How can the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Inclusive and equitable quality education) contribute to providing quality education for ethnic minorities?
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Silent struggles: SDG4’s impact on education for ethnic minorities in Laos

How can the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Inclusive and equitable quality education) contribute to providing quality education for ethnic minorities?

Seng is a 6-year-old Hmong boy living in a remote Hmong village in Laos. It is an exciting first day of school for Seng. However, he cannot understand his teacher at all. It is because the teacher only speaks the official language (Lao). Seng sits at his desk the whole day hoping his teacher does not ask him any questions.

In several nations, children from ethnic minority backgrounds face challenges as they are not taught in their native language, leading to significant disadvantages. This can result in psychological distress when they struggle to understand the language used in school. Without access to education in their mother tongue, these children often find it hard to participate actively in classes and may have high rates of absenteeism. Advocates argue that providing education in the mother tongue is crucial for promoting educational fairness, as it helps prevent the linguistic marginalisation of minority groups, which can lead to further socio-economic and political exclusion.

In 2016, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were signed by the United Nations member countries, including Goal 4 (SDG4), which is dedicated to ‘inclusive and equitable quality education for all’. Global development frameworks such as SDGs have a significant influence on the national policies of low-income countries as foreign aid, which these countries need for their national development, is often tied with these global frameworks. Laos is one of the low-income countries that has actively adopted SDGs. The Lao government planned its education development in relation to SDG4. Likewise, many donor agencies have been funding education projects to assist the country’s achievement of SDG4.

So, did the SDG4 make education more equitable for Seng?

Unfortunately, in spite of efforts such as SDG4 to promote more equitable access to higher-quality education, things have not changed much for ethnic minority children like Seng in countries such as Laos. Mother-tongue-based education was not approved of by the Lao government. Our research revealed three types of secrecy as key factors influencing the enactment of SDG4. These are:

  • Secrecy to create the image of national unity;
  • Secrecy arising from fear of reprisal;
  • Secrecy as a vehicle to safely resist dominant policy discourses.

Identifying the varied ways in which secrecy was practised by key policy actors is productive for understanding how those in low-income contexts might be able to advance SDG4 – inclusive and equitable quality education for all – even as there remains significant resistance.

Daeul Jeong

Secrecy to create the image of national unity

The Lao government, being a one-party socialist regime, has utilized secrecy to portray a unified image both domestically and internationally, thereby bolstering its political stability. This involved keeping internal party politics undisclosed and handling intra-party conflicts covertly. Additionally, efforts to promote national unity have been centered around the language and history of the majority group, the Ethnic Lao. Consequently, questioning the sole use of the Lao language in education could be seen as contradictory to the government’s priority of national unity.

How can the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Inclusive and equitable quality education) contribute to providing quality education for ethnic minorities?
Credit. Midjourney

Secrecy arising from fear of reprisal

In Laos, public dissent against government policies, on occasion, results in individuals mysteriously disappearing overnight, with these incidents believed to be orchestrated by the authorities. Such occurrences contribute to a prevailing atmosphere of secrecy and fear among the Lao populace, who dread being monitored and punished. Consequently, discussions about altering the language of instruction in schools are avoided due to perceived risks. As a result, the topic of the medium of instruction, including mother-tongue-based education, is seldom broached in political circles in Laos. This reluctance to address language policy issues hampers efforts to enhance educational opportunities for ethnic minorities in the country.

Secrecy as a vehicle to safely resist dominant policy discourses

With ethnic minorities making up nearly 45% of Laos’ population, the government faces the task of improving their education to meet SDG4 targets. Achieving global development goals influences the country’s ability to secure future foreign aid. However, publicly endorsing mother tongue-based education is deemed risky, risking accusations of disloyalty in a nation valuing national unity. To navigate this dilemma, policymakers opt for secrecy, such as approving projects to train ethnic minority teachers without explicitly mentioning language policies. Despite official regulations favouring the Lao language, interviews indicate many teachers use their mother tongue in class, tacitly accepted by policymakers who avoid addressing the issue directly.

Conclusions

While the implicit allowance of ethnic minority languages in class might alleviate some of the disadvantages facing ethnic minority children, the effectiveness of such practices is uncertain. Due to the surreptitious status of mother-tongue-based education, teachers are required to manage classroom languages on their own, without any training or other forms of systemic support. For SDG4 to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for ethnic minority children in Laos, the issue of the medium of instruction needs to be approached in relation to its pedagogical benefits, not in relation to the political ideology of national unity.

However, the political culture of Laos and widespread fear among people are impediments to the provision of quality education for ethnic minority students. Such a situation distracts from the needs of students such as Seng, whose future depends on more open engagement about the value of mother-tongue education.  Systemic support for mother-tongue education is a necessary part of a raft of reforms to support educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged in society.

Given the circumstances, it is extremely difficult and risky for Lao nationals to advocate for mother-tongue-based education in Laos. However, those who provide funding to the Lao government (for example, international and national donor agencies and large non-profit development organisations) are relatively free from fear of reprisal. Constant efforts from these bodies to bring mother-tongue-based education out of the shadow of secrecy are likely to pressure the Lao government to move towards providing more equitable education for ethnic minorities. 

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Journal reference

Jeong, D., & Hardy, I. (2023). Imagining language policy enactment in a context of secrecy: SDG4 and ethnic minorities in Laos. Journal of Education Policy38(5), 849-869. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2022.2058095

Daeul Jeong is a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, Queensland University of Technology. She is a former NGO worker who worked with Indigenous peoples in Laos. Her research interests include education for Indigenous peoples, education policy, and global education frameworks.

Ian Hardy is an Associate Professor of Education at the School of Education, The University of Queensland. Dr Hardy researches and teaches education policy and practice in institutionalised educational settings (schools; universities; vocational education settings). He has published widely in the field of educational policy, and his work has attracted the attention of policymakers and the wider public more broadly.