Education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fifth grade; however, high fees for books and supplies and a general shortage of teachers in rural areas prevented many children from attending school. There were significant differences among the various ethnic groups in the educational opportunities offered to boys and girls. Although the government's policy is to inform ethnic groups on the benefits of education for all children, some ethnic groups did not consider education for girls either necessary or beneficial. While figures were not reliable, reported literacy rates for girls were approximately 10 percent lower than for boys in general. Although school enrollment rates for girls remained lower than for boys, gender parity has been increasing. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Education and social services remain rudimentary at best but are improving. In lowland villages traditional education was provided to boys and young men through the Buddhist temples. Although this practice continues in some areas, in general it has been supplanted by a national education system which, unfortunately, is hampered by limited financial resources and a lack of trained teachers. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Laos government spends very little on education. Education expenditures: 3.3 percent of GDP (2010), country comparison to the world: 135. The GDP of Laos is very low. At one time it was estimated only five countries spent less on education as a percentage of their overall budget. Laos It wants to improve it schools but lacks the funds to do so, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty in which a lack of education prevents the country from advancing and a lack of advancement means no money for education.

In the early 2000s, Laos received about $20 million a year in education grants and loans in foreign aid. Analysts have said the money would be most effective if spent on 1) the reduction of the dropout rate and repetition rates in the first and second grades, 2) primary school teacher training and 3) addressing the problem of teachers not speaking ethnic languages.

There are gaps in terms of education between boys and girls, rich and poor, urban and rural areas. Within urban areas, the gaps are narrower while the rural areas record some of the lowest educational indicators in the country, and the gaps continue to widen. Those living in remote areas are the most disadvantaged and cut off from services, many of whom are ethnic groups. Indeed, a significant proportion of children – especially girls and ethnic groups in remote areas – are out of school.

Literacy and Women and Education in Laos

Literacy (definition: age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 73 percent male: 83 percent; female: 63 percent (2005 Census). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Overall, there are more illiterate women than men. Causes of female illiteracy vary across provinces and among the different ethnic groups, but poverty, distance, costs, and traditional beliefs tend to be the main factors. Other factors include the burden of household chores, early marriage or pregnancy. The literacy rates for adult women and men in the Northern region are lower than in the other regions. Luang Namtha, in the northern region, has lowest percentage of adult literacy, and Vientiane capital has the highest percentage of adults who can read and write.

Both boys and girls attend village schools but only a few boys are encouraged to continue their education on the district or provincial level. According to a UNICEF report Laos will not be able to reduce poverty or improve its living standards unless a greater effort is made to get girls into schools.

Girls are less likely than boys to attend school and attend for fewer years--a discrepancy that was declining, however, in the early 1990s. In 1969 only 37 percent of students in primary school were girls; by 1989, however, 44 percent of primary school students were girls. Because of Lao Sung cultural attitudes toward girls' and women's responsibilities, girls in these groups accounted for only 26 percent of all students. [Source: Library of Congress]

Education Prior to the Lao People's Democratic Republic

Of the many ethnic groups in Laos, only the Lao Loum had a tradition of formal education, reflecting the fact that the languages of the other groups had no written script. Until the midtwentieth century, education was primarily based in the Buddhist wat, where the monks taught novices and other boys to read both Lao and Pali scripts, basic arithmetic, and other religious and social subjects. Many villages had wat schools for novices and other village boys. However, only ordained boys and men in urban monasteries had access to advanced study. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

During the colonial period, the French established a secular education system patterned after schools in France, and French was the language of instruction after the second or third grade. This system was largely irrelevant to the needs and life-styles of the vast majority of the rural population, despite its extension to some district centers and a few villages. However, it did produce a small elite drawn primarily from the royal family and noble households. Many children of Vietnamese immigrants to Laos--who made up the majority of the colonial civil service--also attended these schools and, in fact, constituted a significant proportion of the students at secondary levels in urban centers. Post-secondary education was not available in Laos, and the few advanced students traveled to Hanoi, Danang, and Hué in Vietnam and to Phnom Penh in Cambodia for specialized training; fewer still continued with university-level studies in France. *

The Pathet Lao began to provide Lao language instruction in the schools under its control in the late 1950s, and a Laotian curriculum began to be developed in the late 1960s in the RLG schools. In 1970 about one-third of the civilian employees of the RLG were teachers, although the majority of these were poorly paid and minimally trained elementary teachers. At that time, there were about 200,000 elementary students enrolled in RLG schools, around 36 percent of the school-age population. *

