Some view the new experiment with trepidation, but most are optimistic

 Education: Notwithstanding the challenges, educationists in central Bhutan are optimistic that the central schools will redeem the deteriorating quality of education in schools.

Tsangkha central school (TCS) Principal, Rabilal Sharma said central schools will deliver better quality education than the existing extended classrooms and multi-grade system.

“Currently, children are taught by one or two teachers, sometimes even by untrained community teachers, in extended classrooms, while central schools will be equipped with adequate teachers supported by nurse and caregivers,” Rabilal Sharma said.

However, some educationists also feel that challenges will abound in overhauling the education system.  Some of the problems expected with central schools are management of students, increased disciplinary problems, stretched resources, feeding, sustainability, and separation of preprimary (PP) children from parents at prime age.

A senior teacher, Karma Wangchuk from Zhemgang, said, while free necessities like books, uniform and food would help the disadvantaged students, admitting preprimary students in boarding schools could have adverse effects on children’s psychological development.

“Separating children at a young age like six years from parents can have irreparable psychological complications in the long run,” Karma Wangchuk said.

Earlier, some parents were apprehensive about sending children to central schools.  Rabilal Sharma, however, feels that the caregivers and nurses can fill the emotional gap for pre primary children.

“Besides, children from classes PP-III are expected only from nearby villages, where parents can visit often,” Rabilal Sharma said.

Education minister Mingbo Dukpa, however, said that the difficulties of sending young children to a central school do not hold water, when Bhutanese parents are even prepared to send their children aged seven-nine to Woodstock School in India.

“If a Bhutanese child can survive in Woodstock by the age of eight or nine, I don’t see why a child can’t survive in a central school located in their village with their elder siblings and relatives,” lyonpo Mingbo Dukpa said.

Karma Wangchuk said that, with central schools expected to accommodate over 800 students, an increased number of disciplinary and bully issues could also become gnawing problems.  Teachers, he said, are, however, are hopeful that these issues would be better addressed in central schools, given the availability of caregivers, nurses and counsellors.

Lyonpo Mingbo Dukpa assured schools of mechanisms to curb such disciplinary issues. “The ministry will make sure that the central school are absolutely free of bullies, fighting and abuse,” the minister said.

Following reports of peripheral neuropathy in schools, the quality of food is also another concern for teachers. “If students aren’t fed proper meals, then quality of education will suffer again,” a teacher Nim Dorji said.

However, the minister said that the government had already fulfilled its pledge to improve the school-feeding programme.  He claimed school feeding has improved in past few months, after a separate transportation cost was allocated besides the stipend.

“After consulting a nutritionist and the World Food Programme, the feeding program was streamlined to ensure students are provided with all vital nutrition,” lyonpo said.

Besides these issues, principals are also concerned about their future posts, because if every school is turned into a central school, a majority of the incumbent school heads could lose their post.

“I’m unsure what would be my position if my primary school is merged to a central school in Tang,” Nim Dorji said.

Lyonpo Mingbo Dukpa said that would not happen, as central schools would also need two principals, as well as vice principals.

On the sustainability of central schools, the minister said it would be be capital intensive in the first year only. “Expenses should drop gradually, once the schools are equipped with infrastructure.”

He said, in the long run, central schools would be more sustainable than extended classrooms because, under one teacher, hundreds of children are benefited, unlike in extended classrooms, where despite the teacher student ratio being one to five, the quality of education was still poor.

“If we really think youth as important investment for future, then we must even spare a budget from farm road or a bridge to provide quality education,” lyonpo Mingbo Dukpa said.

By Tempa Wangdi, Trongsa