Consolidate schools

In 2007, the year before the elections, when the interim government started work on the 10th Five Year Plan, they decided to “consolidate” the nation’s schools. Their rationale was that children in rural Bhutan were not receiving proper schooling as education resources were being spread too thin across the country.

The interim government figured that since the number of children in our villages was falling, it would be better and cheaper to take village children to well-established and well-run schools rather than making them attend ill-equipped and inadequately staffed schools in their villages.

But after the elections, the new government changed the 10th Five Year Plan. They figured that it would be better to keep children with their families and in their communities rather than making them study in boarding schools far away from home. So they completely reversed the education policy from school consolidation to school expansion by starting extended classrooms.

Extended classrooms typically have less than 25 students, run from makeshift classrooms, have only one teacher who teaches several grades and who reports, for administrative purposes, to the management of a larger school. Extended classrooms are also typically found in our smaller, more remote villages.

At last count there were 99 extended classrooms.

But that number is about to explode. The government has announced that they will downgrade 343 primary schools to extended classrooms over the next few years. Their decision is prompted by the fact that primary school enrollment has been declining steadily.

Personally, I think this is a good opportunity for the government to revisit their policies, and reconsider the interim government’s plans to consolidate schools. If primary school enrollment is falling, consolidate the schools instead of downgrading them. Pool their resources – teachers, libraries, equipment and infrastructure – and allow students to study in proper schools, schools that are able to cater to extracurricular as well as classroom activities.

But if the government is going to continue extended classrooms, and if they are bent on downgrading primary schools instead of consolidating them, they should first do a careful study on the effectiveness of extended classrooms.

Children in our villages already work many times harder than their urban counterparts. The least we can do is to ensure that the education they receive gives them a strong enough foundation to help them through the school system, and later, in their careers. I can’t see how makeshift classrooms can provide that foundation. Yes, there will be precious exceptions, but, in general, I can’t see how a lone teacher, stationed in a distant village, teaching 25-odd children of various ages and levels can adequately prepare them for the academic rigors of real schools.

What our children need is not easy access to classrooms. They need access to proper schools – schools that have enough teachers and classrooms and playgrounds and libraries and computers and laboratories and, most importantly, a critical mass of students so that they can play, learn and compete together; so that they can grow together.

Consolidate our schools so that our children have access to proper schools. Consolidate our schools so that our children can also benefit from the type of education that we aspire for our own children.