Education Since 1975 in Laos

An important goal of the LPDR government was to establish a system of universal primary education by 1985. The LPDR took over the existing RLG education system that had been established in 1950s and restructured it, facing many of the same problems that had also confronted previous governments. The French system of education was replaced with a Laotian curriculum, although lack of teaching materials has impeded effective instruction. An intensive adult literacy campaign was initiated in 1983-84, which mobilized educated persons living in villages and urban neighborhoods to bring basic reading and writing skills to over 750,000 adults. Largely as a result of this campaign, those able to read and write had increased to an estimated 44 percent. According to the United Nations (UN), by 1985 those able to read and write were estimated at 92 percent of men and 76 percent of women of the fifteen to forty-five age-group. Because few reading materials are available, especially in the rural areas, many newly literate adults lose much of their proficiency after a few years. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The decision to establish universal education led the government to focus its efforts on building and staffing schools in nearly every village. School enrollment has increased since 1975. In 1988 primary school enrollment was estimated at 63 percent of all school-age children. In 1992-93 an estimated 603,000 students were in primary school, compared to 317,000 students in 1976 and 100,000 students in 1959. However, the goal of achieving universal primary education was postponed from 1985 to 2000 as a result of the lack of resources. Repetition rates ranged from 40 percent for the first grade to 14 percent for the fifth grade. Dropouts also were a significant problem, with 22 percent of all entering first graders leaving school before the second grade. In the late 1980s, only 45 percent of entering first graders completed all five years of primary school, up from 18 percent in 1969. *

Performance statistics vary according to rural-urban location, ethnic group, and gender. Enrollment and school quality are higher in urban areas, where the usefulness of a formal education is more evident than in rural farming communities. Isolated teachers confronted with primitive rural living and teaching conditions have a difficult time maintaining their own commitment as well as the interest of their pupils. Ethnic minority students who have no tradition of literacy and who do not speak Lao have a particularly difficult time. Unless the teacher is of the same or similar ethnic group as the students, communication and culturally appropriate education are limited. Because of these factors, in the late 1980s the enrollment rate for the Lao Sung was less than half that of the Lao Loum; enrollment was also low for Lao Theung children. *

Secondary education enrollment has expanded since 1975 but as of mid-1994 is still limited in availability and scope. In 1992-93 only about 130,000 students were enrolled in all postprimary programs, including lower- and upper-secondary schools, vocational programs, and teacher-training schools. The exodus of Laotian elite after 1975 deprived vocational and secondary schools of many of their staff, a situation that was only partly offset by students returning from training in socialist countries. Between 1975 and 1990, the government granted over 14,000 scholarships for study in at least eight socialist countries; just over 7,000 were to the Soviet Union, followed by 2,500 to Vietnam, and 1,800 to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). *

Local secondary education is concentrated in the provincial capitals and some district centers. Dropout rates for students at secondary and technical schools are not as high as among primary students, but the gender and ethnic group differentials are more pronounced. In the late 1980s, only 7 percent of lower-secondary students were Lao Sung or Lao Theung, a rate that dropped to 3 percent in upper-secondary school. For most students who do not live in a provincial center, attendance at secondary school requires boarding away from home in makeshift facilities. This situation further discourages students in rural areas from pursuing further education, with additional differential impacts on girls and minorities. Vientiane has the majority of advanced schools, including the national teachers' training school at Dong Dok, the irrigation college at Tad Thong, the agriculture college at Na Phok, the National Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Medical Sciences. Even so, the level of training available at these schools is low. *

In 1986 the government began to reform the education system, with the goals of linking educational development more closely to the socioeconomic situation in each locality, improving science training and emphasis, expanding networks to remote mountainous regions, and recruiting minority teachers. The plan envisioned making education more relevant to daily realities and building increased cooperation in educational activities among the various ministries, mass organizations, and the community. However, the ability to implement this program through its scheduled completion in 2000 depends on a significant budgetary increase to the educational sector in addition to receiving significant foreign aid. Education accounted for only 8 percent of government expenditures in 1988, down from a 10 to 15 percent range during the preceding seven-year period, and cultural expenditures also were not accorded a high priority. *

Schooling in Laos

School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 9 years; male: 10 years; female: 9 years (2008). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Officially education is compulsory for eight years, from age six to fifteen. Primary school has five grades, middle school three grades, high school three grades. Most villages have primary schools. In rural areas secondary school students generally have to travel a considerable distance from the their homes villages to a middle school of high school.

In mid-1994 the school year was nine-months. The ideal sequence included five years of primary school, followed by three years of lower-secondary school and three years of upper-secondary school. Some students go directly from primary or lower-secondary school to vocational instruction, for example, in teacher-training schools or agriculture schools. *

In the 1990s, the average Laotian only had three years of formal schooling. At that time only about 40 percent of children finished primary school with many repeating at least one grade. Many students have to walk for hours just to get to a school.

