Leading the way forward

As the military dictatorship in Burma begins reforms, green shoots of educational progress are starting to flourish. Could the innovative Pre-Collegiate Program produce some of the country's future leaders? Time will tell, writes Zoe Blackler

The boy in the T-shirt picturing Aung San Suu Kyi says that he hopes to work in the media. His classmate, a softly spoken girl wearing glasses, would like to study food science and help to regulate the food industry. A third student says that, for him, a university degree means the chance to give back to his fellow countrymen.

All modest enough ambitions. But in Burma (also known as Myanmar), where high school education is among the worst in the world, the fact that these teenagers have a good chance of achieving their aims is little short of extraordinary.

The three aspiring students are among the latest intake to the Pre-Collegiate Program (PCP) in Yangon - a radical education initiative that takes 16 of the city's brightest high school graduates and prepares them for universities abroad.

As the country emerges from half a century of military rule, the PCP is giving Burma's students the skills they need to become the country's future leaders.

In Burma's state-funded schools, class sizes can exceed 100. Learning is by rote. There is no experimentation and creativity is discouraged. Few children complete high school and those who do are significantly behind their contemporaries abroad and unprepared for college or university study. But for the select few who make it on to the programme, an additional year of intensive study gives them skills to match their peers in the West.

Since 2002, when the PCP began operating under the government's radar, almost 100 students have been placed at universities in the US, Europe, Australia and the Far East. Crucially, at the end of their studies, most bring their new skills back home.

The PCP is housed in a small two-storey building at the entrance to the private Diplomatic School in a verdant section of the city. On the day that I visited in February, the new intake is just three days into the course. A sociology class is taking place in the main teaching space, where the students are gathered around a large central table that dominates the room. A framed picture of Buddha and a map of the world hang on the walls. The heat outside is fierce, but a large air-conditioning unit keeps the room comfortable.

The students are divided into two teams, each with a large sheet of paper and a set of coloured pens. In a timed exercise, with much excited discussion, the students work out how to represent graphically their previous evening's homework, an analysis of their own energy consumption and its impact on the planet.

Leading the class is Helen Waller, a young American woman who is one of the PCP's four teachers. Waller says that the emphasis on critical thinking and collaborative working is central to the PCP's approach. "To really be able to think critically, to enjoy thinking about what they read and what's around them, and be able to do so at a college volume and level, is something for which Burmese students would otherwise be wholly unprepared."

The start of great things

The origins of the programme date back more than 50 years to before the start of the military dictatorship, when a Burmese postgraduate student, Khin Maung Win, enrolled at Yale University in Connecticut, US. There he met American couple Jim and Dorothy Guyot and the trio became firm friends. The Guyots were studying Southeast Asia and in 1961 a Fulbright scholarship for Jim Guyot took the couple to Burma, where their friendship with Khin Maung Win deepened. Although the couple were forced to return to the US after the generals seized power in the 1962 coup, their affection for the country, and for their college friend, never diminished.

By 1999, Khin Maung Win was a philosophy professor at the University of Yangon and had witnessed the quality of education plummet under the dictatorship. Higher education had been decimated too, with the generals mothballing the universities for years at a time to stifle dissent. When his own grandsons finished high school, Khin Maung Win wanted more for them, so he called his old friends the Guyots, who agreed to find a college that would accept and support them. As the boys took up their college places in the US, the three friends, bolstered by their success, resolved to make the same opportunities available to other children in Burma. They set about establishing the PCP, discreetly out of sight of the military government.

Dorothy Guyot, a slender, white-haired woman in her seventies, now lives permanently in Yangon in order to run and help teach the programme. (Jim travels back and forth from the US; Khin Maung Win died in 2011.) Dorothy, whose own education was based on the progressive ideas of the American philosopher John Dewey, explains the ethos underpinning the PCP: "Learning is fun. That is crucial. Some people think fun is just getting on the internet and doing something where you're quite passive. The kind of fun we are encouraging is the kind where you invest yourself and you are learning something you've never known before. That's fun."

In 2010, the military government surprised the world by starting down a road of political and economic reforms. After decades as a pariah state, isolated from the world, trade sanctions have now been lifted and foreign companies are enthusiastically seeking opportunities for investment. But the lack of a skilled population is a major obstacle to the country's progress. When the World Economic Forum met in June 2013 to discuss Burma's transformation, education was high on the agenda.

As a first step, Burma's Ministry of Education embarked last year on its Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), the result of which will be a wide-ranging plan for reform, due to be complete by mid-2014.

Turning Burma's schools around will not be easy. Earlier this year, non-profit organisation Myanmar Egress conducted the first substantial research into Burma's state schools, with input from more than 400 teachers from 19 schools around Yangon. Official education policy is for schools to take a child-centred approach. But the reality, as Egress' researchers found, is altogether different.

