Back to School

…or not?

 

This week (June 2021) Myanmar’s schools go back. Or at least they should.

In a rural village, the hot afternoon sun reflects off a row of houses.

Shuttered inside against the heat, a typical conversation is taking place between mother and daughter.

Myanmar rural houses

Soe Moe Win is in a dilemma. The local school is open for registration, term will start next week, but her 14 year old daughter Kyaw Kyaw doesn’t want to go.

Over a bowl of rice noodles and soup, the mother-daughter discussion encapsulates education in Myanmar – just as their lunch encapsulates Burmese staple food.

Safety

The most pressing issue is safety. After months of violence following the military’s assumption of power in February, the Ministry of Education has promised that schools will be protected by security forces.

For Kyaw Kyaw, this is the last thing she wants to hear. She says: “Security forces target Generation Z, my friends have been beaten, tortured or sexually abused.” The thought of herself and her friends voluntarily placing themselves in a school, in the hands of the same men, is utterly abhorrent to her.

Conversely, Kyaw Kyaw also fears not going to school, and that young people will be rounded up and their parents detained for up to three years under Section 505a of the Penal Code for “spreading fear” by keeping their children out of school.

Covid

The spread of the highly infectious COVID-19 variant from neighbouring India is looming. It is not clear whether the local school has passed the Ministry of Education’s 60-point reopening test. Even if the school “passes”, in reality social distancing is not feasible due to classes of over 40 using bench seating. Kyaw Kyaw says: “Classes share a toilet, boys and girls. We wash in the same water.  I will get sick, then my family will get sick.”

Kyaw Kyaw has already missed a year’s schooling due to COVID-19. Her school closed in March 2020 and, other than some ad hoc days before lockdown was reintroduced last August, it hasn’t reopened since.

Curriculum

Kyaw Kyaw finishes her bowl but is still hungry, so heads out on the hunt for boiled eggs. While, she’s gone, Soe Moe Win admits: “When I was at school, I learned to make friends and I learned to remember what the teacher said. We did not learn to question, to make decisions or to lead others.”

She questions whether it is worth sending her daughter to school at all. This is a typical family discussion in Myanmar. Faced with a curriculum which doesn’t prepare pupils to succeed in a job or in higher education, versus the immediate need to work to survive, nearly a third of upper secondary school pupils drop out.

Kyaw Kyaw returns with boiled eggs from next door for everyone, the favour will be returned later. She says: “I do not wish to learn as a slave, I will only learn when the government is democratically elected.”

Resources

The family knows their local school is operational. Others have been repurposed by the military, by protesters, or as COVID-19 response centres. At least one has been hit by an air strike.

However, they do not know if there will be enough teachers. The Myanmar Teachers’ Federation claims more than 125,000 teachers have been suspended for supporting the protest movement. That is more than a quarter of all teachers nationally. The issue is more acute at higher education level, where the Federation claims more than 11,000 of 26,000 academic and other staff are suspended.

Other teachers are deciding whether to hold their nerve and refuse to teach. Soe Moe Win says: “If few schools open, this will give heart to civil servants, medical staff and everyone refusing to cooperate with the military. We have to stand together and help each other eat and drink, even if people are not earning money.”

The future

Kyaw Kyaw wants to be a nurse. She says: “If I am not educated, I cannot become a nurse, and people will get sick and not recover because there will be no new nurses in future years”.

Soe Moe Win agrees. “I had primary education in the 1990s but there were few schools and no universities due to the military. 10 and 20 years later there were not enough people who could do important jobs so there was no peace, and not enough roads or hospitals. The same thing will happen again. With COVID and the political situation, it could be even worse.”

The alternative future

With no end in sight for either the military assumption of power, or the protests against it, young people like Kyaw Kyaw are looking for alternative education providers.

That is where organisations like Prospect Burma step in. Firstly, our post-high school education projects give young people skills in English, digital literacy, cultural awareness and critical thinking. For Kyaw Kyaw, these skills would give her a better chance of getting a trainee nurse position despite her lack of education. Or it could help her apply to a university abroad to study in the field of medicine.

Secondly, Prospect Burma scholarship funding helps young people like Kyaw Kyaw with little or no money to afford to study abroad, including tuition and living expenses. Along with our career counselling, orientation, mentoring and pastoral support, she can succeed and realise her potential to really contribute to her country and its people.

Thirdly, once she graduates, we help her build networks with other graduates to combine resources and maximise the difference their expertise can make. Together with engineers, peace negotiators and other experts she can help create networks and organisations that can help ordinary people in Myanmar, either on the ground or from outside of the country. Individually, Kyaw Kyaw will also be able to help financially support her family too.

Today, Kyaw Kyaw clears the bowls from lunch and begins tidying for her mother. In 10 years’ time, she and hundreds of others like her could be still doing the same thing due to lack of education or, if given the opportunity, they could become a network of trained professionals building resilience in their communities.

 

Myanmar Education Facts:

11.6 million learners at all education levels – about half are primary level (source)

47,000 basic education schools (source)

1.9% of government expenditure on education is the =eighth lowest in the world (out of 196 countries’ most recent figures) (source)

30% pupil drop out rate at upper secondary level (source)

68% of pupils fail their matriculation (‘passing out’ finals) exam (292k out of 910k failed in 2020). (source)

1 in 5 pupils thus actually end up completing school and passing their matriculation

3.7% of poorest quintile attend college, compared to a quarter of richest quintile (source)

1 Myanmar university ranked among the top 10,000 in the world – Yangon at 8,509 in 2019 – there are 25-30,000 universities globally and Myanmar universities have widely disappeared out of rankings altogether in 2021(source)

0.1% of international aid for scholarships for developing countries was received by Myanmar (2014) (source)