BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT Lao PDR has 5.2 million people. Population density is low and growth has been steadily reducing to a current rate of around 2.2% pa. Around 43% of the population is aged 15 or under. Laos is landlocked and mountainous, with agriculture continuing to engage over 80% of the population. Since 1997, Laos has slipped below Cambodia on the HDI ranking to a current rank of 143, to become South East Asia's poorest country and the only one to remain in the "least developed' category. Indicators for life expectancy and infant mortality, in particular, remain poor at 54.2 years and 93.3/ 1000 respectively (UNDP 2000). Laos is divided into 18 Provinces (including Vientiane Municipality and the Special Economic Zone), comprising 141 districts and around 11, 000 villages (EFA Assessment, 2000).
One defining characteristic of Laos is its rich ethnic and linguistic diversity. There are 47 officially recognised ethnic groups, with 149 sub groups; but Chamberlain (1996) listed 236 ethnic groups that have tentatively been identified. About 64 % population are "Lao - Phutai", speaking four different varieties of mutually- intelligible Lao (Tai- Kadai language group), but only just over half the population is "Lao". 22% have Mon -Khmer languages (Austro-Asiatic language group), 7% are Hmong- Mien (or Hmong-Yao) and 2% Tibeto- Burman (Sino- Tibetan language group)1. One difficulty has been that, until recently, a simple classification of Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) 67%, Lao Theung (midland Lao) 30% and Lao Soung (Highland Lao/ hill tribes) 3% has been used, based purely on "typical" elevation. This overestimates Lao speakers, and underestimates others (for example Hmong are classified as "highlanders" and underestimated by more than half); and made it very difficult to obtain accurate information, especially on differences between groups. However, with the wide recognition of this problem, Parliament seems set to soon approve the replacement of the traditional system for ethnic classification by a more accurate one. In contrast with some neighbouring countries, all ethnic minority people in Laos have full citizenship.
Ethnicity and poverty are closely linked. While wealthier districts lie along the Mekong River and are predominantly Lao, development indicators lag behind for most ethnic minority and non- Lao- speaking groups in the more remote, mountainous areas to the North and East. For example, the poor province of Phongsaly on the northern border with Yunnan (China), has only 7.6% of people who have Lao as a first language. However, there are differences between groups as well as between individual communities, for example many upland Hmong, while particularly isolated from the mainstream, often have relatively fertile lands and more reliable food production2.
While geography and ethnic disparities play their part in the low levels of development, these also have their roots in a long period of colonialism, followed by the "secret war" between 1966 and 1975, in which Laos experienced some of the heaviest, most sustained bombings in history. In 1975, with the defeat and withdrawal of American forces in Vietnam, the Lao Government was faced with rebuilding a country torn apart by war, with a destroyed infrastructure and the long term blight of unexploded ordinance. In human terms, in addition to those who died or lost loved ones, many qualified and educated people had fled the country and over half a million people were displaced within Laos; creating massive challenges for building human capacity.
Initially, a socialist route to development was pursued, with similarities to neighbouring Vietnam and include a degree of collectivisation of agriculture. Mass organisations (e.g. the women's and youth union) have traditionally played an important part in community level development. In 1975 only 30% Lao children had access to any kind of Primary Education. For the understaffed Ministry of Education and Provincial and District Education offices, the period up to 1990 was one of setting in place of the rudimentaries of an education system. Since 1986, there has been a cautious opening up of the economy through the "New Economic Mechanism" (NEM), which has included the reversal of collectivisation and development of tourism. Thailand became a key trading partner, hence the Asia Financial Crisis in 1997 had considerable impact in Laos, and (owing in part to relative inexperience in economic management) there was some loss of the ground that had been achieved in previous years. However, there has been slow but steady economic growth annually since 1998, to a current figure of around 6% pa.
