An expanding middle class and big community of expatriate families are creating rising demand for English-language education in Myanmar—good news for private schools.
The attractions of private schools include highly-qualified teachers, smaller classes and a more student-centred approach to teaching.
Until now, private schools have had to register as companies under the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, meaning they are effectively regarded as a business rather than an educational institution. Only schools that teach the Myanmar curriculum can be licensed with the Ministry of Education.
Private schools operate under the 2011 Private School Registration Act but this is due to be replaced by the Private Education Registration Law, which is likely to provide greater clarity for foreign investors.
Work on drafting the Private Education Registration Law began three years ago and is due to be completed this year. Its eventual enactment is expected to encourage the development of more private schools, giving parents more choices and creating greater competition to attract students.
The prospect of increased investment is behind the expansion of two leading private international schools, Dulwich College International and The British School Yangon, over the past year.
Dulwich College, backed by Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic, has added Star City to its existing campus at Pun Hlaing. Both campuses have extensive grounds and can enrol up to 1,400 students.
The British School Yangon is building a new campus with improved facilities including a 25-metre pool, a gymnasium, a climbing wall and a 500-seat theatre.
According to ISC Research, the number of international schools in Myanmar doubled from 25 to 50 between 2012 and 2017, and they have a total enrolment of 18,373 students.
There were also 438 private schools, with more than 100,000 students between 2015-2016, according to the government’s National Education Sector Plan 2016-2021.
The draft Private Education Registration Law proposes that private schools teaching a state or international curriculum will have to apply for a five-year licence, which will be based on an assessment of the institution’s facilities, teaching ratios, curriculum, safety and security.
The National Education Sector Plan seeks to achieve major changes, including improving compulsory primary education and addressing the high dropout rate at primary level.
The 2014 census found that 2.7 million children aged between five and 16 either did not attend or complete primary school. The Non Formal Primary Education program is trying to close that gap by providing free schooling for children aged between 10 and 14 who would otherwise not be able to attend school.
A lack of interest in subjects offered was one reason for the high dropout rate, said Dr Christopher Spohr, the Asian Development Bank’s principal social sector specialist in Myanmar.
Language barriers have also contributed to high dropout rates in parts of the country and there is increasing support for mother-tongue teaching in areas with non-Bamar majority populations.
The education sector was chronically underfunded when the country was under military rule, with allocations of less than 7 percent of GDP in the years before 2011.
In recent years, the National League for Democracy government has allocated 8.5 percent of the budget to education, though spending on the sector in Myanmar remains among the lowest in Southeast Asia.
As well as increased spending on education, the NLD government is also trying to attract more foreign investment to the sector.
In a boost for the private education sector, the Myanmar Investment Commission announced in April that foreigners can fully own and operate private schools that teach a curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education or an international curriculum.
Higher education suffered under military rule because of inadequate funding; universities were closed for long periods because of unrest, and the deliberate building of campuses outside cities and towns only isolated students from the general population.
Under military rule, the Ministry of Education was permitted to control only 66 of the nation’s 163 tertiary education institutions. The others were controlled by 12 different ministries including the Ministry of Science and Technology, which controlled 61 institutions, according to ministry data.
Unlike past military governments, the NLD government is seeking to improve the higher education sector, partly by giving greater autonomy to tertiary institutions. However, there
are many obstacles to overcome, including sub-standard facilities, a lack of equipment and inadequate student housing.
The poor state of tertiary education in Myanmar has prompted many to further their studies abroad. About 7,200 Myanmar studied abroad between 2011 and 2016, with many heading to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.
Trickle down effect
Financial support for monastic schools and ethnic community colleges comes from a range of sources. The monastic schools, which are prevalent in rural areas, are heavily dependent on individual donations, but have also benefitted from other sources of funding, as have ethnic colleges.
The Myanmar Education Consortium – funded by the British and Australian governments – has invested $22 million in ethnic community schools and monastic institutions.
Between 2010 and 2015 the Ministry of Education built 7,616 new schools with 11,776 new classrooms, according to the National Education Sector Plan.
The rise in the number of private schools to meet demand has spurred competition for teaching positions which has contributed to higher salaries.
However, the expected increase in the number of foreign institutions, especially those offering tertiary education, has raised concerns about standards.
U Min Kaung, founder of Amara Institute, a private college in Yangon, said a regulatory body would be needed to closely monitor and inspect all new establishments.