By Manivanh Phoumavong, Senior Program Officer (Education) and Gender Focal Point, AusAID Vientiane
I recently travelled to some remote villages in mountainous regions of Laos to visit women Australia helped train to be primary school teachers.
The women are from ethnic communities that in some cases comprise as few as 5,000 people. Many were teenagers and in secondary school when they were offered the chance of a lifetime—to be trained as a teacher and return to teach at a school in their home community.
I visited the women as part of a review of the Laos-Australia Basic Education Program (LABEP), an AusAID-funded program that finished five years ago. It trained almost 380 teachers and also provided a supplementary curriculum; teaching and learning materials geared to the needs of ethnic children; teacher guides; and on-site help. It was an innovative approach to help lift the numbers of children from minority ethnic communities who complete primary school and increase literacy in Lao—a second
language for many of the 49 ethnic groups in the country.
The communities needed teachers who could speak both Lao and their local ethnic language. They also needed teachers who would remain in the communities and schools, and teachers who could be role models for the children. Five years on, I wanted to know if the reforms had worked.
At Ban Dakkiet Primary School in Sanxay District of Attapeu province I met grade one teacher Ms Khouane Vilaykham. Ms Khouane is from an ethnic group of about 5,000 people. She was born in the village and was in the second year of lower secondary school when she was selected to be trained as a teacher under the LABEP program. Ms Khouane still teaches Lao to her young students, supplementing the knowledge of it they have picked up from watching satellite television. In the classroom she uses her native Alak language to explain new and complex concepts. Ms Khouane also mobilises the community to look after the school, which was improved under the program. She reminds villagers that they once had a hut for a school. “If we don’t look after it, it will become a rundown hut again”.
At Ban Kang Primary School in Sanamxay District I met Ms Sumid Lavong, deputy principal and teacher of grades four and five in an ethnic community of about 23,000 people. Ms Sumid said that she enjoys teaching but some shrapnel in her back from an unexploded ordnance accident makes moving around the classroom difficult. She is now married and hopes that one day one of her own daughters will complete school and become a nurse because there is no health service in her village.
Overall we found that 87 per cent of the teachers trained by the program were still teaching in either the villages where they had been appointed or in other rural and remote schools. We also found that the program has had an impact on children completing primary school, with an increase in the numbers of children making it to grade 5, particularly girls.
Apart from the triumphs, the teachers told us about the challenges they face. Many were still using teacher guides provided under the program years ago, and some still used old, torn supplementary materials to teach Lao. Their salaries are low and they get paid quarterly, so they sometimes need to rely on the community’s support to help them out with doing housework and obtaining food such as vegetables and rice.
Overall the women were dedicated to their profession and were very proud to be teachers. They understand the important role they play in both encouraging parents to send their children to school and in being good role models for the children. I was struck by the women’s commitment to providing the children in these remote villages with the opportunity to learn new skills and broaden their horizons.
While multiple factors affect children’s learning, the role of the teacher is central to the provision of a quality education for all children. This program is just one example of where AusAID has supported an innovative program to address a pressing need with results that have stood the test of time. We will apply what we have learned from this approach as we roll out new programs such as mobile teachers to reach children in very remote parts of the country.
About the author:
Manivanh joined AusAID in 1994 and is currently a Senior Program Officer for education at Vientiane Post. From 1983 to 1994, Manivanh worked at the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Manivanh worked on Australian scholarships programs before transferring to manage LABEP which was in its third year of implementation. Manivanh takes pride in managing Australia’s basic education programs and is particularly proud of results where parents in remote areas are increasingly valuing education, and are more inclined to send their daughters to school. Manivanh holds a Masters of International Community Development with Deakin University.