An education policy disaster, 30 years on

A decision to change the language of instruction for some high school subjects has had major ramifications and been a factor in the precipitous decline of education standards in Myanmar.


THERE’S WIDESPREAD agreement that Myanmar’s education standards are very low. Most chart the start of this decline to General Ne Win’s 1962 coup, which ushered in nearly five decades of military rule.

Fewer people understand why Myanmar’s education system, once the best in Southeast Asia, has fallen so far. There are two main reasons. The first is the mismanagement of the education sector by military leaders who themselves knew little about the subject. Second is the tendency by Myanmar’s military dictators to see students, particularly those studying at university, as an enemy.

It’s impossible to cover the precipitous decline of education in Myanmar in a single article. But I will try to explain one great mistake that has been occurring for more than three decades. There are many other problems, of course. One just needs to look at all the university graduates who have no real skills of any worth and are unable to get a job.

My story begins in 1985, under Ne Win’s socialist regime, when English was chosen as the language of instruction for mathematics and science subjects at the 9th and 10th standards. Before this, basic education high schools only taught these subjects in Burmese; all textbooks for mathematics, chemistry, biology, economics and so on were in the Burmese language. But from 1985 there was a huge change. The textbooks were now in English. The exams were in English, too. The aim was apparently to raise Myanmar’s education system to international standards. Of course, the result has been quite different, for reasons that should be obvious.

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The issue came up recently when the National Education Policy Commission submitted its work report for the past six months to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s national parliament, on June 12. It said there had been no review or study on the effects of changing the language of instruction for these subjects to English.

During the discussion, lawmakers noted that there are not enough teachers well versed in English to implement the policy. Teachers require at least upper intermediate English skills to teach these subjects, they said. However, according to a recent survey conducted by British Council, most senior assistant teachers (SAT) have just beginner or elementary level English. It means that most of the SATs are not qualified to teach those subjects in English language.

It’s no surprise then that when teachers without a proficiency in English try to teach science subjects in English, the students can hardly understand anything. This has only encouraged the use of private tutors and reinforced the habit of rote learning.

The National Education Policy Commission estimates that more than 90 percent of high school students are receiving tuition. Classrooms have become a place where students memorise possible exam questions and the relevant answers, rather than a place where they actually learn.

To make it easier for students to memorise science subjects, most tutors try to compose the material into poems or songs. Thus this mistaken education policy has encouraged parrot learning. When they are properly tested, the students have neither English fluency nor an adequate understanding of their science subjects. Despite putting in significant time and effort, many students are basically uneducated, observed lawmaker Dr Hla Moe (National League for Democracy, Aung Myay Thar Zan).

Although the problem has not, as the commission said, been reviewed or assessed by previous governments, it has been widely debated by scholars and those with an interest in education. The key point is outcomes. Does the policy help provide the student with the skills needed? If not then it should be reviewed and assessed.

The National Education Policy Commission reached a similar conclusion. It said there were many reasons why Myanmar’s education system had declined, and changing the language of instruction for mathematics and science subjects to English was one of them. It said this policy decision had adversely affected parents, students and teachers for many years, and should be reviewed so a new policy could be set.

Hopefully, then, we will soon see basic education schools teaching mathematics and science subjects in Burmese language or at least a combination of Burmese and English.

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