KP Sharma

The proposed school merger and consolidation outlined in the draft 13th Plan raise questions about their potential impact on educational services and resource utilisation among the public.

While the aim is to enhance efficiency and upgrade school infrastructure, there is a mixed reaction from the general public, raising concerns about whether this strategy will yield positive outcomes or become another area of failure for the ministry.

Another aspect to consider is the government’s commitment to establishing chiwog schools in large chiwogs, with smaller chiwogs expected to share two or three schools.

However, the effectiveness of this approach is questionable, especially in light of the declining birth rate and migration, which have led to a decrease in educational enrollment over the years.

The challenges in reducing schools, as highlighted by education officials, are attributed to the criteria set by the ministry and community resistance, which pose hurdles for straightforward school closures.

This highlights the complexity of the process and reminds of the need for careful consideration of various factors.

The concept of school mergers is not entirely new, as the approach was adopted by the previous government in 2023.

Many schools in the past were closed due to a shortage of required student enrollment, resulting in wasted resources and a lack of necessary facilities for students.

According to the State of the Nation Report from that year, 18 extended classrooms were merged, and four small primary schools were consolidated into larger nearby schools.

How would the school benefit from mergers?

According to the ministry, merged schools are expected to have improvements in infrastructure facilities, such as libraries, laboratories, computers, and ample space for learning and recreational activities.

This improvement can contribute to providing a conducive environment for effective teaching and learning.

The ministry argues that combining schools can lead to more efficient use of resources. Schools with fewer students often face limitations in terms of resources, hindering the overall learning experience.

Merging schools, the ministry stated, allows better allocation of resources, ensuring that each student has access to quality educational facilities.

Further, despite a commendable teacher-student ratio of 1:18 in Bhutan, the country has faced challenges related to teacher shortages, especially with an increase in the rate of teacher attrition, and merging schools can help mitigate this issue by consolidating resources and optimising the distribution of teaching staff, ensuring a more balanced and effective educational system.

In addition, larger, merged schools can offer a more diverse range of educational programs and extracurricular activities. This can enrich the overall learning experience for students, providing them with a broader set of opportunities to explore their interests and talents.

The upgraded facilities and optimized resource allocation resulting from school mergers can contribute to an overall improvement in the quality of education. Students in merged schools may have access to better learning materials, technological resources, and a more conducive learning environment, according to the ministry.

Resistance and concern from the community 

The ministry acknowledges that previous attempts to close schools have faced public complaints and resistance. This resistance is often rooted in individual grievances and concerns, indicating the importance of addressing community sentiments and involving stakeholders in decision-making processes.

Sarpang DT Thrizin, Tshering, stated the need for careful consideration in deciding school closures, particularly due to the potential impact on students. “Longer travel distances resulting from school closures may lead to challenges and an increase in the dropout rate,” he added.

He said that having a nearby school is crucial for community development, offering economic opportunities and other benefits within the locality.

Similarly, Zhemgang’s DT Thrizin and Trong Gup Wangay acknowledge community resistance to school closures but stress the importance of viewing it from the perspective of students’ benefits.

He argued sending students to schools with better learning facilities is preferable, even if it means closing poorly equipped schools. However, he also acknowledges the need to address community concerns and resistance.

“When the government closes community facilities, including schools, it creates inconveniences between landowners and the gewog,” he added.

He further said that community facilities often exist on private land initially offered by people for the benefit of all. “When these facilities become non-functional and occupy the land without compensation, it imposes an additional burden on the people.”

The relevant dzongkhag education officials have proposed that merging and consolidating schools might be the most viable solution, particularly in light of the significant attrition of teachers.

They suggest that smaller schools and lower secondary schools (LSS), often identified as entities that require a substantial number of teachers, could be effectively merged or consolidated.

According to these officials, maintaining such schools, lacking adequate facilities, ultimately compromises the overall quality of education.

Ministry’s response and way forward

The decline in school enrollment figures from 197,381 in 2021 to 182,137 in 2023 raises concerns about the sustainability and efficiency of the current education infrastructure.

A declining student population can lead to challenges in resource allocation and the effective utilisation of manpower.

Although there is an increase in the overall number of educational institutes, particularly through the opening of new Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centers, it is essential to assess whether it aligns with demographic trends and community requirements.

A retired teacher in Thimphu expressed his concerns about the wisdom of opening more schools given the declining enrollment. “This approach is rational, considering the potential waste of resources and manpower in schools with low student numbers,” said the teacher.

In response, Education Minister Lyonpo Dimple Thapa stressed the need for thorough assessments before deciding to either close or open new schools.

Lyonpo assures that infrastructure from closed schools will be efficiently repurposed. This approach, she said, helps minimise wastage and ensures that existing resources are utilised effectively.

Her strategy to explore options to open new schools where unused infrastructure is available could be a strategic and resource-conscious perspective. 

It is learned that the ministry has not formally issued any directives to the dzongkhags regarding the initiative in the past.