Cablegate: Education in Laos, Part I: The Primary Years

DE RUEHVN #0246/01 1160934




E.O. 12958: N/A

SUBJECT: Education in Laos, Part I: The Primary Years

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1. Summary. This cable is the first in a series examining the
education system in Laos, from elementary through university and
technical/vocational schools. Future cables will examine the
problems faced by secondary schools, the limits of tertiary
education, and the growing role of private schools. Primary
education in Laos faces huge challenges stemming from the basic
demographics of the country coupled by economic challenges and poor
incentives for teachers. The Government of Laos (GOL) knows it
needs to strengthen the system in order to provide the kind of
educated worker required to pull the country out of poverty, but
does not have the resources to overcome the challenges it has
identified. To do so successfully, however, would take a huge
social mobilization and expenditure of resources far beyond anything
currently being done in Laos today. We do not expect to see an
Asian tiger in these jungles anytime soon. End Summary.

Demographic Building Blocks: The Numbers

2. The youth and diversity of the Lao population help explain both
the current state of education and the need for serious reform.
According to the 2005 census, of the roughly 6 million people in
Laos, 44% are younger than 15, creating huge and growing pressure on
the current capacity of the school system. In addition, the
diversity of the Lao population creates a challenge for education
officials from the earliest years: many young students do not speak
the Lao language, and live in remote areas. Officially, Laos has 49
ethnic groups, which are often grouped into four language families.
According to World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) figures,
the Lao-Tai group of lowland communities together account for 66% of
the population. (The "Lao" themselves are 30% of the total
population, with the 7 lowland Tai groups adding up to another 36%.)
The other ethnic groups are splintered into comparatively small
numbers: 32 different Austro-Asiatic groups form 23% of the total
population, the two Hmong-Yu Mien groups together are 7%, and
finally 7 Sino-Tibetan groups make up 3% of the population.

3. Laos is only 27% urbanized, and, outside the main cities, the
10,000 villages across 141 districts average only 500 people.
Access to basic services varies widely; outside the main urban
areas, about 30% of villages are off the road network and only
one-third of rural villages have electricity. Per capita GDP is
roughly $600 per year, with the urban populations currently
experiencing a much faster growth in prosperity and economic
opportunity than their rural counterparts. Roughly 80% of the labor
force is involved in subsistence agriculture. Finding teachers for
this wide range of communities has been a huge challenge for the
government. Add the problem of levels of childhood malnutrition
that can be as high as 50% in the rural areas and the stage is set
for an extremely difficult set of primary school years.

4. The GOL is heavily dependent on the largesse of the international
community to achieve educational goals. According to a 2007 draft
UNESCO document, the GOL spends 15% of its budget on education, and
approximately 40% of the total education expenditures were focused
at the primary level. Official Development Assistance accounts for
57% of the GOL's education budget and 92% of its capital budget,
according to 2007 review of expenditures by the World Bank,
International Monetary Fund, ADB, and European Commission. In the
2004/2005 school year, for example, bilateral donors contributed
$37.15 million while multilateral donors added another $15.61
million, with NGOs spending $1.81 million on education. The main
bilateral donors for the entire sector are Australia, Belgium,
China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Sweden and the United States.
Australia and France focus on primary education and teacher
development. Belgium and Germany work in technical and vocational
training. Japan, Korea and Sweden work across all levels.

5. Multilateral donors include the World Bank, ADB, UN agencies, and
the European Union. The majority of aid seems to be directed to the
primary and tertiary levels, with less than 8% of the aid received
for secondary or vocational schooling. Many aid programs are also
designed to improve central administration. The World Bank and ADB,
with financial assistance from Australia and Sweden, are the largest
donors to the primary education sector, with Japan as the single
largest bilateral donor.

6. Although U.S assistance for education is primarily focused on
tertiary education, via the Fulbright programs, a number of other
U.S. aid programs benefit primary schools. A multi-year $3 million
U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program run by the Humpty
Dumpty Institute provides school lunches, school rehabilitation,
mine clearance, and administrative assistance for schools in
Khammouan province. The program, which benefits approximately
10,000 students, recently received a second tranche of funding from
USDA. Catholic Relief Services has a $1,330,000 USAID-funded pilot
program to train teachers in Vientiane municipality in working with
disabled students. With $321,376 of funding from PM/WRA, the NGO
World Education/Consortium educates primary school students (and
others) on the dangers of unexploded ordnance.

