The fundamental issue concerning our non-performing education system actually lies in the collective failure of the elected governments that came into power after the nation’s transition to democracy in 2008.
First came the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) who more or less continued with the earlier plans by emphasizing access to education. Its motive was to take school and education to the doorsteps of the citizens by opening community schools and Extended Classrooms (ECR) in every small village.
Five years later came the 2nd chance for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to try and become the ruling party. However, it was only going to be more difficult since DPT had already once won a landslide victory against them. So, PDP not only had to challenge DPT’s pledges but also had to offer more. And one such pledge that made an impact in the 2013 election was the idea of Central School system with freebies.
Then came the current government who also primarily campaigned with a huge emphasis on CHANGE. And one such change was once again deployed through education in the name of higher salary for teachers and waiving off of cut of point. This put Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) appear more generous than the other two parties and ultimately formed the government too.
It is in these very pledges where the biggest problem of our education system lies. Inconsistent policies and programs that have come about because of the change in democratic governments every five years, have not only confused the entire education fraternity but blurred the very sanctity of education in the eyes of general public. Today, both schooling and education in Bhutan is more popular for freebies, easy diplomas and complacency, almost entirely losing its true essence. While individually, each government might have tried to fix the existing issues by introducing new programs, collectively, all they have succeeded in is introducing too many new (and often very drastic) programs that neither saw the end nor got enough gestation period to leave behind any lasting impact. Due to that, teachers in the field are thoroughly confused, and the education leaders in the have grown complacent to strive for any kind of excellence.
So, how did this happen? First, we must acknowledge the fact that political parties are going to keep changing education policies and programs, as we have noticed in the last three elections. This is because it’s easier for them to both appease and appeal a large section of the vote bank as almost everyone is invested in education and schooling in one way or other. Moreover, with a large section of our population being from farming background, such changes have almost zero chance of meeting critical eyes, especially when it comes packaged with immediate benefits. However, the nation will have to ultimately bear the cost. When education is mistaken for schooling and the elected governments focus too much on making everything free, sooner or later education will only meet the fate of Ronald Dore’s ‘Diploma Disease’ thereby impacting the entire nation’s development.
So, how do we change this so called better CHANGES that comes every five years? One of the measures is to petition for Education Act. However, given the fact that it’s going to block the easy route to political gains, I am doubtful if we would receive the same generosity when it comes to passing the Education Act. It’s been already over 13 years and all we have received hitherto were the so-called generous but unsustainable programs and freebies.
Therefore, I would rather lobby for the entire Education Ministry to be delinked from elected government and let it function directly under the His Majesty’s Secretariat Office. To me, this seems to be the only promising way for the Bhutanese Education System to enjoy the luxury of time to see through any program the ministry implements and also be devoid of unnecessary political disruptions that we have suffered ever since the democratic governments took over.
While I primarily attribute the current issues of our education system to the inconsistencies in governance and leadership, age-old top-down bureaucratic system within the education ministry must also be equally held accountable. Our governance system has changed but the democratic attitudes and principles, especially the questioning culture is yet to grow within the bureaucrats. While it is understood that cultivating true democratic attitude takes time, the confusions within the Ministry of Education granted by the inconsistent changes brought about by the changes in the last three governments are enough testimonials to realize the urgent need to at least revolutionize the working system within the education ministry. It is thus, time for autonomy and diversity.
Bhutan does not lack strong, vibrant and self-motivated school leaders. It’s time to capitalize on these leaders and empower them with the responsibility to run the schools with both absolute autonomy and absolute accountability. This will not only bring about diversity in the schooling system as opposed to the current scenario (where same package is being offered in every single school) but most importantly cease the existing state of Education Ministry being seen as a single entity that our political parties find it so easy to penetrate with their non-sustainable policies. Our system today is such that, the minister passes an order which is very diligently and obediently passed down by everyone who are there between the minister and the implementer. In this model of bureaucracy, I sense a hazardous amount of deficiencies in terms of asking why aspects of these orders and circulars.
Today, almost everything is centralised and this is the very reason everything easily makes its journey to the schools whether relevant or irrelevant; whether useful or detrimental; whether sustainable or short-term. By not challenging this model of operation, we are only making ourselves a group of welcoming preys to those inconsistencies of changes in government and leadership. This overtly smooth channel must be decelerated by the officers in the education ministry and school leaders by bargaining more control over what, when, why and how of the education system. They must instruct and direct the elected leaders in making the right decision instead of waiting for the order and following them without any question. They must realize that it is they who are the constant factors and not the elected leaders.
We must also learn that diversity is strength and it will only cure our current deficiencies. Uniformity should not be mistaken for progress. School leaders must fight for the change in this model and establish one where the needs are communicated from ‘bottom up’ changing the role of the ‘top’ to resource provider and supporter from the existing role of change dictator and curriculum instructor. The popular phrase, “It was a sound plan but wasn’t implemented properly’ used as an excuse after every failure will no more be heard thereafter, because the implementer will be the planner in this case and customisation will happen automatically due to diverse needs instead to following the current trend of one size fits all.
Yes, this will certainly come with some level of chaos in the beginning but it will not be any more than what the next change is anyways going to bring about should we leave it as status quo. At least, in this case, there’s a scope of guaranteeing prosperity, creativity, diversity, quality and many more that education is ultimately supposed to achieve. So many things have been tried in the past and not everything was successful. While we can accept that failures are bound to happen in trying to change, change every five years has only confused the entire system.
Therefore, it is no more the question of when and who will provide that required autonomy but who will fight for it in defense of the voiceless students. We must cultivate the culture of questioning instead of entirely accepting that the political pledges are always for us and not at all for the political parties to win their seats. We must filter these changes as the guardians of education.
Masters of International Development
Graduate School of International Development