Teachers reported class sizes from 60 to as many as 100 in poorer areas. They complained about lack of classroom space, furniture and other teaching materials, as well as a curriculum so out of date that it failed to include issues such as climate change. They also told researchers that they felt underqualified and underpaid - average teacher salaries barely surpass the cost of living, and many supplement their incomes with additional tuition work, which further undermines the state school system. As Myanmar Egress notes in its report, Teachers' Voice: What Education Reforms does Myanmar Need?, there are too few primary schools, particularly in rural areas, and drop-out rates are high, at about 34 per cent. And although schools are free in principle, parents are expected to make up the shortfall in government funding by buying books as well as paying for school uniforms.

Of most concern, however, is the pedagogy. Teaching is test-focused and if a student fails, this reflects badly on the school. The teacher may have to inform the Ministry of Education, and the student will need remedial classes and summer retakes. To guard against this possibility, students are trained to memorise passages from their textbooks and reproduce them verbatim during exams. To pass literature, students will transcribe a passage from a novel. To succeed in science, they will reproduce formulae learned in English, even though few students can speak English. They will complete high school without ever having performed a science experiment or commenting critically on a text. "It's the accumulation of facts without application," Waller says.

These findings were endorsed by Waller's PCP students, who shared their experiences of state school education. "In the classroom, you're not allowed to ask questions of the teachers because they consider it an offence," says one girl who, like most of her classmates, asked not to be named. After decades of political repression, many are still reluctant to criticise the government publicly. "Whereas here (at the PCP) we're given a chance to discuss things. We get to speak up and discuss our ideas, so you think a lot," she says.

More flaws in the system

Another boy explains how the classroom at his old school was unbearably hot, and that with 70 students all reciting passages together, the noise was so great that it was a challenge to hear what was being said or to concentrate.

Other students describe the faults with the syllabus at their old schools. There were glaring omissions, such as scant mention of General Aung San and the total absence of any reference to his daughter, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. There were also distortions and simplifications of history, notably the aggrandisement of the 12th- and 13th-century Pagan empire. Facts and figures cited in lessons were out of date and incorrect and, until the censorship laws were changed last year, textbooks were closely controlled by the government.

Today, with children having increasing access to the internet, the gap between what they are taught in state school classrooms and what they can discover for themselves can make school feel increasingly irrelevant for them.

Opinions differ about just how education in Burma sank so low. Although the British, who were the colonial rulers of Burma from 1824 to 1948, were responsible for introducing rote learning, when the country won independence, its people nonetheless had a high level of native language literacy. It was the decades of underinvestment and civil strife under the generals that saw education steadily decline. Some believe that it was an intentional strategy by the generals to quash critical thinking and undermine resistance to the regime.

By the 1990s, English had been eradicated from the classroom and students were completing their education at 16, giving them just 10 years of schooling after kindergarten, compared with the 12 years provided by state schools in the US and the UK.

It was against this backdrop, in 2003, that the PCP sent its first students overseas. Ten years on, its alumni have studied as far afield as Bard College in New York, US, Malmo University in Sweden and the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan. Many students have also gone on to postgraduate study. The majority have ended up in the US, where wealthy private colleges have been able to offer scholarships, even through the recent recession. None has yet reached Britain (with the exception of the University of Kent's Brussels School of International Studies), but Dorothy is keen to see this change.

The PCP is an elite programme. Yangon is relatively wealthy compared with the rest of the country, and students must speak English to qualify, an impractically high bar for most children. Even so, 60 per cent of this year's intake are from state schools.

On completion of their studies, almost all students have returned to Burma. One graduate is now a senior partner in a law firm, another runs an art gallery, a third set up a charity that helps the rural poor. Others have gone into hotel management, insurance and journalism. Five have come back to the PCP to teach, including current staff member Aung Hein, who has an undergraduate degree from the US and a master's degree from Brussels. "The PCP was the door that opened many other doors for me," he says.

When the students are asked how they plan to use their degrees, all say that they will apply their qualifications back home. "I want to come back here. I love my country," says La Min Thiri, who hopes to follow her brother, himself a PCP graduate, to study in the US. "I have friends who want to go abroad and settle down there. But I'm not that kind of person, I want to come back here and work here because it's always been my home."

For the new Burma to succeed, it will need to build a strong civil society. With their exceptional education, the PCP's alumni have an important role to play. Working together intensely for up to 70 hours a week, supporting and trusting each other, they form a strong peer group with deep connections that carry through into professional life, Dorothy says.

"The vision is a network of people who are finding their own ways through life but who continue to have intense friendships with one another," she says. "We talk about the programme as being a bridge to good education abroad and a bridge back. People aren't walking across the bridge on their own, but together in a group."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you