Uncertainty looms over the future of Private Schools

As part of its pledge, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) government paid the expenses of students seeking admission in private schools (class XI). Most students were those who did not qualify for government schools.

However, with schools having received no communication from the Ministry of Education (MoE), and words doing the round that the government may not provide the same support as all students would be taken into government schools, proprietors of private schools, as well as teachers are uncertain of their future.

Speaking to the paper, Education minister, Jai Bir Rai, said that there is no certainty at this time. “Nothing has been decided, and it may depend on the percentage of failures,” he said, adding that if the percentage of those failing is lower next year and the government school can accept all the students, then all students will be absorbed into government schools.

 “If the government schools cannot take all students, then private schools might get in,” he said.

However, an owner of a private school said the main problem is lack of communication from the MoE. “They should be discussing the plans for the upcoming year right now, but the administration hasn’t provided any information,” he said, adding that the government does not share any of its plans until the very last minute. “This has been the case since 2019”.

Speaking along the same lines, Proprietor of Pelkhil School said they have no idea about the government’s plans. “However, we do know that they do not intend to send students to private schools if they can help it. Now with budget shortage, it is even less likely,” he said.

Observers say that this will lead to the closure of several private schools. On the other side, schools are making their own preparations, one of which is doing away with the higher classes and convert the schools to primary schools. Some are trying to open Technical and Vocational and Educational Training (TVET) programs, while others are converting schools to hotels.

“But these are difficult choices. There are already 300 empty budget hotels in the country now. (TVET) the market is almost non-existent as all needs are covered by MoE and DSP,” owner of a private school in Paro said.

“Private schools survive on four categories of students, namely, those who could not qualify for the government school, repeaters, those who qualified for the government school but want to join private schools, and those students who got pass certificate not awarded (PCNA),” one proprietor said.

He also added that now, the government has taken all these categories of students in government schools except those who have qualified but wish to join the private schools for better facilities.

“But how will the private schools survive on just around 100 students,” he asked.

Meanwhile, another private school owner in Paro suggested, “Another way for the government to improve the situation at low cost, would have been if they encourage parents with means to share the cost of education. They could have easily given education vouchers worth say Nu 10,000 to Nu 15000, to any parent who was willing to top up the fees to transfer to a private school. Encouraging citizens with resources to share would have been a very sensible way to reduce government costs and improve the quality of education. This is almost a standard practice in many other countries, including even India. Why not in Bhutan.”

Meanwhile, the question of the education quality has also risen. Some teachers are of the view that, the education sector is suffering from a massive teacher attrition rate. “Good teachers, senior teachers, are resigning at the rate of two to three every day,” a teacher of a private school said.

He also added that Thimphu alone has a shortage of about 100 teachers. That’s enough to run three schools.

“The problem, however, is that MoE is replacing all these experienced teachers with untrained and inexperienced contract teachers. So they are working to make the statistics look good, by filling in the vacancies, but what is hidden is the impact on quality. Wouldn’t it make some sense to try to use all the extra capacity in private schools? 21 high schools can host 11,000 students and they have enough experienced teachers,” he said.

 Others facing uncertainty are teachers.  “Despite family members telling me to try going to Australia, I stayed back as I love teaching. And looking at what is happening, the future of private schools are uncertain, which makes our future uncertain,” she said. According to her, most teachers are preparing to move to Australia, while others are planning to start small businesses, restaurants and retail stores.

When the results of class X and XII board exams were declared at the beginning of 2022, the government enrolled the majority of the students in government institutions; but, due to inadequate infrastructure, the government sent a small number of students to the private schools on scholarships.

Meanwhile, 600 families rely on the roughly 600 teachers who work in private schools. According to a teachers of Pelkhil High School, Thimphu, MoE hasn’t said anything about them, apart from caution that they may lose their jobs. He also said, “While the government is concerned about losing the entirety of the people to Australia, how can we stay here when the circumstances are not favorable to us?”

On this issue, the Prime Minister’s Office’s media wing said that the government has asked private schools to compete and raise their standards so that students choose to go to their schools and not government schools. ‘Towards this, the government has done away with the capping of fees and the capping on payment of teachers’ salaries. The government has also asked private schools to plan and take teachers from government schools on contract if they wish to.”

The PMO media cell further mentioned that there are some private schools whose academic results are good and students opt for those schools. “These are the kinds of standards that our schools should aspire to have. And the government is willing to help them. The government took in around three schools as additional infrastructure for COVID-related measures. However, it is not practical and affordable for the government to take up schools that decide to close business.”

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu