Bearing the brunt of the cutoff point removal

“A misguided decision with far-reaching consequences, pulling down the shutters for a significant number of private schools,” private school proprietors say.

Government policy changes pertaining to the high school admissions cutoff point system have had a disastrous effect on private schools, resulting in employment losses, school closures, and teacher shortages. Instead of giving all children equal chances, the strategy has made it so that private schools are fighting to stay in business.

Students who received a lower than expected grade on their Class X exams were referred to technical and vocational training (TVET) programs prior to the elimination of the required ceiling system. All the students, however, now have a guarantee of a spot in a government high school; it’s a one-way beneficiary policy. Thus, there has been a significant outflow of children from private schools, with the majority of parents preferring to use the government’s free education program.

As it turns out, enrollment at private schools has drastically declined, which has triggered financial difficulties and survival issues. As stated by Pelkhil Private School’s Director, Karma L Dorji, “Private schools lost 5000 students, and each private school lost 25–30 faculties after the removal of the cutoff point system. Out of the 21 private high schools that were operating before, about 15 are now confirmed to have either shut down completely or closed down their high school portion.”

Further, a proprietor of another private school in Thimphu who didn’t wish to be named, also mentioned, “Some of the schools have closed down, specifically the Arts and Commerce streams like Jampel Higher Secondary at Haa, Shelrub Reldi at Mongar, and Nima School at Taba as they are mostly preferred to opt for government enrolling. Currently, science streams are doing better because students are more particular, and a good number prefer to pay fees even if they have a free option since they can see the difference in quality in private high schools.”

A growing teacher shortage in government schools exacerbates the situation even more. But the government preferred to opt for government enrollment, finding it difficult to retain staffing levels appropriate due to the influx of new students. This leads to a sharp need for tutorials, and many put pressure on the private schools.

The Pelkhil Director also mentioned that the profession-level salaries offered by the government schools are luring many teachers away from private schools, which are finding it challenging to retain their staff. So, it becomes a sleepy slope for them to compete with the government, and they are experiencing a worsening of the teacher’s shortage in addition to a shortage of students with low financial support.

The removal of the cutoff point system has also raised doubts on the sustainability of the TVET program. The program was originally designed basically for those students who were not academically inclined and for the development of high-quality technical and vocational training. He claims, “After getting a class XII certificate, students are now eligible to go to Australia, which was not the case without it. It was also a waste of everybody’s time and government money to study 2 years of arts and commerce only to then begin TVET training, which can easily begin after Class X or even before. If we are to be fiscally responsible, it is best to begin TVET training after Class X.”

Additionally, the other challenge with the point system removal was that government schools did not have the capacity to absorb all the students. That was bad enough, but the way in which MOESD forced private high schools to lower their fees by threatening them that if they did not agree, they would not get any students, was very unfortunate. It was not something expected of any responsible government. Today, the government has finally succeeded in taking all students from private schools, but the result is that the government schools are even more crowded than before.

“The challenge for the new government will remain the same. How do they provide high-quality, free education to our citizens”, questioned another teacher from a now-closed private school. However, the very few private high schools opening and loosing teachers every day, that challenge is going to be harder to solve.

According to a faculty from Sherub Reldri, Dorji, the newly installed system has driven out his job, and presently, a financial crisis is the major issue for his survival at Mongar.

In light of the challenges, teachers suggested that the government issued cash vouchers to all age groups of children, allowing them to choose a private or public school. This would lead to more options for parents and lessen the load on the public education system.

They further suggested that with the high teacher attrition rate, the teacher-to-student ratio is getting worse. It would have been so much better had the government worked on the cutoff removal pledge in a true partnership with private high schools. Private high schools had the capacity to absorb more than 10,000 students and their teachers. Students could still have had access to free education with good teacher-student ratios if the government financed that pledge in partnership with private schools. It will provide Bhutanese students with top-notch instruction. This might entail easing the application process for foreign teachers and offering financial support to private institutions.”

By implementing these measures, the government might contribute to lessening the detrimental effects of the cutoff point regulation and building a more sustainable and fair educational system for all children in Bhutan.

Pema Tshomo from Thimphu