The opening up of the last 15 years has hailed increased development aid and the establishment of a number of development agencies in Laos. Of total government expenditure, 34% comes from foreign aid, about 22% as loans and a further 12% as grants. Only around 1.6 % of GNP, but 5.9% of aid and 10.9 % of government recurrent expenditure; is spent on education3. Loans for education have been secured from the WB and ADB, often after very long negotiation periods, particularly in relation to the banks' concerns about low government funding of the social sector relative to other sectors, particularly infrastructure. For education, aid makes up about 26% of the total expenditure, but 45% of this is investment expenditure, where aid makes up 80% of the total. UNICEF have had a long engagement in Laos and played an proactive role in encouraging project information- sharing around key themes. The key bilaterals are Sweden (SIDA), France, Australia (AusAid) and Japan (JICA). More recently the EU has become involved in the Education sector. While there are no Lao NGO's (since it is perceived that the mass organisations can play this role), the door has been opened to a number of international NGOs4, an number of which are active in the Education sector, tending to focus work at provincial and district levels5.
Recent restructuring and decentralisation plans aim to bring implementation down to district and even village level and planning and budgeting to provincial level; while the centre maintains an overall policy direction and monitoring role. In an attempt to bring services within reach of all people, a controversial policy is also currently being pursued of settlement of formerly semi - nomadic groups. There is some evidence that insufficient attention has been given to support the development of alternative livelihoods options, increasing the poverty of some groups. It is yet to be seen how decentralisation will enable more locally responsive and participatory development approaches. Changes are only just beginning to be implemented, roles and responsibilities are not yet clear and districts and provinces seemingly not yet confident to exercise their new powers. Meanwhile, a PPA has been undertaken, from which a National Poverty Eradication Programme (NPEP) is being developed. Key messages from the PPA are on the importance, in Laos, of beginning with detailed attention to community assets (both natural and human) and optimising on ethnic diversity and knowledge, as well as finding culturally- specific ways of addressing issues of women's high workloads and low participation in decision making.
In Education, the WB and ADB have previously worked with the Government on "Sector Development Plans", focusing on "packages" of teacher deployment and training, school construction, materials production and management development, though these were not seen as particularly participatory, nor comprehensive. The impetus of the 2000 Assessmentand the Dakar WEF has brought increased attention to sector -wide objective setting, planning and monitoring, following which the Ministry prepared an "Education Strategic Vision for 2020", part of a wider vision for Laos moving out of "Least Developed Country" status by that time. This document gives the government's own assessment of its successes and the reasons for them, as well as constraints and challenges to be overcome. It expresses the purpose of education in terms of developing good citizens and promoting social and human and economic development, balanced with environmental protection. Objectives are grouped around Equitable Access, Quality Improvements and Improved Management, however, achievement of the objectives is couched in terms of quite a long list of activities, without the "middle level" of overall strategies and priorities. The Education Component of the NPEP uses these same three objectives as its "three pillars". UNESCO are giving ongoing support for the development of "EFA" plans, and a recent meeting took place with development partners to present the draft targets (attached in Annex B), which are now articulated around the six Dakar goals. The UPE target for 2015 is 95% and the gender targets are set later than for the global target.
In common with other poor, donor- dependent countries, there is increasing realisation that projects can bring problems as well as benefits, particularly for the Ministry responsible for their management and coordination. Agreements are now being reached on the early stages of development of a Sector Wide Approach (SWAp), with a long term aim of enabling budget support to a coherent set of agreed prioritised strategies. Among the donors, SIDA are spearheading this process, beginning with consultancy support to the MoE Department of Planning and the development of a more regular "round table" process between Ministry and the "Development Partners", aiming to move gradually from project information- sharing towards more strategic policy dialogue. There is gradually a coming together of the different plans, for example the most recent EFA workplan has setting feasible goals and targets, more financial analysis and a consensus building workshop as its next steps, and also explains that EFA will draw on earlier documents as well as integrating donor project plans. However, for now, there is some way to go with this, and in the meantime actions taken continue to be donor- driven to some extent, as well as constrained by a top- down Government budgeting process, leaving the MoE underfunded and with little leeway for non- project activities.
