Back to school

Not much to report the last few weeks, partly because I’ve been recovering from a terrible cold and partly because of the weather. The rainy season has started and that means days of non-stop torrential rain. The college grounds have been flooded and we had to tiptoe over stepping stones to get to the classrooms. But the sun is out again now and today I visited some schools in Mandalay. The schools have just reopened after a three-month long summer holiday. I wasn’t expecting much after the bare and miserable village school I saw a few weeks ago but I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the first school. The rooms were light and airy and since it was lunch-time the playground was full kids running around and enjoying themselves. After greeting some of them, I was led to the head-teacher’s office:


Here you can see the head sitting behind her table. She is head of a combined primary and middle school with a total of 522 students and 39 teachers. There are 14 classes. The numbers are declining she told me as more and more children are going to private schools. The curriculum is the same in all schools: Myanmar, English, Maths and Natural Science in grades 1 and 2 (6 – 8 year-olds), then Social Science and Basic Science are added in grades 3 and 4, and Geography and History in grades 5 – 8 for the 12 to 14-year olds. There are also co-curricular subjects in all years: Agriculture. P.E. Music, Art and Moral Development (which means Buddhism). The head has no budget. The government provides everything: the buildings, the books, the uniforms and the teachers’ salaries. School is free, though parents who can afford it make donations. After our talk with the head we were free to walk round the school and pop into any classroom we wanted. We started with an English lesson where the children were learning the comparative and superlative:


Each child had a turn writing the forms of the adjective on the board and each child received an applause when finished. There were about 40 children in this class, as in most classes we saw. I didn’t see anyone make any mistakes. After that they went on to sentence structure (SVO) and transitive and intransitive verbs. It was what you might call a grammar-based approach.

The next lesson we visited was at primary level and the children were learning ‘life skills’


We also visited a History lesson where, with the help of a globe, the teacher was telling an engaging story about Portuguese ‘travellers’ who had come to the East in times past. And lastly we visited a kindergarten class, where the children were doing a musical movement activity:


and obviously enjoying themselves:


This is the first year that children of 5 are attending school in Myanmar. The new Education Reform Bill has lowered the starting age of compulsory  education by adding a kindergarten year.

I was struck by the relaxed and happy atmosphere in all the classrooms I visited together with the children’s respect for their teachers and eagerness to participate. They stood up and greeted us in chorus whenever we entered  classroom, and when I took over a class for a few minutes, they put up their hands politely and asked questions in turn, although entirely unprepared for the visit. I wondered if it was like this in all schools. The school had minimal resources however, here is the library:


And I didn’t see any computers in the school. Nor in any other of the schools we visited. All the schools we saw were also entirely staffed by women, including the heads.

The next school we went to was No 2 High School, founded in 1921. It was housed in a rather imposing colonial building with some Myanmar additions:


Here we saw some very traditional lessons:


as well as some of the co-curricular subjects like P.E.


and signs of what looked like Agriculture:


There was also a boxing ring in the school, where children could learn boxing, the only school to have one in Mandalay they proudly told me.

Our last visit was to a Chinese school. It was Chinese in that it was attended by ‘Chinese’ children and housed in an old Chinese Temple:


The curriculum however was exactly the same as in all other schools. However the facilities were somewhat better, note the large air-conditioner in the corner of this classroom, and the atmosphere seemed a bit stricter.


My TEs told me this was a richer school because parents made donations. It was also housed in a beautiful old wooden building:


And there was a large if somewhat messy staff-room with a shrine at the back:


We were there when lessons ended for the day and the kids were free. Here are my two colleagues with the head:


Although the schools we visited seemed well-run and happy places, the education system as a whole is failing. This year only 29% of children in Myanmar passed the matriculation exam, a requirement for any further education. And the content of exams requires only learning by heart with no understanding of what has been learnt. Aung San Suu Kyi has made education reform one of the top priorities for the new government and has pledged to abolish parrot learning. This will mean a new curriculum, new exams, new textbooks and a completely different approach to teaching and learning. The amount of change which is needed is mind-boggling.






  1. “Flooding and torrential rain” doesn’t sound very appealing, but I loved your story about the school visits. Indeed, by the looks of it, Myanmar’s educational system will see more upheaval than the Dutch counterpart has seen in forty years. Let’s hope they succeed in making it 21st Cent proof ;-).

    Liked by 1 person

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