The level of education increases with proximity to district and provincial towns. The absence of decent schools in Laos has prodded many Laotians to go to Thailand to get an education. In the old days the elite were educated at French schools elsewhere in Indochina and in France itself. These days they study at private or international schools or go overseas.

Prior ro the 1970s, the Lao education system was based on the French system. Under the Communists it was modeled after the Chinese and Russian systems. Before 1975, many classes were taught in French, today they are taught almost exclusively in Lao.

School Life

Most villages have one or two primary schools. Some villages have no schools or dilapidated structures, sometimes with no walls or a roof, that serve as schools. One room schoolhouses are sometimes flattened by storms and put out of commission for years. Many communities build their own schools from private donation because the government can't provide them with funds.

A typical school has no lights, no books or pencils and a dirt floor, Children squeeze behind wood benches, copying lessons on beat up writing tablets. In the winter, children bundle up in coats because there is no heat.

In the 1980s arithmetic was taught to small children in some rather interesting ways in Laotian textbooks. For example 3+1=4 can be expressed by having three bunnies and adding one more to equal four, right? To express 6-1=5 you start out with six U.S. warplanes flying over Laos. One is shot down by a soldier in a floppy eared cap and you get five. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

Although more school texts and general magazines are being printed, poor distribution systems and budgetary constraints limit their availability throughout the country. Overall, 3.9 million books were printed in 1989, including school texts published by the Ministry of Education, and novels, stories, and poems published by the Ministry of Information and Culture. Translations into Lao of various Russian-language technical, literary, and children's books were available through the Novosti press agency. Virtually all these materials are inexpensive paperbound editions. Distribution of school texts is improving, and magazines and novels can occasionally be found in district markets distant from Vientiane. Thai printed material--for the most part, magazines and books--was available after the late 1980s in a few shops. Yet, in the early 1990s, it was rare to see a book or any other reading material in rural villages, with the exception of political posters or a months-old edition of the newspaper Xieng Pasason (Voice of the People) pasted on a house wall. [Source: Library of Congress]

Teachers and the Poor Quality of Schools in Laos

In the 1990s a typical teacher in a village school had an eighth-grade education, three years of teacher training and earned $17 a month, when they were paid. Few people wanted to be teachers because they pay was so low. It is not unusual for teachers and students not to show up at school. Sometimes the teachers speak a different language than that of the students.

Because teachers are paid irregularly, they are forced to spend significant amounts of time farming or in other livelihood activities, with the result that in many locations classes are actually held for only a few hours a day. Because of irregular classes, overcrowding, and lack of learning resources, the average student needed eleven to twelve years to complete the five-year primary course in the late 1980s.

Because resources are limited, most schools are poorly constructed--of bamboo and thatch--and staffed by only one or two teachers who are paid low wages, usually in arrears. Many village schools have only one or two grades, and books, paper, or other teaching materials are conspicuous by their scarcity. [Source: Library of Congress]

Luang Prabang’s Buddhist Monk Secondary and High School is housed Wat Siphoutthabath. At the temple more than 700 students take their lessons in just nine small classrooms. High school students begin their studies for the day after middle school students have finished their classes, or visa versa, and even then the classrooms were always filled beyond capacity. A monk-teacher said, “They came from the countryside, They enjoyed studying, but were limited. They came from the jungle villages in northern Laos, where no Buddhist junior high or high schools existed.” [Source: Daily Yomiuri]

Pre-Primary Education in Laos

The purpose of pre-primary education is to prepare children physically, emotionally, socially and mentally to enter grade 1 of primary school. This preparation is considered the foundation for further psychological development. Pre-primary education consists of two levels: nursery or crèche, with an intake for children from 2 months to 2 years of age; and, kindergarten, with an intake for children from 3-5 years of age. [Source: Laos Ministry of Education]

Specific objectives for pre-primary school set by the Ministry of Education (MOE) include to: 1) enhance the physical development of children; 2) train young children to follow instructions of the teacher; 3) train children to be leaders and followers as appropriate; 4) encourage children's imagination and creativity; 5) train children to be disciplined; 6) facilitate the learning of different movements; 7) train children to be brave; 8) create an environment for children to be happy and enjoy themselves; 9) train children in memorizing; 10) provide a range of experiences for children's development.

Current participation in pre-primary education is at very low levels with wide differences between provinces. Provision of a three-year pre-primary period is expensive, both for human and capital expenditure. For example, teacher training for pre-primary teachers occurs at one TTC in Vientiane Municipality with an annual quota of one place for each province except for Vientiane Municipality which has a quota of two. These quotas do not take into account population differences. Additionally, nursery schools are also provided as part of pre-primary education, although it is not clear from the data to what extent this is within the private sector or is subsidized. In view of the very low internal efficiency in primary education, further expansion of pre-primary education should be a low priority.