THE DAKAR GOALS: PATTERNS OF PROGRESS 1990-2003 1. UNIVERSAL QUALITY PRIMARY EDUCATION There has been very significant progress in the expansion of primary education and improved enrolments, from around 62% in 1990 to around 80% currently6. Improvements have been experienced in both rural and urban areas and across different ethnic groups. For example, the province with the very lowest NER, Sekong, had an NER of only 6% in 1989, which by 2000 had increased to 44.5%. There are currently around 7500 primary schools, however only 35% are "complete" schools offering a full five grades, while 35 % offer grades one and two only. Within this overall increase in enrolment, it would seem that gender parity in enrolments has improved somewhat. UIS report a slight change in the gender parity index from 0.79 to 0.86, while the latest MoE Figures suggest 0.89. Lao PDR has also seen very significant expansionof secondary education over the decade. UIS statistics indicate that NER increased from less than 15% to 30.2 %, while the EFA 2000 Assessment indicates an NER of 35%. There are around 6000 children, only 24% girls, enrolled in a number of Provincial level ethnic minority boarding schools (mainly secondary but also some primary students), following a Vietnamese model to give some able ethnic minority students the chance to proceed to higher levels of education. (Lower secondary grade eight graduates can move into a variety of vocational training courses (including teaching), while higher education requires completion of upper secondary grade 11).
However, significant disparities in enrolment remain between Provinces and between Districts within a Province. These disparities seem to reflect an interplay ofrural poverty-, ethnicity- and gender - related factors. While complex and difficult to disentangle, it can generally be said that poverty is higher among "ethnic minority" communities, and that, within these, gender differences also tend to be more pronounced. For example, relatively well off, urban and Lao- speaking Vientiane Municipality has an NER of 99.8 % (100 % m, 99.7% female); while poor, mountainous Phongsaly, with a high population of "ethnic minorities", has an NER of 55.4% (63.2% for boys and 47.4% for girls). Within Luang Prabang Province, the Municipality has 31% ethnic minority children, only 3.4% non- enrolled and a gender ratio of 48f: 52m. Meanwhile, Phonxay, one of the more remote districts in the province with an ethnic minority population of 83%, has 36% non- enrolled and a gender ratio of 39f: 61m (Luang Prabang Provincial statistics). A higher percentage of ethnic minority children have never enrolled in or attended school, and some groups have barely begun to participate in education for example UNICEF (1996) estimated 94% of the Kor minority to have never attended school.
That said, it needs to be noted that both Ministry and donors agreed that a long period of frustratingly slow progress on ethnic minority enrolment rates and gender ratios, has been followed by some recent significant improvements, just over the last three years. The latest figures from the Ministry7 indicate an annual NER growth rate of 8.3% overall, but 9% for girls, 9% for ethnic minorities and 12.1 % for ethnic minority girls.
While poor, rural ethnic minorities, especially girls, constitute the major disadvantaged groups, there are other smaller groups of children who need consideration. Figures on the number of disabled children in school (which unfortunately are not gender -disaggregated), come from the Lao Inclusive Education Project, which in 2001 included 147 Primary schools, covering 1627 children with disabilities and special needs, but is expanding to a goal of 400 schools by 20058 . The project identifies as pilot "IE" schools those which already have good relationships with communities, are making progress gender and in implementing Active Learning; and build on this to further develop skills of working with "mixed ability" classes and with parents/ communities. However, even within the catchment areas of the IE schools, it is reported that there are more severely disabled children who are not reached. Therefore, outside of these, especially in more remote areas it can be assumed that there are very few disabled children in school as yet and that gender issues might become more pronounced as the approach expands. The IE approach adopted in Laos is nevertheless significant, as it demonstrates a model by which, as schools establish to become basically functional, the majority of disabled children can be included successfully within them at that time, rather than being left until last, or until a distant date when special provision becomes a feasible option.