VIENTIANE 00000246 002.2 OF 004


7. In addition to dealing with a young, growing, as well as
ethnically and linguistically diverse population, the Lao primary
education system faces huge challenges in access to education and
teacher training. The standard length of primary school is 5 years,
after which students may complete 3 years of lower secondary and an
additional 3 years of upper secondary. (Note: the GOL plans to add a
twelfth year of study into the system by 2010.) Currently, there
are approximately 8500 public primary schools in Laos serving about
900,000 students, with enrollments increasing every year both in
numbers and the percentage of the age-appropriate population.
Education at the primary level is supposed to be both compulsory and
free, according to a 1996 Prime Minister's decree, but some very
poor families cannot afford the fees for uniforms and materials,
keeping some children out of the school system. Currently, over 57%
of the adult population has not completed primary school. According
to a 2006 study by the World Food Program, labor commitments were
the greatest driver of the high rates of primary school dropouts and
poor attendance records. Gender gaps also exist; a 2005 World Bank
study indicates that while 92% of Lao-Tai girls in urban areas
attend primary school, only 52% of non-Lao-Tai girls in rural areas

8. Furthermore, while theoretically 80% of the villages have
primary schools in their areas, only one-third of them offered the
full 5 years of schooling. Average class size is approximately 70
students in rural areas, although the government says it intends to
reduce that to a national average of 30-32 per class. Overall, it
takes on average 8 years to complete the 5 primary grades, according
to a 2007 unpublished UNESCO report, and only about 58% of students
who begin in Grade 1 will make it through Grade 5.

9. Contacts in the Ministry of Education, up to and including both
vice ministers, are apparently sincere in their efforts to
strengthen the primary education sector, including creating
additional opportunities and access for minority groups. Most
members of minority ethnic groups are in very remote areas, often
off the road network, and sometimes in villages of 50-100 people.
Building schools in all of these areas is simply beyond both the
current resources of the Lao government and the current financial
plans of the donor community. Cultural traditions among many of
these groups do not value education highly, particularly for girls,
further contributing to poor attendance and completion rates. The
Ministry of Education is making an effort to identify teachers from
within those ethnic groups to return to their communities, but the
numbers are currently too small to effectively support that effort
(see para 13). Finally, since these groups do not speak Lao as
their primary language, it will take more than buildings and
textbooks to bring education to the people; the GOL will need to
teach teachers new strategies for encouraging education in a
multicultural and multilingual classroom.

10. According to a UNESCO survey, 75% of poor households are ethnic
minorities in remote communities, with higher rates of illiteracy
and malnutrition and little access to health care. In response to
these needs, particularly in the northern highlands, the World Food
Program established a school feeding program in 2002 that encourages
families to send their kids to school, particularly girls. Both
girls and boys attending primary school in the 19 target districts
not only get a midday meal, but are also given rations to take back
to their families. In order to encourage parents to send their
daughters to school, the take-home rations - consisting of rice,
fish and iodized salt - is larger for girls than it is for boys.
Students who live far away from their schools and are, in effect,
informal boarders, are also given extra rice and fish as an evening
meal. This project aims to reach over 140,000 students by 2010.

11. However, the government could also do much more with the
resources it has. The GOL's slowness in approving memoranda of
understanding for foreign assistance projects is a major source of
frustration for donors, and the Ministry of Education is among the
worst offenders in this regard. Approval for the USDA-funded school
feeding/UXO clearance program, which required approval from the
Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took six
months -- and that was considered unusually fast. Approvals for
other MOUs have taken well over a year. On the other hand, one
senior contact in the International Relations Department at the
Ministry, now in the U.S. on a Humphrey Fellowship, notes that she
does not have enough staff to coordinate all of the foreign projects
already in place, and that it is nearly impossible for the GOL to
monitor all of the foreign activity in this sector. The result, she
says, is a wide array of uncoordinated and sometimes inefficient
foreign-run programs resulting in textbook variations among schools,
teachers learning different techniques, and other failures to
achieve scaleable benefits.

