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An education Act for enlightened Bhutan?

Education and institutions of learning are regarded as the soul of the communities and societies as per the celebrated theories of socio spatial planning of the last century. Bhutan’s context is no different. In fact, it is more sensitive given the fact that our education system is deeply woven with the age-old values and the visions for modern Bhutan. It is not surprising that any interventions stir our conscience and make us excited as well as apprehensive at the same time. The removal of cut-off point for admission into class XI was not an isolated case. Our education system has been a subject to so many such policy errors in the recent past. Here are some of them:

School curricula changes: disappearance of the Kasha with the dose of Integrated Science and the ghost of Shakespeare.

Many of us grew up with the old education system. It is often said that education system then was good. The first chapter (ka) of the old class one dzongkhag text book began with a lyrical biography of a Kasha which still resonates in our hearts. Nothing was wrong with that story. Poor Kasha disappeared from our curriculum not due to climate change but due to the typical text book change. Nowadays it is not possible find a copy of the text book and other older school text books even in the reputed libraries. 

In the olden days the three branches of science were taught from class seven. Later on, it was condensed into an Integrated Science for classes seven and eight. The Integrated Science had more content on Biology and Environmental Science and less on the concepts of Physics. The earlier system allowed students four years to gauge their preferences in these critical foundation science subjects unlike the integrated approach. Not long ago, a curriculum officer shared the decision to go back to the old curriculum after so many years of trial and error and incurring so many printing and other educational costs. So typical of our system!

Similarly, mathematics text books at middle secondary school classes were changed so much that it was difficult for parents to guide their children or siblings. One wonders if the parents were consulted while changes and so-called reforms are introduced at elementary and secondary school curriculum.  One is left wondering about a possible co-relation between the changing of mathematics text books for the lower classes and math being perceived as the most difficult subject by many students. There are no evidences of similar /frequent changes in the curriculum at the tertiary level which in fact is more suited to adapt to such changes easily.

From an oral society we catapulted to a digital society and the little reading habits the old system had sown began lose its roots. Changing the curriculum, policies and text book became as common as a change in the ministerial position or an official transfer.   Kuensel (November 2, 2016) reported major changes would be made to the school curriculum during the National School Curriculum Conference. The conference considered doing away with textbooks for world history given the availability of online resources. This was happening just one year after His Majesty The King launched the National Reading Year in December 2015 coinciding with the 60th birthday celebrations of His Majesty the Fourth King.  

We inherited the British education system from India. So it was natural for us to study the best of English literature and William Shakespeare. Suddenly, it was decided that we no longer use the words of Shakespeare so his works are redundant and they need to be replaced with contemporary, relevant and cool literature.  It was not surprising that after so many years, the last government decided to reintroduce Shakespeare in the school curriculum for 11th and 12th standards from 2017. 

Central schools: the controversial circle of square one. 

When education was being initiated and expanded across the country in the early years of our planned economic development, many schools across the country were identified as Central Schools. To encourage enrolment and retention, facilities such as free uniforms, shoes, bedding, toiletries, etc. were provided. As the years went by these schools were named as High Schools and then later to Higher/Middle Secondary Schools. Some of the Higher Secondary schools were again renamed and converted to central schools by the last government.   Whether the changing of the names of the schools had any impact on the quality of education is anybody guess, but the central schools continues to be a fluid triangle between quality education, political mileage, and sustainability.

A study by Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (Kuensel August 12, 2016) reported the issues related to the central schools. The study inferred that the model of central school was under-researched, inadequately consulted, hastily implemented, unsustainable and unlikely to improve the quality of education.  To add to the confusion, the media covering the National Education Conference January 2017 reported that the country will have 121 central schools by the end of the 12th Plan.  A neighbouring villager lamenting the uncontrolled wastage of food from the mess of the some of the central schools is one of the unaccounted issues challenging the sustainability of the Central Schools.

Cut-off point: let it not cut deep into the Bhutanese values. 

The Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa had pledged to do away with the Class X cut-off point to not leave students who do not qualify through the merit-based competition in order the bridge the gap. Everyone is delighted about this and the government is excited in being able to fulfil one of the key pledges. However, neither the comprehensive Bhutan Education Blueprint 2014-2024 nor the draft National Education Policy propose such reforms while addressing equity in our education system. Will the Bhutan Education Blueprint be revised again to fit the recent decisions?  

Bhutan Council for School Examinations and Assessments (BCSEA) is a national body mandated to guide the Bhutanese education system in its progressive shift in policy focus and support the education ministry in bringing about improvements in schooling so that students not only fulfil their potential and meet the international learning standards, but are also better prepared for the world of work.  How does a political pledge like doing away of the cut-off point affect the role or BCSEA in our education system? Will it remain autonomous or will it swim along with the popular pledges? It is also very important to align the removal of cut-off point policy with the noble aspirations of the Education Projects under His Majesty’s Kidu Foundation and the Royal Academy School.

Bhutanese values are also a reflection of our education system. The inherited qualities of the Bhutanese youth like hard work, obedience, discipline, sincerity and loyalty are sown, nurtured and cultivated mostly in our schools and institutions. It is said that the most significant development in a child’s life happens between Class VII and Class X. Therefore, the only and unknown fear is that the cut-off policy could spread the contagious disease of complacency and laid-back attitude in both students as well as parents. Let us pray that the cut-off point policy will bear greater fruits and not come at the cost of some of the attributes and values reflected in the Bhutan Education Blueprint which goes far beyond passing or failing examinations. The last thing would be to go back to the cut-off point policy ten years down the line!

Education Act: a legislative tool for Bhutan.

One can go on writing a book on the journey and achievements of our education, curriculum changes, political pledges and projects, central schools, cut-off point and much more. Our school education has to go on and long-term surgeries and retreats are needed as are immediate treatments.  One way forward is we must acknowledge that education has become an area for political interference and abrupt policy and curriculum changes confusing the soul, the goal and role of the all the stakeholders. It is time relevant institutions (REC, RIGSS, Monastic Institutions, BCSEA, MOE, MOLHR, RUB, KGUMSB) and apolitical bodies like the National Council led the way for the drafting and reviewing of the Education Act of Bhutan.  We have the politically motivated Education City Act of Bhutan 2012 but we do not have an Education Act of Bhutan. Let the Act bring back the auspicious Kasha to our class rooms. Let it document the hopes of every citizen and the aspirations of the Golden Throne delivered at the 3rd convocation of RUB: “That it is not enough to provide free education, we must provide education of such quality that it will guarantee a distinguished place for our youth anywhere in the world”. Let the Act be bold enough to propose that our teachers be paid proportionately as the parliamentarians because it is the best teachers and better education that make the good politicians, parliamentarians and better society and not the other way around. That would be truly the Landmark Legislation. Let the Act be flexible enough to incorporate reforms, especially at the tertiary level and, at the same time, shield the tender school education from impulsive, opinionated and politically-motivated short-term interventions. The Act could propose long-term investments and interventions in the Bhutan’s technical education that has potential to attract international students. 

Above all, let the Act enlighten the soul of modern Bhutan.

The views expressed are of the author’s own.

Contributed by Dhrubaraj Sharma

1st Semester PhD student Queensland University of Technology, Australia

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