There are also orphans living in orphanages under Ministry of Labour, some of whom are reportedly receiving an education but who do not appear in statistics9. With increasing rural- urban migration, it can be anticipated that urban street and working children might become a group needing attention in the future, but thankfully there are only small numbers as yet. Although figures were not available, the EFA Assessment also refers to Buddhist monasteries which provide a traditional education to boys in some (Lao) villages.
Enrolment, of course, is a limited measure10. In Laos, it is far from the case that enrolment in school indicates that a full 5 year, five grade cycle of meaningful and useful education will be completed. Drop out rates are high, resulting in a national "completion" rate (survival to Grade Five) is only 56% (MoE, NPEP document). According to the MoE classification for the Poverty Eradication Programme, in "non poor" districts it is 65%, while for the "poorest" (ethnic minority) districts it is only 46% overall, but in some as low as 20% . Drop out rates in all three categories are higher for girls than for boys and are by far the highest in Grades one and two, often exceeding 20%. These figures are perhaps not surprising, given that over 60% of Primary schools in Laos are incomplete, i.e. they do not offer the chance to study to Grade Five, and this figure rises to 80% in some of the poorest Provinces. However, even in some "complete schools", drop out rates remain high.
In addition, there are high levels of under-age and over-age enrolment, which probably inflate NER figures. Many young children accompany their older siblings (usually sisters) to school and are registered in Grade One for a number of years. Conversely, particularly in certain ethnic groups, children often enrol only from the age of around ten. Nationally, only 40% of primary school entrants in 1996/7 were the correct age of six years (ADB 2000).
Given the high drop out figures for primary, it is not surprising to find the much lower secondary enrolment rates. Rural- urban and ethnic disparities are even greater in secondary than in Primary Education. Secondary Education remains a realistic aspiration only for people in towns and district centres. Given the patterns of drop out seen above, it is not surprising to find that, at secondary level, almost all students are those with Lao as a first language.
There are difficulties in getting direct measures of learning outcomes in Laos, due to lack of systematic processes for monitoring of these, either at school or national level. In addition to the high drop out, there are also high grade repetition rates. It is not uncommon for rural Grade One classes to have more "repeaters" than new entrants. This, in theory, indicates that many children are not able to pass a test of what they have learned during a year of school. However, in reality, "non progression" is only likely to give an accurate indication of teaching (and learning) quality in a minority of complete schools where some basic system for testing children is in place, and both teachers and children have an incentive for children to pass, and to pass through the grades Even where this is the case, testing focuses on recall and not skills and competencies acquired. Perhaps the clearest measure that we have is from the National Literacy Survey finding that almost half of Grade Five "graduates" were unable to pass a simple literacy test, this figure being higher for youth who have recently left school than for those who left some years ago.
In terms of quality of inputs: there has been the deployment and training of many more teachers. Primary teacher supply is currently increasing at 1.5% per annum, and secondary at 3.3% (Richard Noonan, MoE). 11 TTCs have developed to deliver five systems for pre-service training, including a system for rural (especially ethnic minority ) teachers with only a primary education to train for four years combining periods of secondary study with in - school teaching. A provincial- based system of teacher upgrading has also now been in place for over ten years. UNICEF reported an increase over last decade in the percentage of trained teachers from 61.5 to 76.8, an impressive achievement11. Parallel with this has been the expansion of infrastructure, which has been a high priority for international assistance. There has also been considerable production of materials and resources, and some work to reform the curriculum.
Overall then, there has been progress on bringing some experience of schooling to many more villages and children, but many rural and ethnic minority children, especially girls, are not yet competing a five year cycle of meaningful education leading to minimum learning outcomes.
