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At a glance: Lao People's Democratic Republic

Early education programme increases access for ethnic children in Lao PDR

© UNICEF Laos/2011/Tattersall
Pre-school children outside their school house in Long Lao public School in Lao PDR. When UNICEF provided a new building, the old school house was used as a pre-school.

By Martha Tattersall

BAN LONG LAO MAI, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 27 May 2011 – In Long Lao village in northern Lao PDR, 10-year old Thao Lee starts his morning helping his family with chores. His job is to let out the cows to graze, before sitting down to a breakfast of rice and meat.

Hard-to-reach children

Thao Lee is from the Khmu ethnic group, one of 49 different ethnicities that make up the richly diverse country of Lao PDR. With the groups living mainly in rural and remote upland areas and each having their own cultural and linguistic norms, such diversity presents a major challenge to delivering services like education.

In this village outside of Luangprabang province, Khmu, Hmong and Lao Loum populations live side by side. Thao Lee’s mother-tongue is Khmu; his school curriculum is taught in Lao.

It presents a linguistic challenge that the Lao PDR Government has had to address. That is why, with support from UNICEF, the Government is implementing a ‘Schools of Quality’ approach to ensure no child, including those from ethnic backgrounds, misses out on education.

© UNICEF Laos/2011/Tattersall
Thao Lee sits in his fourth grade class at Long Lao Primary School, one of the UNICEF-supported 'Schools of Quality' in Lao PDR.

Since UNICEF piloted the programme in 2006, it has been rolled out across more than 1,600 primary schools. School Director Khamsy Sengsoulivanh knows only too well the challenges faced by children whose mother tongue is not Lao.

“For the children from different ethnic groups, the dictation and pronunciation is quite different,” he says. “When we are teaching them the Lao language, our ethnic students have difficulty and even if they speak it the right way, they understand it in their own language and they pronounce it in their style.”

Preparing children to learn

Long Lao received UNICEF support in 2007. Now all 240 children in the village attend school, and receive a multi-lingual education to overcoming the language barriers. Children are taught in Lao, Hmong and Khmu.

Mr. Sengsoulivanh also prepares children for learning in Lao even before they reach school age. “We have the pre-school classroom where the ethnic children come together. They play together and it prepares them for first grade,” he says.

Due to lack of funds for classrooms and availability of teachers, this strategy is not easily adopted across the country. Only about 22 per cent of children in Lao PDR attend some form of pre-primary schooling, with the overwhelming majority of these enrolments in urban areas.

© UNICEF Laos/2011/Tattersall
Children play at Long Lao Primary School. The school is part of a UNICEF-backed government strategy to improve quality and access to primary education in Lao PDR.

That is why UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to develop and implement a community-based school readiness programme. The goal is to increase access to early childhood education for ethnic children in remote and rural areas.

Early-childhood education is critical to preparing children for school. It also reduces drop out and repetition rates. When UNICEF provided a new building to Long Lao Public School, they were able to use the old school house as a pre-school.

Changing attitudes

“The children start to learn the Lao language and that means it is much easier when they reach first and second grade,” says Mr. Sengsoulivanh.

The results of the programme can certainly be seen in Thao Lee, who says Lao language is now his favourite subject. He, like all his classmates, will continue on to secondary school after fifth grade.

“I like coming to school. I like to learn things and I also like to see my friends,” he says.



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