Teacher shortages have forced the closure of several public primary schools in Vientiane, leaving low income families concerned whether their children will be able to resume classes in September after the holidays.
The closure comes just two months after the government issued a decree providing teachers with better incentives, such as supporting allowances and payment for working overtime.
The decree, signed by Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong on April 5, also instituted comprehensive measures to develop teaching standards across Laos.
The government has estimated that at least 9,000 more teachers are required to fill public schools.
“The shortage of teachers is a serious problem in Laos. Educators have no choice but to close schools in some villages,” said Sisouphanh Thepphasouvah, the director of the education and sports department of Vientiane's Chanthaburi district.
As a result of the closures, some parents are concerned that, given the long distance and transportation expenses to new schools, they might not be able to send their children to school next year.
A group of parents whose children attend the Sibounheuang Public Primary School in the Chanthaburi district explained that the closures will hurt the poor the most.
“Public schools are necessary for people like us,” one parent said.
But aside from poor families in urban areas, the teacher shortages are also hurting villagers in remote areas the hardest, Thepphasouvah said.
The shortage of teachers is so serious in remote areas that whereas each village previously had its own primary school, now four to five villages will need to share one primary school, he said.
Blaming private schools
The Sibounheuang parents lamented that they cannot afford to provide their children with a private education.
Families with higher incomes have been sending their children to private schools, causing private schools to expand especially fast in the capital, they said.
Many public school teachers quit their jobs to teach at private schools for a higher salary, they said.
The group of parents asserted that this teacher turnover has not only reduced the number of public schools but also their quality of education.
Last year, the average classroom in Laos housed 60 students.
According to Thepphasouvah, starting next year, public school teachers may need to teach up to four classes in the same classroom at the same time to make up for the shortage.
Private schools, on the other hand, have been able to maintain smaller class sizes by hiring more teachers.
Although competition from private institutions is a significant problem, the dearth of teachers in general arises for several other reasons.
For one, most secondary school students choose against becoming teachers, favoring more profitable career paths in the private sector.
In addition, there is a surplus of teachers trained in certain subjects and a shortage in other subjects.
“We have too many, but face shortages at the same time due to improper planning,” Dr. Sisamone Sithirajvongsa, the Ministry of Education’s Office Head Associate Professor, told the Vientiane Times in May.
The government has attempted to rectify this problem by recruiting students for the government’s teacher development program and by providing government scholarships. By accepting the scholarship, students are obligated to teach in their home communities upon completion of the course.
Despite this agreement, however, officials have said that many participants have ignored this obligation in the past.
Officials also face hurdles in relocating teachers to remote areas.
Human resource development
Laos ranks 137th on an index of the world’s best public education systems and boasts a meager literacy rate of 73%.
Back in November, Prime Minister Thammavong urged educators to turn out a workforce qualified enough to meet the country’s growing development needs.
Speaking at a meeting of the Ministry of Education and Sports in southern Saravan province, he stressed the need to improve the public education system.
“If we don't pay attention to developing education, we will be unable to graduate from poverty and least-developed country status,” he said, according to the Vientiane Times.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Noah Morgenstein.