Causes of the patterns described lie both in relation to "demand" and to "supply": On the demand side, the findings of the PPA, as well as the WB, suggest that poverty is an important factor determining enrolment and/ or attendance, owing both to difficulties for families (often on a seasonal basis) in meeting costs of pens, notebooks and basic clothing (not necessarily uniform) and also the need of children to work. Livelihoods means are also very important. Many groups practice 'swidden" agriculture and are away from their villages for up to 9 months of each year, living in small family groups tending fields in the hills, making school attendance almost impossible. In some of the "resettlements", traditional livelihood means have been severely eroded and developing alternative means of survival is a priority over education. Cultural practices are important too, for example marriage patterns and assumptions about work roles influence gender patterns in enrolment and attendance. However, the PPA, as well as research undertaken by SC-Norway, find that the reality is more complex and relates also to the actual situation of the local school. Gendered assumptions12are most pronounced where poverty forces parents to make the choice of which children to send to school, and for how long. Different groups each have their own sophisticated ways of making decisions about education, balancing economic situations with their own assessments of "quality" and "relevance", and even very poor people would use education if it was relevant, useful and compatible with their life styles and agricultural calendars. Practical learning is rated as being as important as literacy and many people expressed perplexity at so much attention being given to just one skill (literacy) for all children. In villages where only one or two grades are offered at an "incomplete" school, in a language that the community do not understand, parents do not see any quick evidence of progress or useful skills learned, acting as a disincentive even to enrol. Teacher non- attendance was also seen very negatively and some children pointed out feeling unwelcome due to language; different, poorer clothes (or no clothes); and different food ("tubers instead of rice"). To increase demand, further action on reducing costs to poor parents and supporting improved livelihoods, along with "advocacy" for girls education, are important, but need to be combined with improving quality and relevance and ensuring access to a full primary cycle.
These issues force attention to the "supply" side of the equation, in order to explore what are factors that have improved enrollment and what are those that continue to act as a disincentive to completion or a barrier to learning. Tracing back over the last 15 years, it can be seen that, until quite recently, government and donors focused on "packages" to support quantitative expansion to increase numbers of qualified teachers and schools. Except for some provision of scholarships to encourage ethnic minority adults to become teachers, there were limited explicit efforts to target more disadvantaged areas, indeed many donors favoured larger settlements for construction grants. As is discussed further in more detail, while these efforts have been extremely important, they are largely donor- funded and "donor driven", and with government funding also tied up with counterpart funds, have brought about severe problems for recurrent funding even for salaries, let alone for anything else.
Therefore, while some degree of schooling is now in reach of many more children, almost inevitably, improvements have reached the urban and "better off" firstand disproportionately. Urban schools have better infrastructure better qualified teachers and better resourcing. The curriculum is more relevant to urban and ethnic Lao children.
However, even in the better schools, there are a number of problems in delivering quality. Teachers' skills and competencies remain limited and rote learning approaches are still very often used. Too few Pedagogy Advisers have too many schools to cover, resulting in insufficient emphasis on ongoing follow- up and support to teachers. Furthermore, there rarely seems to be a linking of teacher's skills to student outcomes and assessment systems remain weak. Some problems are being experienced with the curriculum, particularly the pacing and level of the maths curriculum being too ambitious. There is a lack interesting reading materials to extend children beyond the confines of the text books.
Meanwhile, the poorest and most remote places have been the last to be served, have the worst infrastructure and most likely to have an incomplete school. 80% of teachers overall are from the Lao ethnic group. The mountainous districts have more unqualified teachers, e.g. Sekong still has over 70%. Untrained teachers in ethnic minority areas have particularly low levels of education. A further dimension is the inequity in learning hours, since most rural and incomplete schools operate for only 2-3 hours per day. Lack of knowledge of alternatives and degree of confidence/ motivation to be more flexible, often leads to ineffective use of teachers within a school, or of the limited time available for learning. While many of the problems are "logistical" (it is extremely difficult and costly to develop schools in remote and rural areas), it is perhaps also fair to say that in the earlier stages of expansion there was dependence mainly on a "trickle down" approach, and only more recently has come the acknowledgement that achievement of UPE in rural areas will need deliberate targeting of extra assistance and effort, as well as more responsiveness to specific contexts.
