|© UNICEF Lao PDR/2010|
|Children of Tamy village in Lao PDR’s northern Luang Nam Province, close to the border with China, gather with teachers at the local primary school.|
TAMY VILLAGE, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 1 February 2010 – The director’s office at the Tamy village primary school is adorned by a simple map. It’s not a map of Lao PDR, or even of the remote, northern Luang Nam Province where Tamy is situated, close to the border with China. Instead, it shows the village’s 66 wooden stilt houses, neatly depicted in black ink.
The dusty track that serves as Tamy’s main street is marked in red, while the surrounding woods and fields are a green scrawl. In the bottom right-hand corner is the school itself, with the flagpole added as a thoughtful detail.
But it’s the little circles and triangles marked on each of the houses that school director Julia Thongseng is keen to explain. They represent the number of school-age boys or girls living in each house. The vast majority of the symbols are filled in, signifying children who regularly attend school. The circles and triangles that are drawn only in outline indicate children who are currently not in class. For Mr. Thonseng, each one represents a challenge.
Strategy shows results
“At the start of each academic year, we collect the numbers and see how many boys and girls are in school,” Mr. Thonseng explains. “Then we meet with the education authorities, the parent-teacher association and community leaders to explain how important school is. And they talk specifically to parents whose kids are not in school.”
Ensuring that every single child receives a minimum five years of primary schooling is a key element of Lao PDR’s ‘Schools of Quality’ approach, which is being implemented by the Ministry of Education with support from UNICEF. A participatory learning environment, relevant curriculum and a healthy environment are other features of a child-friendly schooling strategy that is now showing promising results.
With Schools of Quality set up in nine provinces, enrolment has risen nationally. Latest figures show that nearly 90 per cent of boys and almost as many girls of primary-school age are currently enrolled.
The Schools of Quality approach faces its biggest test in the remote provinces, where ethnic groups with their own language and culture are strongly represented; 49 such groups are officially recognized in Lao PDR.
Poverty and other obstacles
Tamy village has a population of 331, predominantly from the Akha ethnic group. Children here speak their own language at home and can face difficulties with a curriculum delivered mainly in Lao. But another problematic factor is poverty. For many families, there is a stronger logic in having the children help out in the rice fields, especially at harvest time, than sending them to school.
Mr. Thongseng is not giving up, however. Having identified a family whose children have recently dropped out of class, he dispatches one of his teachers, Ms. Sano, to try and bring the two girls, aged 6 and 9, back to school.
A short walk takes her to one of the smaller huts in the village, where a brief chat with the girls’ father uncovers a familiar story of family breakdown and poverty.
“The father says he needs the girls to help him look after his baby because there’s no mother or grandmother to do the job,” says Ms. Sano. “What’s sad is that the girls are now out of school and can’t even read or write.”
Time and effort required
On her way back to the school, Ms. Sano recognizes an 11-year old boy who is helping an older man load wood onto a cart. Asked why the boy is not in school, Mr. Behea seems embarrassed.
“I have one son and one daughter,” he says. “The girl goes to school already, but this boy helps me in the fields and with household chores. Next year, I think I will send this boy to school.”
Back in his office, Mr. Thongseng acknowledges that individual family situations like these mean that achieving 100 per cent school enrolment in Tamy will require time and effort.
“We explain to the parents the best we can about the value of education that a School of Quality delivers,” he says. “The vast majority of families are convinced.”