BANGKOK—Lao authorities are scrambling to build extra classrooms, hire thousands more teachers, and print tens of thousands of books after making a twelfth year of education mandatory to qualify for a high school diploma, officials say.
“Twelfth grade classes must open along with all the other grades in the 2010-2011 academic year,” Lao Education Deputy Minister Lytou Bouapao said in an interview.
In Vientiane, the capital, he said, “We must open Oct. 1,” adding, “All other provinces must do their best. When the time comes, all the provinces will have to implement a 12-year system.”
The deputy minister said that a system for training the nearly 4,200 teachers is already in place, though education authorities have yet to begin instructing them.
“We must train the teachers in each subject for twelfth grade,” he said.
“Most importantly, we must make sure the teachers understand the teaching system that we have prepared, are able to make the best use of their classroom, and are aware of how to deal with any problems.”
This initiative comes as part of Vientiane's National Education System Reform Strategy 2006-2015, which includes a 10-year Education Sector Development Framework and aims to raise the country's extremely low literacy rates.
Critics meanwhile fear the authorities won't be prepared for a whole additional cohort of students in the coming academic year, noting that 886 more classrooms are needed by October, requiring 69,000 aluminum sheets for roofing when only 32,000 sheets are so far available.
An estimated 36,000 new textbooks are also needed for the 11 different subjects in the twelfth-grade curriculum, but these too may not be ready.
The parent of one incoming twelfth-grader said lack of preparation is sure to have a negative effect on the efficiency of the national school system.
“This is the first school year to incorporate twelfth grade. There will certainly be problems [ahead of the school year]. First the textbooks, then the teachers, and finally the classrooms. These problems will definitely have an impact on the school year,” the parent said.
Push to reform
Education officials, while acknowledging the large scale of the reform, say they remain hopeful.
One expert at the Education Ministry said that while the plan to revamp the Lao education system is beginning in 2010, “in reality, the improvement of the curriculum, training of teachers, and the publishing of new textbooks are all goals we will complete by 2011.”
The proposed twelfth year of schooling, as opposed to the 11 years received by those few Laotians able to even attend secondary school, is part of a push towards reform and modernization by the Education Ministry.
During the French colonial period, Laotian students attended six years of both primary school, or “pratom,” and secondary school, or “matayom.”
The system at the time closely resembled that of most other Southeast Asian nations.
But after the communist Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, only five years were mandatory for a primary education.
The twelfth year will become the seventh year of secondary school, meaning that Laotian high school students who previously would have already graduated are instead returning to classes for an extra year of schooling.
But a lack of sufficient teachers, who will have to be able to teach the more complicated and difficult material presented to students at that level, may hamper efforts to improve the country’s education system.
Concerns have already been raised about the quality of the teachers produced by the various teachers' colleges in Laos. And with more teacher positions opening but the same number of graduates, the quality of instruction may be stretched thinner than before, critics say.
In a further complication, many new teachers are hesitant about moving to the countryside to work, preferring instead to stay in Vientiane and other cities where the standard of living is higher, access to information is greater, and the benefits of an education are more tangible.
While the Lao government has begun offering monetary incentives to encourage teachers to take jobs in villages and small towns, it is unclear how many teachers will accept the offer.
Educational indicators 'low'
Room to Read, a U.S.-based nonprofit promoting education and literacy in the developing world, says that although literacy is on the rise in Laos, “the lack of available reading material means that literacy is often short-lived” and that it remains rare to see books in villages.
“In addition, teachers are paid irregularly, which means that they must work for income elsewhere and often provide only a few hours of instruction a day.”
The group says that educational indicators in Laos are “dramatically low” and represent one of the main obstacles to sustainable development and poverty reduction.
“Insufficient classrooms, the lack of textbooks, educational supplies, teachers' books, and the lack of libraries are the main constraints in basic primary education.”
While government policy provides free education through secondary school, “the lack of schools and trained teachers … hampers this effort.”
Parents also often require their children to work on family farms rather than attend school regularly.
According to the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for 2009, “high fees for books and supplies and a general shortage of teachers in rural areas prevented many children from attending school,” despite government policy that education be compulsory, free, and universal through the fifth grade.
Eighty-six percent of school-age children attended primary school and only 36 percent went on to secondary school in the 2007 academic year, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
According to the Australian aid agency Ausaid, "at the current rates of improvement, Laos is unlikely to meet its Millennium Development Goal 2015 targets for primary school retention or youth literacy indicators."
Original reporting by RFA’s Lao service. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham and Somnet Inthapannha. Written for the Web in English by Evan Roe and Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.