January 26 - February 1, 2009 Myanmar's first international weekly © Volume 23, No. 455

Demand fuels international school boom

By Kyaw Zin Htun
The belief of many parents that English proficiency is vital for academic achievement has helped increase demand for international-style education options in Myanmar.

FLICKING through the pages of a telephone directory, 30-year-old Ma Wai Wai stops when she reaches the page listing Yangon’s international and private schools, before jotting down a few numbers. Her son has just turned five and she is determined to supplement his government school education with weekend classes at an international school.

“Everyone had to go to the government schools when I was a kid. But these days more than ever children need to be proficient in English so I’d like to send him to an international school as well as to a government school,” explains Ma Wai Wai.

While the tuition fees at international schools are much higher, she doesn’t question the value, saying “it’s for the sake of my son’s education”.

It is now a common attitude among parents in Myanmar, who are often willing to spend a significant amount of their income on education. This wasn’t always the case; in the early 1990s there were few non-government education options for parents. The best many could hope for is to send their children to one of the more well-known government schools, such as Basic Education High School No (1), in Yangon’s Dagon township, and the Practising School Institute of Education, in Kamaryut township.

Economic development and foreign investment changed the sector completely, and 1995 was something of a watershed year, according to U Tin Maung Win, the managing director of International Language and Business Centre (ILBC).

International schools, such as ILBC (above), often feature extensive sporting programs as part of their curriculum.

“We opened our school in 1995. Before opening the school we surveyed the local competition – International School Yangon (ISY) and Diplomatic School Yangon – as well as some international schools in Thailand, Singapore and Japan. There were very few international schools here before we opened and we faced some difficulties in our initial years,” U Tin Maung Win recalls. Most of the difficulties were related to developing the curriculum, he adds, as well as sourcing expatriate teachers.

“We tried hard to create a curriculum that is particularly suited to our country and students but based on the curriculum of international schools in other countries,” he says.

The result has been impressive. When ILBC opened it had just 23 students and about 10 teaching staff but today there are nine branches in cities throughout Myanmar and the institute employs more than 100 staff to cater for about 600 students, from kindergarten up to GCE ‘O’ level.

Mr David A Schaeffer, principal at Myanmar International Educational Services (MIES) and one of the founders of Yangon International Educare Centre (YIEC), agreed that before the mid-90s there were few international-style education options in Myanmar.

“When I came [to Myanmar] in 1995 to work as a teacher at International School Yangon, there were very few international schools at that time. There was ISY, the diplomatic school and a few others but most of them were very expansive, they weren’t affordable to most Myanmar parents. I felt that there was a need for another international standard school in Myanmar,” he said.

After working two years at ISY, he founded YIEC in 1997 with some colleagues. The school quickly became a success and paved the way for more competitors to enter the market.

“The main reason that more international schools have emerged is the market demand. Parents are now more likely to want a higher standard of education for their children so international schools have risen in popularity. Another factor that has contributed to the rise of international schools is the notion that a student’s achievement in education depends on early childhood education and the need to be proficient in English,” says Daw Yi Yi Myint, a retired professor from the Institute of Economics and an educational specialist.

International schools usually use a self-designed curriculum that is based on similar education providers, including classes from kindergarten to GCE ‘O’ levels, and they accommodate full-time students as well as those also studying at government schools.

Like every education system, these international schools have advantages as well as disadvantages. One education specialist said that while students will usually be more proficient in English because of an international-style education, they might also lose some connections with Myanmar culture and traditions.

Parents should also be wary of choosing the school that is most suitable for their child, not just the one that fits best into their budget, Daw Yi Yi Myint says.

“Parents should consider different factors when choosing the right international school for their children. They should think on the budget and they should enquire how their children pursue higher education after finishing the courses at international school and they should consult the experts,” said Daw Yi Yi Myint.

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