Yangchen C Rinzin
Modern education in Bhutan began in the mid-1950s just as the country was gearing towards planned development. Until then monastic education was the main form of education but it was not accessible to the general population.
The change in the education system was supposed to usher in the giant leap forward for the country. It was seen as the most important aspect of Bhutan’s development aspirations. Therefore, education received the highest priority.
Today, after 50 years, Bhutan has made tangible achievements, both in creating a literate society as well as using education as a springboard to achieve other national goals. Bhutan is expected to graduate to middle income country in 2023.
However, critical gaps remain.
Despite huge achievements in the education sector today with more than 300 ECCD centres, 512 schools, 19 tertiary institutes, six technical training institutes, and two Zorig Chusum institutes, young literate Bhutanese remain disillusioned and unemployed. Syllabus has become irrelevant with the generic education system.
There is no system or vision that pushes for an enduring sense of direction the education system should take.
Could things have been different, if there was an all-encompassing National Education Policy (NEP)?
Yes, say observers.
They say they are surprised that when policies are being enacted for far less consequential sectors, the policy for the education sector continues to elude the government.
The first NEP was drafted in 1976 by the then department of education, as commanded by The Fourth Druk Gyaplo. An expanded version of the policy was approved by the Cabinet in 1985 after the revised policy focused more on the school curriculum.
A new Curriculum and Textbook Division (CTDD) was also established and launched the “New Approach to Primary Education” (NAPE) from Pre-primary to class VI.
But many bypassed the NEP. The fact is there has never been a real education policy in decades that provided a vision to respond to changing needs.
Is NEP necessary?
Some educationists shared that education policy is a fundamental part of the foundations of any country, as it would clarify the roles of different actors in educating the children. For all its limitations, a progressive, definitive policy is critical especially for an all-embracing sector like education, because it engages the largest and the most precious segment of the society- children and youth.
However, there are no right answers when it comes to creating an education policy, say observers. A senior educationist said that everybody thinks they know about education because they once went to school. Everybody, he observed, has a view or opinion on what education policy should be.
It is 2019 and there is still no solid and real NEP. Education system is still struggling to have the draft NEP 2018 as a tailored policy that would guide the future. The policy, which was drawn based on the constitutional commitment and policy documents of 1976 and 1982, is still a draft.
Article 9, Section 15 and 16 of the Constitution clearly mandates the state to provide free basic education from PP to Class X. However, there are many informal and formal policies or guidelines in different documents with some inconsistencies and therefore, creating confusion.
The Education Blueprint 2014-2024 also calls for a consolidated education policy directive into one legal framework for the growth and development of education in the country. Bhutan is yet to see one.
In 1984, the World University of Canada sent its volunteers and more than 40 Canadian teachers have worked in Bhutan. More than 20 Bhutanese teachers studied at the University of New Brunswick. Besides Canada, Bhutan had sought support and cooperation to reform and develop education in Bhutan from countries like Ireland, United Kingdom, Denmark, and India.
Today, these countries especially Canada and Ireland are applauded for successful education system, and are among the top performing education systems in international rankings and tests, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
While in Bhutan, the test run by the OECD report this year recommended a major overhaul in the curricula of the country’s education system. So what could have been the reason for such pitfall in education when Bhutan’s education system has clearly chosen these countries for cooperation?
Schools, Royal Education Council (REC) and Bhutan Council for School Examinations and Assessment (BCSEA) should prioritise on the depth instead of the breadth of learning to avoid superficial learning and incomplete understanding of core concept, the OECD report stated.
Many educationists believe such pitfall may not have been encountered if a strong policy with vision was in place.
The attempt has been there to have a bold and futuristic education policy. However, it has never gone beyond the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) who reviews the policies and later submits to the Cabinet for approval.
Draft NEP 2018
Today the education ministry still holds a draft NEP since 2018 but the question is, is it for real this time? This is because NEP is yet to receive any attention. The draft was submitted to the GNHC, however, it was learnt that the draft is again back with the ministry for further review. It (draft) claims to make education more relevant for changing needs and expectations.