12. Requirements for becoming a teacher are quite low, leaving
students to learn from teachers who may not have more than even the
most basic education themselves. Primary school teachers are

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selected from students who have completed lower secondary and are at
least 15 years old. They must also complete 3 years of Primary
Training School, usually at one of the teacher training colleges.
Alternatively, students who have completed upper secondary need only
finish one additional year for teacher training in order to become
primary school teachers. Teachers are civil servants for the most
part, and as such earn the standard government salary of between
$25-30 per month when they first enter the profession. However, in
rural areas, just receiving the monthly wage may involve a trek of a
few days to the provincial capital to get the cash, which may come
several months late. Most teachers in those areas do not have bank
accounts, and, even if they do, may not have banks within easy
travel distance to pick up or deposit funds. Moreover, many need to
have second jobs or work on farms in order to make ends meet. In
late 2007, the Government announced that it would make more of an
effort to pay teacher salaries on time. However, teachers may still
lose several days of school time each month to travel to pick up
their salaries. Low salaries and lack of steady payment make
attracting and retaining teachers in outlying provinces increasingly
difficult, especially as the demand for educated labor in the urban
areas continues to grow.

13. Lao education officials, including Vice Dean of the National
University's Faculty of Education Bounseng Kannhavong, note that
they cannot train enough teachers, and even those who trained do not
always stay in the school system. Teachers who receive scholarships
to university, contingent on an agreement to spend 3 years teaching
in provincial schools, often find other jobs immediately after
graduation. Others may go out to the provinces but return to the
cities after only a few months. According to Vice Minister of
Education Sengdeuane Lachanthaboun, the government tries to overcome
cultural challenges by finding teachers from within the target
ethnic group, training them at teacher training colleges, and
sending them back to their district. At the primary level, she
notes, having a teacher of the same ethnic group is often critical
to convincing parents to send their children to school, particularly
for the girls. Many ethnic groups, outside of the lowland Lao, do
not value girls' education highly. However, the GOL has not been
able to find and train sufficient numbers of teachers - of any
ethnicity - to staff fully the primary schools in those areas.


14. As part of the GOL's Millenium Development Goals, the Ministry
of Education plans to have all of the appropriate age attend school
by 2015, in other words, to comply with the 1996 compulsory
education decree. Girls are to have equal access to education by
the same target year. Literacy rates are supposed to top 85% by
that time. Plans for improved supervision, better materials,
supplies in every classroom, and improved teacher training are
regularly aired in the media and at education conferences in Laos.
In fact, programs sponsored by the World Bank and the Asia
Development Bank will finance the printing of new primary school
textbooks and continue to build new schools in underserved areas.
Universal primary education is a focus for many international
donors. Japan is currently the largest donor in the sector, having
built 31 new schools since 1995.

15. In addition, the GOL has the stated intention of introducing
both English and French into all primary schools by 2010. The
Director General of the Education Ministry's Teacher Training
Department, Professor Mithong Souvanvixay, told the newspaper
Vientiane Times that the department would need to start enforcing
scholarship requirements that students teach after graduation in
order to fill the growing need for primary school teachers
everywhere and ensuring that teachers who do not teach in the
provinces repay their tuition costs.

16. Comment. Given that the Ministry of Education cannot find
enough qualified teachers as it is, Post finds it difficult to
believe that teachers qualified in both primary school education and
English will be in the classrooms in any but the wealthiest urban
districts by the 2010 target year. Similarly, the call for books
and school supplies in every classroom present a huge challenge in a
country with no copyright law to protect textbook drafters and few
updated textbooks in the Lao language (since without such a law
there is little incentive to write books of any kind in the Lao
language). Donors can assist, but books in English, Thai, French,
and other foreign languages are probably not going to help enough to
reduce significantly the gaps at the primary school levels.

17. The low levels of education for teachers themselves will also be
difficult to overcome. Teachers are often selected from the
mid-ranks of school leavers - not highly ranked enough to choose
their own field of study or pass the national university entrance
exams, but still ranked high enough for local officials to send them
to teacher training. In addition, poorer families will continue to
face the challenge of trying to find the funds to pay the
registration fees required by many public schools, and to buy
supplies, uniforms, and transportation to schools. Post believes

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that the GOL is sincere in its efforts improve primary education and
has identified many of the challenges it faces. It is less clear
where the GOL will get the resources to overcome those challenges.
We do not expect to see the kind of investment in education, or the
political will to drive national social mobilization to promote
education, along the lines of Korea, Taiwan or Singapore 50 years
ago. End comment.

© Scoop Media

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