Development Challenge in Laos’s Education System

The Lao population of 4.9 million is ethnically and linguistically diverse. The government has defined 49 ethnic groups, many having their own language. School attendance, literacy, and other indicators of educational attainment vary greatly among different ethnic groups. Census data from 1995 reveal that 23 percent of the Lao never went to school as compared with 34, 56, and 67 percent for Phutai, Khmu, and Hmong. Among two of the smallest ethnic groups, 94 percent of the Kor and 96 percent of the Musir never attended school. The quality of instruction tends to be poor, and nearly half of those who enter do not complete the primary cycle.

Lao, the official and instructional language, is the first language of about 50 percent of the population. Children from homes where Lao is not spoken enter schools with a significant handicap, a condition partly accounting for the high dropout rate. Changing the language of instruction would be a complex problem; however, steps can be taken by schools to assist non-Lao speaking pupils.

The rural quality of Laos implicates the provision of education as urbanization facilitates educational delivery. It is more expensive to provide schools for each small village than to build a smaller number of large schools in cities. These rural-urban differences are even more significant for provision of secondary, technical or vocational schools given the higher unit costs involved. The quantity and quality of schooling are influenced by demographic structures and are highly sensitive to the size of the school-age cohort.

The extremely young population of Lao PDR puts a heavy burden on schooling and, at the same time, the high dependency ratio contributes to the low national productivity. Large families force choices as to which children go to school, tending to suppress female enrollments and indirectly reducing the number of subsequent opportunities for girls in education and in the labor market.

The education system is evolving under severely constraining conditions of inadequately prepared and poorly paid teachers, insufficient funding, shortages of facilities, and often ineffective allocation of the limited resources available. There is significant geographic, ethnic, gender and wealth disparities in the distribution of educational services, and inequalities exist in every level of the system.