teachers to be better trained and to be more professional. There must be a substantial investment by the Ministry of Education in the training and retention of teachers. It is a major concern when the trust and high regard that parents and students once had for their teachers are being worn away by economic pressure, which is being felt at all levels of society. The status of teachers must also be reviewed in terms of increased salaries, allowances and fringe benefits. Their standing in terms of the hierarchy for public employees and the civil service must also be greatly improved. The teaching profession must be made to appear attractive so that a higher calibre of people will be inclined to enter it. Only by being helped to do the right thing will Myanmar teachers regain their rightful place as one of the ‘five gems’.

As Myanmar slowly develops, in spite of its handicaps, it will need an increasingly larger workforce of mid-level technicians with hands-on experience and skills. The former Department of Technical, Agricultural and Vocational Education (DTAVE) was effective in the training of such manpower in the past. Many of its staff members were trained at the Colombo Plan Staff College in Singapore. The emphasis then was to produce mid-level technicians with usable and marketable skills. There is a need to return to a vocational system of education that serves the needs of the industrial and construction sectors.