The future is…here!

For 30 years Prospect Burma has operated on the belief that the best way to create a better future for Myanmar is through investing in education. The ripple affect from one educated person can spread out across their community, and beyond to a national and even global scale. The proof of this is being borne out throughout Myanmar and that future that we have anticipated is here. In this article, Joanna Barnard takes a look at some of the autonomous schools which have been set up to address deficiencies in the formal education system by encouraging critical thinking and imparting vocational expertise.

Independent schools sprung up in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border in the early 1990s. Self-funded and separate to the government funded education institutions, by the end of the decade they were attracting financial support from various INGOs.

Today, there are an estimated 50 of these schools across Myanmar, collectively referred to as the “post-secondary” education sector. A further 25 schools exist over the border in Thailand. These schools are not officially recognised, or funded, by the Myanmar government, and use educational materials provided by NGOs and Thai universities. They tend to accept high-school graduates, aged around 16 years, teach full-time courses several months in length, and are not-for-profit. Subjects vary from civic education, social science, leadership and management, to English language. Students can also acquire technical skills including IT, community development, and project management.

Considering that these schools have developed from the “ground-up”, their consistency and comprehensive teaching has been widely praised, filling some of the gaps left by national education.

Prospect Burma alumni are playing a prominent role in the development of these alternative education options, particularly for ethnic minorities in Kayin State.

Growing up in a village close to the Thai border, Saw Khine Thet Tun attended Hpa-An University, offering tuition to younger students to help support himself through his studies. His goals – to educate and eventually open a school – became one step closer to reality when he received a scholarship from PB to study a masters in Educational Administration at Thailand’s Ramkhamhaeng University.

He credits this time with helping him improve his expertise: “Collaboration and cooperating in a team is the effective way to develop higher-order thinking skills… to solve complex real-life problems.”

Moving to Yangon to work at the Kant Kaw Education Centre, in 2012 he co-founded the umbrella movement the Myanmar Community Academies Network (MCAP), which now supports four schools nationwide. One of these, the Education Gathering Group (EGG) Academy in Hpa-An, was established in 2013 by Saw Khine Thet Tun himself. The academy has grown from a small community initiative into a facility that offers instruction in critical thinking, English language and computing skills, for around 80 students from Karen State and beyond. Students are able to graduate with a diploma in Community Development and Leadership, and can take part in activities, clubs and internships.

“Teaching is a very exciting and enlightening experience. To become a knowledgeable and competent teacher, but also someone who can change the system.”

PB alumnus Thein Phod Awar has also been involved in the academy from its earliest days. Born into a Kayin farming family in a remote village, he studied at the local primary school and then at high school, walking across paddy fields and crossing a river just to attend classes. He was able to complete his schooling with the help of his five siblings, who worked while he studied. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to educate: “I believe that a teacher, if well trained, can build potential human resources for a country. I myself want to be a qualified teacher who is able to nurture potential leaders.”

Thein Phod Awar graduated from Hpa-An University, but was unsatisfied with the quality of the education, feeling that many attended state institutions for the sake of obtaining a certificate, rather than to learn valuable skills. “This mentality needs to be changed,” he remarks.

He learned about EGG, and when it launched its first 18-month Youth Leadership Programme, he joined.

“During the programme, I was exposed to qualified teachers and their student-centred teaching method that encourages independent learning, creative and critical thinking. I became more confident and hopeful.”

He later joined the school as a teacher, putting these skills into practice. At this time, Prospect Burma provided him with funds to study for a masters in Educational Administration at Assumption University, Thailand. The scholarship gave him international experience, taking him closer to his goal of inspiring other young people in Kayin State.

He successfully submitted his final thesis in March 2019, returning to Hpa-An to take up a leadership post at EGG.

He reflects upon his experience: “to me, teaching is a very exciting and enlightening experience. To become a knowledgeable and competent teacher but also someone who can change the system.”
These personal stories show how Prospect Burma has empowered its alumni to maximise educational opportunities in their community. Investing in young people through the provision of scholarships has had wide-reaching outcomes, not only helping alumni to achieve their personal and professional goals but expanding out to help educate many more through this national network of post-secondaries. This multiplier effect is a key part of our work, over the past thirty years and expanding into the future.

The schools provide a vital alternative to the restrictive MOE curriculum, allowing young people to acquire a high-quality education, while opening up a space for an appreciation of local concerns and needs, at a time when the question of ‘ethnicity’ is often politically charged.

While the challenges remain numerous, these schools – and Prospect Burma’s contribution – will continue to offer a brighter future for young people lucky enough to have access.

Joanna Barnard, Prospect Burma volunteer