Learning together brings children together

learning and playing together throughout their school life

Ei Thu Zar
UNICEF Myanmar/2020

24 January 2020

Ma Myat Noe Khant and Ma Hla Hla Aung run as fast as they can on the dirt track. They are in a 400-metre relay race, and a crowd of school children and teachers are excitedly cheering them inside the Government school in Maungdaw township, in northern Rakhine State.

But just at the finish line, Ma Myat Noe Khant, the team leader, falls. She is distraught. “I will try my best the next time,” she said sadly. But Ma Myat Noe Khant doesn’t need to worry as her team mates understand, she is comforted by her good friend, Ma Hla Hla Aung.

Ma Myat Noe Khant and Ma Hla Hla Aung are very close friends, despite being from different ethnic and religious communities, and both share a passion for sport. Both girls are 13 and are now in Grade 8 in the Government school which includes more than 300 students from ethnically and religiously diverse communities, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims - all learning together.

In Rakhine State, children like Ma Myat Noe Khant and Ma Hla Hla Aung are not only living in one of the poorest states in Myanmar but are also affected by intercommunal conflict which, in August 2017, led to an exodus of nearly 700,000 people, mostly Muslims, across the border into Bangladesh.

It is for this reason, the school has been selected as one of the 163 schools across 11 townships in diverse communities in Rakhine State to benefit from the Learning Together project, implemented under the leadership of the Ministry of Education, in cooperation with two NGOs, and funded with UK aid from the UK Government and UNICEF.

An estimated 45,000 students, who like Ma Myat Noe Khant and Ma Hla Hla Aung are from other ethnically and/or religiously diverse communities living in the same school catchment area, will benefit from the activities such as reading together, including the provision of books and library facilities and reading activities to create a reading habit; playing sports together, including the provision of sports kits to promote teamwork and inclusion of all children, both girls and boys, children with disabilities and children of all communities;  promoting hygiene together, including the provision of hygiene and sanitation kits in all 163 schools, as well as upgrades to water and sanitation facilities in schools with the greatest need; and support to teachers to ensure all activities are inclusive to all,.

UNICEF Myanmar/2020

The education sector indicators show that Rakhine lags behind other states. Preliminary findings from the 2018 Myanmar Report for the Out-of-School Children’s Initiative (OOSCI), which was led by the Ministry of Education (MoE) with support from UNICEF, suggest that in Rakhine State nearly 34 per cent of primary-school-age children aged 5 to 9, and 36 per cent of lower-secondary-school-age children aged 10 to 13 are not in school, which are the highest rates in the country. Under the project, support for children to enable them reenter education will be provided in 20 school catchment areas where there are high rates of children out of school.

U Win Hlaing, the headteacher of the school with more than 15 years of teaching experience in schools in Rakhine State, working with students from diverse communities welcomed the project.  As a teacher, he says he likes the approach and objectives of the Learning Together project.

U Win Hlaing has been involved from the project’s onset, participating in the recent Learning Together orientations and leading his own school orientation with parents from all communities, teachers, students, community leaders, township education officers and UNICEF staff. “I encouraged parents to support the children and their teachers to do their job well,” says U Win Hlaing. “I think the togetherness approach can overcome barriers amongst diverse communities and can also reduce negative feelings.”

Referring to some of the Learning Together interventions, U Win Hlaing says that improving the school environment, including school infrastructure, can foster togetherness. He said that after the Learning Together orientation, he tested a few of the activities under the programme, such as reading together and playing together. “I felt that the students became closer with each other while doing these activities.”

Yet, he adds, some girl students find difficulties in participating in group activities, especially sport activities, saying that they are not allowed to do so. Yet, he hopes that the Learning Together Project will help overcome these barriers and find ways to include all children, that are acceptable and inclusive for all.

Ma Myat Noe Khant and Ma Hla Hla Aung show what is possible. The close friends chat about what they want to do. Both say they want to complete their education, and both want to help children less fortunate than themselves. Ma Myat Noe Khant dreams of becoming a construction engineer because she wants to build a “good home for the people who have no home”. And Ma Hla Hla Aung hopes to be a teacher as she “wants to teach children who have no chance in learning.”

And importantly for this project, they both show how children from different communities can enrich each other, learning and playing together throughout their school life.