Myanmar’s democratic government recently launched a comprehensive, multi-year strategy to reform the country’s education system, which is in a dire state after decades of neglect under the former military regime.
The National Education Strategic Plan runs through 2021 and is an ambitious road map for a first phase of reforms that aims to improve teaching, learning and inclusion on all education levels, from kindergarten to universities.
Some major proposed measures include extending basic education with two years to a total of 13, and the introduction of new curricula, child centered learning and more interactive classrooms.
The plan has been broadly welcomed as an important starting point for the long-term task of developing a modern education system. But education experts note significant challenges such as its high implementation costs, while some criticized it for failing to consult civil society and ethnic minority education providers.
More than three years in the making with ample assistance from international donors and education consultants, the plan was presented in late February by de facto government leader and State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, who stressed it is pivotal for Myanmar’s socio-economic development.
“The change must be started in education,” she said. “We all need to consider what the main needs are to succeed after the National Education Strategic Plan has been adopted.”
Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s Myanmar representative, said the launch was “a historic moment” for the education system.
Myanmar’s education system was one of Asia’s best until the military took over in 1962. It drastically cut spending, began to emphasize rote learning and – fearing the student movements – all but dismantled higher education.
In 2011, the previous, quasi-civilian government began to sharply raise education spending, which was Asia’s lowest and represented only 0.7 percent of GDP. It drafted a National Education Law and began developing the NESP.
For the National League for Democracy government to now implement the new plan, which officially runs from 2016-2021, will be expensive. The “low-performance scenario” in which 80 percent of the measures are introduced, requires $10.6 billion over five years, or an average of $2.1 billion annually.
Last year, the government spent $1.13 billion on education, international donors $71 million and individual households an estimated $186 million. So the government will have to prioritize among the proposed measures and sharply increase spending, presumably together with international donors.
Mael Raynaud, a political analyst who has written about education reform, said finding necessary funding and quality personnel to implement the NESP will be a long-term challenge.
“[I]t took 20 years for Indonesia to be able to provide the education sector with a budget comparable to what exists in the West, or in East Asia. And obviously, it will take decades to train teachers and professors, but also… (Ministry of Education) staff,” he said.
Non-state educators excluded
Raynaud, who heads the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation’s Political Information Program, said another major issue will be “the process through which a number of non-state providers of education are slowly integrated in the system.”
In Myanmar, Buddhist monastic schools, civil society and ethnic organizations – including rebel groups – play an important role in filling a gap in education services for poor students and children in remote ethnic areas.
Rebel groups have long demanded autonomy to govern ethnic areas, including the right to teach their own languages and culture. Kachin, Karen and Mon rebels maintain education departments that teach tens of thousands of students in their areas of control, but the government mostly declines to recognize their degrees.
Thein Lwin, a former NLD member and respected education expert with the National Network for Education Reform, criticized the plan for its lack of consultation with civil society and ethnic educators, in particular on the issue of how to integrate their education programs into the government system.
He noted that NNER – a large network of student unions, teachers unions and ethnic education NGOs – also was ignored by the Ministry of Education.
Ethnic language teaching falls short
According to Thein Lwin, the Ministry of Education’s ethnic language teaching programs and curricula – implemented and drafted without non-state educators – are minimal.
“The difficulties are that ethnic languages are taught only in evening class, not in the school hours; Myanmar reader texts are translated into ethnic languages for teaching; and [there is a] lack of teachers for ethnic languages,” he wrote.
Thein Lwin said many countries with indigenous minorities include strong mother tongue teaching in basic education, as it can significantly reduce dropout rates, which are often high in Myanmar’s ethnic regions.
Kim Jolliffe, a political researcher who studied ethnic groups’ social services provision, said the NESP’s “clear strengths” lie in emphasizing new education approaches – such as a shift to child centered and outcomes based learning – that both state and non-state educators can use to develop unified teaching methods, which eventually can help integrate the latter’s programs.
Yet, he also faulted the lack of inclusion of non-state educators in the NESP. “There were a lot of attempts over a long period by many actors to be heard and they were just blocked out.”