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.
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.
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