Written by Shrila Kanth.
Bhutan is a small country that lies between India and China, nestling the Himalayas. Although the nation’s international presence was obscure for decades, ruled by the Wangchuck monarchy since 1907, the country has made several appearances at international forums 1970 onwards, and has always taken pride in maintaining their traditions and cultures. Bhutan was also introduced to modern and organised schooling relatively late between 1913 and 1914, and it was only in 2008 that the country established a two-party democracy after elections.
Currently, in the educational sector, Bhutan is struggling to provide students with refined infrastructure, human resources, and has failed to implement programs and standardisation, which affect the nation’s literacy rate and enlarges the socio-economic gaps between the diverse population. Prior to the introduction of formal education systems, Bhutan only had Monastic educations, where people would discuss religious themes and scriptures, and younger monks would learn from older monks and teachers. Organised Monastic education however, was introduced in 1622 by the formal monk body in Thimpu, where young monks focused on their spiritual growth. In 1913, on the basis of orders given out by Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, the first monarch of Bhutan, Gongzin Ugyen Dorji, established the first modern school in Haa. The goal of establishing formal schools in the country primarily focused on generating resources and aiding the country’s developing economy. It was after the inception of the first five-year plan in 1961, that the nation chose to place systematic education development as a priority. Bhutan has shown exponential educational growth over the course of decades, but the challenges of poor infrastructure, the lack of funds and finances, and the quality of education are still monumental.
In 1914, 46 Bhutanese boys travelled to Kalimpong, India to study at a mission school. Simultaneously, Dorji established the first modern school in Haa with teachers from the Church of Scotland Mission, and later another school was established in Bumthang for the Crown Prince and the children of the Royal court’s education. The curriculums were taught in Hindi and English.
Before the first five-year plan that focused on stabilising the educational sector of the nation, schools were classified as either ‘schools for Nepali Immigrants’ and ‘schools for Bhutanese.’ Most Nepali Immigrant schools consisted of one Indian teacher, a handful of students in one classroom in various districts across the country. The classes were conducted by the invited Indian teachers in Nepali, Hindi or English, and the schools were privately established in order to fulfil the demands of local residents. Furthermore, the ambiguity regarding the languages of instruction is in relation to the southern districts of the country where people were ethnically Nepali-Bhutanese. Nepalis had begun to immigrate to Bhutan in the late nineteenth century, when the British East India Company had just established tea plantations across the South-Asian subcontinent and sent workers from North-East India to Nepal. Some workers had escaped to Bhutan by crossing the ill-defined border at the time and settled down in the Southern districts of the small hill surrounded nation. These Nepali settlements in Bhutan were extremely self-sufficient, with mere interventions from the Bhutanese government. When they required a formal education, the residents of the communities built schools for cheap, hired teachers from neighbouring nations, and conducted small classes.
Over the course of time, Bhutan saw the emergence of schools for the Bhutanese. They rapidly grew popular, with the number of students increasing, as well as the number of educators. The languages of instruction varied from Hindi, English, Nepali, Classic Tibetan and more. The first school opened in Haa welcomed the public and recognised the first batch of children who graduated from a mixed-sex primary school. Both types of schools had the support of local governments and public schools had a larger intake of up to 100 students. While for Nepali Immigrant schools the initiative was taken up from the local ground levels, for Bhutanese schools, the initiative was taken for the masses by governing bodies and officials in the nation.
Since the implementation of the first five-year plan in 1961, Bhutan has witnessed rapid growth in the number of schools. From about 11 schools in 1961, the number of schools rose to over a thousand by 2019, including primary schooling, post-secondary schooling, vocational and technical training. The constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Article-9, Section-16 states, “the State shall endeavour to provide free basic education up to tenth standard to all school going age children,” (Kuenzang Gyeltshen, 2020), and the ministry makes sure there is no discrimination, gender based or socio-economic, in the enrollment process. The completion rate among female students stands at 102.3 percent, while for male students it stands at 84.8 percent. Schools for disabled students and students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) have also been established across the country.
Although in recent times Bhutan has made large investments in the education sector and funded infrastructural changes and established an institute to train educators, despite the rapid growth, the nation is still struggling to overcome certain challenges.
The lack of human resources and financial aid is posing to be the greatest threat to Bhutan’s education system. The country primarily funds its educational developments by loans from other nations at the moment, and does not have sufficient funding to provide new teachers or students with the prescribed training or in-class learning. Most incoming teachers are currently dependent on international scholarships and training programs.
Furthermore, the Royal Government of Bhutan still needs to overcome challenges presented by the disparity in economic statuses of families, socio-economic backgrounds, disabilities in students, as well as different terrains cutting off access to education. Students from certain hilly terrains of the country are cut off from quality education and well-established schools, leading to problems of overcrowding in classrooms, paving the way for ill-managed workload for the teachers. Moreover, students are unable to achieve the goals set for them. In the twenty-first century, education is not solely focused on academic grades, but is also focused on nurturing students with values and holistic learning. The TIMSS has proven that Bhutanese students are learning at a level lower than the international average (Kuenzang Gyeltshen, 2020). Students in Bhutan have demonstrated learning gaps in some of the core subjects, proving there is immense room for improvement in terms of the quality of education provided to them at the moment.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, there also exists a gap in the literacy rate of male students in comparison to female students. While male students have acquired a literacy rate 73.1 percent, females on the other hand stand at 63.9 percent. This is an equity based challenge Bhutan has to overcome which reflects gender based bias that still exists in the country (Kuenzang Gyeltshen, 2020). Bhutan does not have an education act or policy in execution at the moment. Their system efficiency needs to be improved in order to be more inclusive, and needs to provide the correct resources in order to develop and progress. A legislative education Act needs to be provided in order to witness tangible results and aid their educational sector, along with their globalisation goals. While Bhutan has proven to be a rapidly developing country and has taken the initial step towards achieving their goals, especially based on their first five-year plan, the nation still needs to come up with concrete plans to provide financial support to the educational sector.
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