By Frédéric Janssens
There is good news coming out of the region’s classrooms: The end of illiteracy might be close. Most Asean countries have managed to quash this roadblock to development, which still affected a quarter of the region’s population just 30 years ago. Today, thanks to increased investment in primary education, literacy is hovering around the 95% mark in every nation except Laos and Cambodia, where one in four is still unable to read or write.
The victory has led to a surge in secondary school enrolment rates. In Thailand and Indonesia, where 80% of teenagers now attend secondary school, enrolments underwent a respective 25% and 50% boom in the past decade. Cambodia, which still has the lowest rate in the region, almost tripled its enrolment figures in the same period, while Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos all witnessed increases of 30% to 40%. So, straight A’s for everyone? Not just yet – for two main reasons.
First, education remains marred by disparities between and within countries. Even between neighbouring countries, the difference in government expenditure can be huge, and access to education for rural children, migrants and ethnic minorities is a major issue in most nations. Millions of children are still deprived of their right to an education, and much needs to be done to achieve the goal of ‘education for all’.
Secondly, many experts are concerned by the low quality of education in Southeast Asia (with Singapore being the exception). While it is no surprise in the region’s poorest nations, it should act as a wake-up call for emerging powers such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Only 4% of Indonesian children reached ‘high’ levels in the international reading assessment, and 50% of Thai children achieved level one or below out of six Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) learning levels in reading, maths and science – a result that illustrates what Unesco calls “serious issues of quality” in the Thai school system.
Although illiteracy rates have dwindled, the education system is now showing serious limits in a region eager to partake in the ‘knowledge economy’. Attracting, training and retaining good teachers while building innovative curricula should be a top priority in building a competitive Asean Economic Community. Playing hooky on the issue cannot be an option.