Continuing Education Programme - Bhutan

A mother learning, Bhutan

© UNESCO/Yannick Jooris
A mother learning, Bhutan

Literacy makes happiness

In the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, literacy is one of the factors of gross national happiness, the guiding development philosophy that aims to improve the quality of life of all citizens.

The principle has guided the national non-formal and continuing education programme that has been awarded an Honourable Mention of the 2009 UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy.  

The programme, now run by the Ministry of Education, was launched in 1992 in five pilot centres, where teaching focused on the promotion of Zhungkha, the national language. Since then, it has reached 135,000 learners, of whom 70 per cent are women, and has led to the establishment of 700 non-formal education centres. 

After starting from scratch, the programme now includes a structured curriculum with about 30 different readers developed on a wide variety of subjects.  The basic literacy programme reaches adults with no literacy skills and students with less than three years of school. The one-year course offers literacy and numeracy along with skills related to health, hygiene, agriculture, forestry, family planning and the environment. The post-literacy programme is a nine-month course that builds on the previous one, with a strong focus on disseminating practical information on a range of subjects, including health, hygiene, HIV and AIDS, and early childhood care and development, all in the aim of improving people’s quality of life. Instructors are trained to make learning lively, with demonstrations, discussions, story telling and drama. 

There is also a flexible self-learning programme that runs in 22 community learning centres – small two-room buildings constructed with the participation of communities and housing a number of activities for literacy promotion and life skills development. Here, the programme provides materials, sewing machines and other equipment for skills training such as carpentry, along with reading corners and library books to help learners keep up their literacy skills.

Many of the learners work in agriculture and decide on the best time and place for holding classes – if there is no community centre or nearby school, they are often held in someone’s house or in a temporary shed built by the villagers.  

The programme has had a visible impact in this mountainous, landlocked country where the population is widely scattered, making the provision of social services difficult. It has played a crucial role in spreading messages about HIV and AIDS prevention, safe motherhood and childcare. Women have taken on responsibilities, some becoming members of the National Assembly and acting as agents of change in their communities by being able to discuss development issues in their villages. Improvements in personal hygiene, involvement in income-generating activities have been observed, along with the more personal breakthroughs, such as being able to write letters to friends and family members.

The programme is steadily scaling up but only to the extent that communities ask for it. The government insists that communities take the first step in establishing the programme because this builds ownership and ensures sustainability. Learners are also encouraged to express their needs. According to the programme, many are now eager to learn basic English in order to become more proficient with modern technologies, from mobile phones to computers – another step on the road to happiness.

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