By AUNG THET WINE
LAPUTTA, Irrawaddy Delta — A year after Cyclone Nargis, many children in the Irrawaddy delta are still facing difficulties in getting a decent education due to high tuition fees and extreme shortages of schools, teachers and learning materials.
According to one construction company manager who has been overseeing the rebuilding of schools in the cyclone-affected area, only 1,500 primary schools have been constructed since last May, out of more than 4,000 that were destroyed by the storm.
“The government constructed around 600 schools during the 2008-09 fiscal year and has budgeted for 700 more this year. So far, a total of about 1,500 schools have been rebuilt by the government, private donors and other organizations,” he said.
One reason for the slow pace of reconstruction is that many companies are unable to finance their work, which is paid for in installments by the government.
“The government does not pay for construction costs in advance,” said an engineer from the Wah Wah Win Construction Company. “We receive payments in four installments upon completion of different stages of the construction work. This makes it difficult for financially weak companies to complete their projects on time.”
While many villages are waiting for their new schools to be completed, hundreds of others have no immediate prospect of having any school at all. In Shaw Chaung, a village tract in Laputta Township, for instance, there are just ten schools for 24 villages, according to a local official.
“This makes it very difficult for children to have access to a school, especially in the rainy season,” said the official.
The shortage of government-appointed teachers has also been a serious problem, forcing many villages to hire teachers privately—an expense that few can afford.
“If you want to hire a private primary school teacher, you have to pay them an advance of 100 or 150 bu of rice [worth around US $300-500; 1 bu=approximately 350 ml]. It’s not easy to pay that much, but we have no guarantees the government will send a teacher, so we have no choice,” said the head of a village in Bogalay Township.
Even children who do have access to primary schools have little hope of continuing their education beyond that level. Very few villages have secondary schools, and only well-off parents can send their children to middle or high schools in towns.
This lack of availability, combined with economic necessity, forces many children to drop out of school and begin working for a living in local industries such as fishing or farming.
“The children of farmers or fishermen usually just end up doing the same jobs as their parents before they even grow up,” said a villager from Saluu Chaung, in Laputta Township.
According to Education Ministry statistics, there are only 432 middle schools and 257 high schools out of a total of 6,324 schools in the Irrawaddy delta.