There is nothing new in its entirety- in the new draft education policy. What it doesn’t talk about is teachers leaving the job. It will inform and guide all forms and levels of education in Bhutan, public and private, to support the aspirations of the government. It includes early childhood, monastic, tertiary, training, non-formal, and continuing education.
The policy states that under the school education, among many policy statements, the ministry, dzongkhags and schools should maintain a class size of maximum of 24 for primary and 30 for secondary levels. However, although it is reported that schools have the right ratio, most teachers disagree.
What the policy needs is an effort to hold profound and in-depth review of the system that would lead to fundamental changes aligning with the 21st century changes.
The education policy has become a political battleground over the years. It is politicised, which means it does not necessarily reflect what teachers think is best, so politicians think they should be kept in charge of these decisions. With 15 years of democracy and three different elected governments not serious with a policy, the average student may have been affected by three different education ministers.
The problem in the existing policy is that it places too much emphasis on knowledge rather than understanding, and importance on academic skills instead of also including practical skills. “Why is the importance for STEM again making noise? The emphasis has existed for decades but nothing much was done because we lacked a mother policy that took care of the country’s vision,” said a retired teacher.
Observers said that the lack of policy lead to ad-hoc decisions often to fulfill campaign pledges and elected government can do anything they want in the absence of a national policy.
Is the policy still not being put in place because government cannot make decisions on education? The education policy has been changed piecemeal, changes to the various subject curricula at the whim of individual policy makers.
For instance, despite hiccups, central schools were established, Shakespeare was removed from the curricula. Then despite questioning its constitutionality, the cut-off point for Class X, which has existed for years, was removed. The admission age of a student in the Pre-Primary is six years old and this has also remained debatable without a solid policy to prove.
An educationist said that policy makers change every few years, so there is a lack of continuity. Another said there are around 178,000 children in schools and what was suitable for a few hundred pupils half a century ago is no longer suitable for 178,000 in the 21st century. Yet the education system overall has changed little.
Some questioned the various education guidelines to run the education system without having a policy to derive the guidelines from.
What former ministers say?
Former education minister Thakur Singh Powdyel said the ministry had drafted a National School Education Policy and submitted to the Cabinet that received endorsement in 2011. He said the final draft incorporated all the changes that were suggested and was submitted to the GNHC for review.
“The final version did not come till the government’s term ended in April 2013,” he said. “I learnt later that when the ministry submitted the draft to the next Cabinet, it was not endorsed for several reasons including the fact that I had used the expression gyalyong gakid pelzom in my foreword.”
Agreeing with the importance of such policy, the former minister said that there is a need for a sound NEP instead of reckless and maverick approach to education, which would cost the nation dearly. He said there is a need for a clear sense of direction, continuity and focus, rather than a frequent tinkering with the system.
“A willingness to engage the relevant stakeholders would lead to refine and evolve a robust NEP. Education is too important to be politicised and the bottom-line is that if education succeeds, no nation can fail.”
Former education minister Norbu Wangchuk said the draft NEP was ready towards the end of his term, however, he advised the ministry to let the new government do the due diligence before approving it.
“As a major government policy, it was important that the new government needed to endorse and own the policy,” he said. With several reforms planned by the new government, it was only right that these initiatives are reflected in the policy.”
He said Bhutan should now be ready for an education policy that would inform stakeholders on all major education matters. However, he added that Bhutan has not reached a situation where education would halt for a want of a policy document.
“If it is taking a longer time in approving, it must be for a good reason. There is no need to rush to put an education policy in place if further review needs to be undertaken to get it right.”
However, the education ministry that is supposed to bring in the policy has blissfully remained quiet on this matter.
Kuensel could not contact top ministry officials for response and information on the current status of the draft policy despite trying for more than a month.
Meanwhile, all that can be done, with the silence, is ponder upon why we still do not have an education policy and what is happening with the draft NEP.
This story is supported by BMF.