One of the worst kept secrets of schools in both Thimphu and across Bhutan is an increasing trend to admit underage students based on family pressure and tacit acceptance by schools.
This is in violation of Ministry of Education rules which allows admission only on reaching the age six.
One such incident in Deki school, a private school in Thimphu, lead to a then four year old student in the Pre Primary being humiliated and beaten by his teachers for frequently wetting his pants. (The paper has hidden the identity of the boy and his parents at their request to protect the privacy of the boy.)
According to the boy and his parents the incident occurred in May 2016 when after repeated inability by the four year old to control his urine, the Math teachers Sangay Wangmo, in front of the other students dipped the urine in a piece of cloth or paper and brought it close to the nose of the boy making him smell it.
That humiliation was not the worst of it as by the admission of the teacher herself to The Bhutanese, she and three other teachers teaching English, Environmental Studies and Dzongkha all also beat and scolded the young four year old at different times.
The mother of the child in an interview to the paper said that her young son was so traumatized by the incidents that he said that he did not want to go to school.
The official excuse given by the parents of the boy to the school was some sickness for more than a month during which time the boy even missed his mid-term exams in June.
The boy is currently back in school now.
She said, “We left our mobile number with the school and requested them to call us as soon as our son wet his pants so that we could change him but no such calls came and our son almost always used to come home cold and wet.”
The teacher Sangay Wangmo though accepting that she and her colleagues occasionally beat the boy when he wet his pants, said that she did not dip any paper in urine and make the boy smell it. She claimed that she only threatened to do so.
The teacher, said that she and her colleagues were not trained or equipped to deal with such underage students with regular wetting problems.
The school principal D,K Ghalley also denied that any such urine smelling incident had happened at all though he said the boy had a pant wetting problem.
Despite denials from the school both the mother and the father of the student stood by their story.
However, apart from the teachers mistreating the boy the school and the parents are also culpable for getting an under aged boy admitted.
Both the principal and the parents accepted that the boy was only four years old when he was admitted in February 2016.
According to the principal the parents said that the boy would turn five years old in June 2016 after which the school accepted the student.
The Ministry of Education rule says admission is only permitted at six years old.
The principal said that in Thimphu parents usually admit their children at the age of three in play schools and so after a year or so they come repeatedly and try to get their children admitted in schools.
“One reason is that usually both the parents are employed and they have no one to look after the child at home,” said the principal.
Another reason is that Bhutan is heading the way of other countries around the world where a more competitive world and economy has lead to ambitious parents pushing their under aged children early into schools.
This is often in the face of medical and child development studies showing that such early admissions are harmful for the psychological and even physical health of the child.
The principal said that it was not only Deki school but most other schools in Thimphu also admitted under aged students.
23 Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centers in Thimphu agree as they recently filed a separate petition to the MoE minister highlighting the ‘mass and unchecked,’ enrollment of under aged kids in private primary and private higher secondary despite a standing MoE policy against it.
The ECCD center owners also alleged that though they have been frequently bringing the issue to the attention of MoE officials and the ECCD Department over many years no action was taken by the ministry to look into or stop the trend.
“We have been instead advised by the ECCD Department officials to submit photographic evidences that such things were indeed happening before they can open an investigation,” said the petition.
“It has reached such a tipping point today but, sadly, nobody seems to be paying attention to it anymore,” it further stated.
The letter said that private schools continue to accept children as young as three years old in their PP classes meant for six year olds.
It says that such children cannot cope with formal schooling and are actually supposed to be having fun, discovering things on their own developing their social, cognitive and motor skills among others.
The petition says that accepting under aged children in primary schools is not only detrimental to the child’s mental progress but also affects the very foundation of their formative and educational growth and by extension the future of the country.
The Education Minister, Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk said that said the school system in Bhutan is structured with age’s three to five being in ECCD centers and admission only being at age six.
“This is because there is conclusive science behind the fact that the child’s cognitive, social and language readiness is there by age six only and admission before that age would be damaging to the child,” he added.
The minister said that the curriculum is designed for only six year old onwards and the teachers are also trained to teach only that particular curriculum.
The minister said that at the most both government and private schools should not take children below the age of 5.6 years.
Lyonpo said that the regulations are already in place and that the ministry has sent out a notification reminding schools to not admit under aged children.
The minister promised there would be monitoring as wells and schools violating this rule would be punished.