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Of all the different ethnic groups in Laos, only the Lao had a tradition of formal education. Many of the languages of other groups were only written down in this century, often by missionary groups. Lao men and boys had traditionally received some education in the Buddhist temples. The French established a secular school system during the colonial period, but schools were few and instruction was in French after the first two or three years. A few secondary schools existed in urban centers; children of Vietnamese colonial civil servants sent to Laos and the Lao elite made up most of the students. A teachers college, equivalent to the last years of high school, was set up in the capital. There were no universities. Students were sent for further education to Vietnam or sometimes Cambodia.

Some years after independence, both the Royal Lao Government and the Pathet Lao developed Lao language instruction. Government schools still basically served ethnic Lao in lowland areas. A major goal of the Marxist LPDR government that took over in 1975 was to extend elementary education to all ethnic groups, and an adult literacy campaign was started. Universal primary education is still more a goal than a reality, however. Schools are often bamboo and thatch constructions staffed by poorly trained teachers who are paid little and irregularly. Teachers must often farm or rely on supplementary jobs to support their families; hence, school hours may be irregular. Traditionally, however, teachers have been accorded great respect. On National Teachers Day each year students hold a baci ceremony to honor their teachers.

Most schools have only one or two grades and little in the way of books, paper, or school supplies. (A Lao working to get books into the rural areas complained that the books sent were sometimes used by village officials for cigarette papers.)

Enrollment is higher and schools are better in urban areas. Boys are more likely to be sent to school and study more years than girls. Ethnic Lao are more likely to be in school than children of other ethnic groups. Probably only about half of primary students finish fifth grade. Many people quickly fall back into illiteracy without books or other reading material and no paper or writing.

Secondary schools are located in provincial capitals, but their number is few and the dropout rate is high. The cost of school supplies, school uniforms, and room and board for village children is prohibitive for most parents. Some colleges and technical institutes now exist in the capital.

Despite its ambitious plans to expand education and make it more relevant, the LPDR government has been cutting education as a percentage of its national budget, and its goal of universal primary education by the year 2000 seems beyond reach.