Furthermore, for almost 40% of children, (some estimate more) the language of the school is not the lanague of the home. In this area, perhaps more than any other, rigidity in looking at the issue has had a negative effect. The pattern of high drop out in areas where language of instruction cannot be understood by the children is very clear. Howse notes that Grade One repetition is very often because of language: the whole of the first year is spent learning Lao, and then the second year children have some hope of understanding something of the content of the curriculum. Maths and writing (more than reading) have been identified as particularly difficult for Lao as a Second Language (L2L) learners. The curriculum and text books do not take account of their needs, and only to some degree consider minority cultures and lifestyles. Even where ethnic minority teachers are present, they may be unsure of how to develop children's mother tongue learning and help them to learn Lao, possibly discouraging them from using their own language at all.
However, this section can be finished on a more positive note. As stated earlier, MoE and key donors agree that just in the last few years there have been some sudden significant improvements in rates of progress. It is yet to be fully analysed why this is the case. However, a few causes can be postulated, back up by early findings from key projects. Teacher incentives to work in remote ethnic minority areas were introduced in 1998, and to teach in "multigrade" contexts since June 2002. Those qualifying for both allowances receive almost double pay- a very significant incentive (though actual payment has suffered the same delays as teachers salaries). Another possibility is the sudden improvement in the recruitment of ethnic minority teachers. While the numbers of "Lao Loum" teachers has slightly decreased in 2001-2, the percentages of Lao Soung and Lao Theung have increased by 6.2% and 6.1 % respectively, and overall teacher numbers have increased most rapidly in the poor, ethnic minority districts, e.g. by 18 % in Sekong, compared with the 1.5% average (Richard Noonan, MoE). Much of this may be down to the Basic Education (Girls) Project, which is currently in the process of locally recruiting, training and supporting over 300 woman ethnic minority teachers. Project data suggests very significant change in enrolment in some of the targeted schools.
Furthermore, we might tentatively say that, perhaps due to decentralisation, there has been some recent widening out from the rather conventional approaches based on "inputs", and a greater realisation of the need for creative and flexible responses and school and community level, based on "outcomes". A focus on a "responsive" or "child- friendly" learning environment, "whole school development", school - level "indicators of quality" as well as monitoring of actual learning, and real community participation in schools; is becoming more prominent in project practice and in Vientiane development discourse. Along with this, just in the last six months, is an interesting synergy of different moves to bring ethnicity and language issues into greater prominence. With the possibility of local recruitment of ethnic minority teachers, at least for the early grades, now being explored, even the idea of piloting mother tongue literacy in the early grades for languages where Lao script could be used is being discussed. Donors are hopeful that a "small window of opportunity" has opened for really beginning to make progress on the "lanague issue", and are seeking to find useful examples of approaches used with related ethnic groups in neighbouring countries, as well as showing willingness to fund pilot initiatives in Laos.
2. EARLY CHILDHOOD CARE AND EDUCATION (ECCE) For primary education, a "universal" target reflects an international agreement that there are many skills that children will need in a fast changing world (like literacy, numeracy or scientific knowledge), which some parents (particularly non literate people) might not be able to fully develop, and hence a formal institution is required to ensure that basic needs and rights are met for all children. "Non enrolment" rates in poorer countries give a good indication of the minimum number of children who will be illiterate and vulnerably to poverty in the future. For Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), however, a measure of enrolment or non enrolment in some kind of formal early years provision cannot be used in the same way. The aim is the optimal development of young children: physical, cognitive, social and emotional. This process (including extraordinary language acquisition in the first five years) can take place very effectively within homes and communities, indeed the best "formal" ECCE for young children is that which mirrors the best of these environments. Therefore, this discussion tries to unpack the statistics and look to see what we know about the quality of young children's early learning experiences in different Lao contexts.