In today’s Burma, literacy is at the same level as the average for the countries of Southeast Asia, but compulsory schooling only lasts five years, which is a very short time in a global comparison.
Education has traditionally given high status in Buddhist Burma, and most, especially the men, learned in the past to study with the monks in the monasteries. From the beginning of the 19th century, Christian mission schools were established and during the colonial period the British introduced a formal schooling, built according to the English system and with “worldly” subjects such as language, mathematics and geography. In almost all schools, both the native language of Burmese and English were taught. This structure is still there. However, during colonial times literacy dropped significantly, and in 1954, almost two-thirds of the adult population could read.
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From 1962, the military regime expanded the elementary school. They emphasized science subjects and vocational education, and only state schools were allowed. Measures to increase literacy were highly successful and in 1990 it was reported to be about 85% of the adult population. During the last decades of military rule, not enough resources have been allocated to reach the goal that all children should attend a good quality school. A large part of the teachers lack education and the classes are very large. In the most remote mountainous regions, there are no state schools yet, where the villagers are encouraged to build schools themselves and pay teacher salaries. The monks’ schools still play an important role, especially for disabled or orphaned children and among very poor families, as tuition is free and schooling can take the form of boarding school.
The five-year compulsory school is compulsory and starts at the age of five. It should in principle be free of charge but still entails costs for parents in the form of school uniforms and school supplies. Virtually all five-year-olds are enrolled in elementary school, but several quit already after a few years when they have to work for the family’s living. It can also be a result of the family not being able to afford all the children in school for a long time. These children are considered literate, but their reading ability is hardly sufficient in modern society. Most of the hours in primary school are devoted to the three core subjects Burmese, English and mathematics. Since 1981, English has been a mandatory language from year one. Since 1999, the topic of union spirit has also been on the schedule.
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Approximately half of the children in one year study further in the secondary school, the first part of which is four years old and has a wider subject area. Then follows a two-year higher secondary school with the three core subjects and three selected subjects in addition. The best students are guided towards science subjects so that they can then continue with college studies in medicine, science and technology. An approved degree is required to continue with entrance exams at universities and colleges. The number of private schools with an international focus is increasing, but the degree from this does not apply to admission to higher education in the country. Those who studied there may apply abroad and move primarily to Singapore, Australia or the United Kingdom.
The one-year preschool is not compulsory and in 2010 only about 10% of all four-year-olds were enrolled there. In affluent states, it can cover one third of children, in poorer only a few percent. About 30% of children who start primary school do not have Burmese as their mother tongue but speak minority languages. For them, language training in preschool is very important, but in their home districts there are usually no preschools. With the support of international aid organizations, there are various forms of activities for underprivileged children, including open preschools where toddlers and their parents participate.
In 2012, there were 157 universities and colleges in Burma. All higher education takes place under the auspices of the state, and the two oldest and best-known universities are Yangon University (Rangoon) and Mandalay University. Both are mainly focused on social sciences, law and the humanities, Yangon University with mainly doctoral education and research. Newer universities with similar subject areas are located in the state capitals.
In higher education, the military regime focused mainly on science and technology and within the two old universities they established a number of institutes with such specializations. These have later become independent universities and professional colleges and are located in different parts of the country, but still with the emphasis in the Rangoon and Mandalay regions. There are also two distance education universities with a number of regional centers, as well as training centers with shorter and longer occupational, fee-based education programs.