Education in conflict: Struggles for educational inclusion in Myanmar

02 December 2020|Regional Communications Officer

Students celebrate their graduation from Teacher Training Course (TTC) in Myanmar.

“We are here in a different world.” 

Continuing higher education is a struggle for refugee returnees and ethnic children in conflict-affected areas in Myanmar. Aside from lacking infrastructure and learning materials, the integration into the national education system has become the biggest obstacle for their future. The language barrier and different learning style have been pointed out as the main factors that keep ethnic and returnee students excluded. And until now, there is no evident policy to include returnee students and teachers into the national education system. Therefore, this group of returnee teachers has been fighting for equal rights to education for their students in Kayah State with all their unheard voices. 

“On this World Teachers Day, I’d like to virtually meet teachers around the world to show them that we are here in a different world. We want them to hear us, recognize our work, and our students, to boost our motivation that we are not left out here.” A headteacher told us after being asked what he would like to say on World Teachers Day this year. 

The learning environment is the most important factor.  

Even though teachers are trying their best to speak Burmese in class, students are more familiar with their mother tongue that is normally used in their families. Teachers tend to use ethnic languages in class more than Burmese to ensure students understand lessons. “Students are provided Burmese as a mandatory subject since kindergarten in refugee camps, but not all students can understand or communicate fluently, and there are many factors behind that.” 

Ethnic students in non-government controlled areas (NGCAs) in Myanmar are facing additional challenges. Apart from the language barrier, their schools are not recognized by the government due to different learning materials, curriculum, and assessment. Since 2017, the Myanmar government has introduced public schools the new curriculum which adds two (2) more years of basic education compared to the one being used in ethnic community schools, which has ten (10) years. Our students from kindergarten to Standard 7 are using textbooks from Myanmar old curriculum, and from Standard 8 to 10, they are using the textbooks from refugee camps in Thailand.” 

Some students stop pursuing high school if they cannot pass the placement test, which is based on the new Myanmar curriculum, to study in public schools. Even though most of them can pass the test, their educational background and language barriers continue to create significant learning hardship in classrooms. As a result, students tend to quit school after a while. 

High school students are struggling the most.  

From kindergarten to Standard 10 (last year of high school), camp-based education providers (JRS and KnED) adopt the curriculum in line with the one used in Myanmar to ensure the continuation of children’s education after returning. The only difference is the assessment system which is not based on rote learning generally being used in Myanmar. Primary to lower secondary students tend to be accepted more easily to study in public schools than high schoolers. But those who finished Standard 10 and went back to Myanmar with the hopes to continue their education and start new life found out their certificates obtained from refugee camps are not welcomed by the government. Thus, they are required to take the Grade 9 placement test to re-enroll in the last year of high school (Grade 10) before being able to take the matriculation examination to pursue higher education in public universities. 

As the requirements have limited the number of students who can attend higher education, it’s almost impossible for the majority of students left behind to study in universities in Myanmar. Some returnee students, who wish to continue further studies, are forced to opt for non-formal education. They return to Myanmar only to process for passport to apply for scholarships aboard. Some of them decide to drop out to work, but since there are no job opportunities in their villages upon return, they go back to refugee camps in Thailand to help with family farming. Some go back to Thailand or move to neighbouring countries such as Singapore to work as migrant workers. 

Returnee teachers are also falling through the cracks. 

After years of experience teaching in refugee camps with several teacher training by organizations, returnee teachers still face challenges looking for opportunities in Myanmar. To be able to teach, they are required to have a university degree. The situation for teachers is even more complicated. Apart from taking the placement test and attending high school again after years of teaching, they also have to take matriculation examination to study in universities. The whole process would possibly take at least six years to follow their dream as a teacher. Even though the Teacher Competency Standard Framework (TCSF) has been seen by advocates as the most hopeful pathway based on competency rather than the educational background, it is still unclear how and when the framework would benefit refugee returnees.  

However, there is an opportunity available for them as ‘ethnic language teachers’. Though a university degree is not required to apply for this position, it comes with an unfair age limit (35 years old) an unbearable low salary ($25), or almost 5 times lower than other teaching positions in Myanmar.   

“Justice. We want to have equal rights as other teachers in Myanmar. We are educated and got certificates in camps. We also have many years of experience teaching students, and we want to continue teaching in Myanmar, but we have no choice.” a woman teacher in the group speaks up at the end of the conversation. She feels her rights are now violated and marginalized in Myanmar.  

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On this World Teacher’s Day, JRS Asia Pacific acknowledges the universal right to education and all the challenges refugee teachers have faced along their journey. Even though ‘teacher’ is regarded highly respected career in its nature, it is distressing to see refugee teachers and ethnic community teachers in many conflict-affected areas are overlooked and treated unfairly.