Unrest threatens fragile gains in Tibetan teaching

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Tibetan teachers fear hard-won gains over teaching pupils in their native language may be reversed in the wake of the unrest that has erupted against their country's Chinese rulers
Tibetan teachers fear hard-won gains over teaching pupils in their native language may be reversed in the wake of the unrest that has erupted against their country's Chinese rulers.

Although schools are open, teachers report an atmosphere of intimidation, with many pupils being forced to undergo "patriotic education", which includes denouncing the Dalai Lama.

For decades, children in Tibetan secondary schools have been taught in Chinese, with few exceptions. Pupils at primary schools have had more opportunities to learn in their mother tongue, but usually only for a maximum of three years, leaving many with literacy problems.

This has embarrassed a government eager to show how Chinese rule has improved life in Tibet. As a result, some gains were made prior to the recent unrest in an effort to push up literacy rates. These included allowing work to begin on an all-Tibetan language middle school in Sichuan, eastern Tibet.

Tashi Rabgay, co-director of the Tibet Project, which is building the school, said: "The board of education itself asked us to make it a Tibetan medium school.

"Normally you don't see monks teaching in schools, but the authorities allowed this because there is such a lack of teachers in Tibetan."

However, the future of such projects has been unclear since last month's riots in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in which at least 16 people died. "Everything is up in the air following the unrest," Ms Rabgay said.

Other Tibetan teachers share her concerns. Tsering Dorje, an exteacher now in Dharamsala, India, said that before the unrest Chinese officials "made promises on Tibetan education, and used economic incentives to make Tibetans loyal to the government, which included building schools and roads".

"But that has clearly failed and they may decide to use harsh methods against our culture," he said.

Charities and campaign groups say the lack of lessons in Tibetan explains why schools there suffer from high drop-out rates. Ironically, this has also led to pupils failing to learn Chinese proficiently.

Andrew Fischer, of the London School of Economics, said the latest official statistics show there has been no improvement in education levels in Tibet for over a decade.

In 2005, illiteracy was at around 45 per cent, while only 11.5 per cent of the population had secondary education or above. Dr Fischer said it meant Tibetans were "essentially marginalised from the exceedingly rapid economic growth in Tibet".

Save the Children is running a project to localise 20 per cent of the curriculum in Tibet, so it will be more relevant to pupils. Karl Johann Stark was involved until he left Lhasa last month. He said: "If we can localise a certain percentage of the curriculum, parents will realise it has value and let their children attend school."

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