Fees for pre-primary education are relatively high and not all families are able to send their children to kindergarten. Likewise, MOE does not have sufficient resources to fund countrywide participation in pre-primary schooling. An alternative approach would be to utilize the private sector as the provider of private education, either completely or through the use of a voucher system.

Primary Education in Laos

The primary education cycle in Lao PDR is five years. MOE has overall responsibility for coordination, planning, policy development and quality control for formal education while management of functional responsibilities is distributed geographically to 18 PES offices and 135 DEBs. At the village level the village head, village school management committee, and the school principal are directly responsible for the operation and maintenance of schools in more than 8,000 villages. [Source: Laos Ministry of Education]

The human resources development Medium-Term Program 1997-2000, produced by the SPC of Lao PDR in May 1997, provided a general framework for identifying priorities for education. For primary education MOE has the following immediate priorities: 1) universal primary education with quality improvements; 2) increased access to education in rural and ethnic minority areas; 3) eradication of illiteracy; 4) improved internal efficiency of schooling; 5) improved professional training and academic status of teachers; 6) improved management and control of education to ensure quality.

The current Education Sector Development Plan (MOE, 1995c) provides a planning framework for MOE. It outlines a long-term reform agenda and provides broad policy themes to 2020, in accordance with general Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) planning. The major medium-term priority is to improve quality in primary and lower secondary education by improving internal efficiency and student achievement. To achieve this, the current plan calls for revision of the school curricula, textbooks and instructional materials together with a reorganization and reform of teacher training and pedagogical support services. Other components of the current Plan include: 1) standardization of preservice teacher training; 2) improved access to educational services through large-scale school infrastructure initiative; 3) selective expansion of adult literacy and vocational educational programs, particularly for girls, women and minorities; 4) strengthening of educational planning and management at central, provincial and district levels; 5) enhanced planning capacity, co-ordination and co-operation with MOE and external agencies.

Activities are currently underway in all of these areas, assisted in most cases by funding from international donors and agencies. Policy targets (MOE, 1995c) have been set for many activities, for example, a primary repetition rate of 14 percent by the year 2000; however, there is no evaluation mechanism in place to monitor progress towards targets. Likewise, a target has been set to restructure administration and management and to redistribute resources equitably among provinces and districts but there appears to be no framework nor guidelines on how to achieve these targets.

Teacher training for primary school occurs at TTCs. There is also a Teacher Development Center (TDC) established as part of the ADB-supported Education Quality Improvement Project to improve the quality of both pre- and in-service training.

An added complexity to improving the quality and relevance of primary education in Lao PDR arises from the multiple purposes of primary education and the linguistic variability of target groups. Graduation of local people is needed for future supply of teachers and other skilled workers but also to improve the productivity of subsistence farmers. The former requires an academic approach linked to transition to secondary school, while the latter requires a greater focus on basic technology and applied science. In the context of poor subsistence farming communities, literacy and numeracy as the sole aims of primary education are not enough, particularly among ethnic minorities where Lao is not the first language and where their own language has no written form. In such communities there is a need to introduce content of primary education that will directly improve their income and living condition.

University Education in Laos

Laos has only two universities— Dong Dok University and Phaetsat University—and two technical colleges, all in Vientiane.

There are three institutions which are considered to provide university-level programs: the University Pedagogical Institute; the National Polytechnic Institute; and the University of Health Sciences. Each of these institutions provides specialized professional training of at least 4 years duration that is open to graduates of upper secondary schools. There is no national university providing programs in the arts and sciences. Admission to these institutions is based on a provincial quota system determined by the Ministry of Education (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 66; Spaulding, 1990, p. 117).

National University of Laos (NUOL) is an elite university in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Founded in 1996, with departments brought in from other existing colleges, it is the only national university in the country. NUOL accepts top students from all over the world including graduates from the ivy leagues. Its doctoral program has been rated consistently on par with John Hopkins University The university is a partner of the Greater Mekong Sub-region Academic and Research Network (GMSARN) and ASEAN University Network (AUN)

Academic Freedom in Laos

The law provides for academic freedom, but in practice the government imposed restrictions. The Ministry of Education tightly controlled curricula in schools, including private schools and colleges. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Both citizen and noncitizen academic professionals conducting research in the country may be subject to restrictions on travel, access to information, and publication. Although the government exercised control via requirements for exit stamps and other mechanisms over the ability of state-employed academic professionals to travel for research or obtain study grants, the government actively sought such opportunities worldwide and approved virtually all such proposals.^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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