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Laos, officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a completely landlocked country in Southeast Asia, with a total geographic area of approximately 92,000 square miles. The country is bordered to the northwest by China and Burma, to the east by Vietnam, to the south by Cambodia and to the west by Thailand. The government of Laos is a single-party socialist republic, and the country is a member of the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the World Trade Organization. The country’s capital and largest city is Vientiane, with other large cities that include Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet.
Laos has a total permanent population estimated at 6.5 million in 2012. In terms of ethnicity, the people in Laos are normally labeled and considered by their altitudinal distribution (lowlands, midlands and highlands), as this approximates ethnic groups. Approximately 60 percent of the population are ethnic Lao, the main group in the lowland region and the group that is the most politically and culturally dominant. The Lao Theung group, people who live in the central and southern mountains of Laos and predominant in the midland region of the country, and the Lao Soung, hill people of the highlands region, account for most of the remainder of the population.
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group that is spoken commonly by approximately half of the population. The remainder of the Lao people speaks various ethnic minority languages, particularly in the more rural areas of the country. As Laos was once a colony of France, French is still widely used in government affairs and commerce, and is taught widely as a second language in French schools. English, which is the official language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is also becoming increasingly popular in the more urban centers of the country. Nearly 70 percent of the Lao people practice the Theravada branch of Buddhism, while another 2 percent practices Christianity. The remaining 28 percent of the population practices a variety of other doctrines or adheres to no specific religion whatsoever.
Education in Laos
The education system in Laos is under the supervision of the national government, namely the Ministry of Education, and is free for all students who wish to participate. The education system consists of three distinct phases: primary education, secondary education and higher education, including post-secondary vocational instruction.
Primary schools in Laos serve children ages 6-14, and there is a wide disparity in enrollment rates between schools in urban and rural areas (nearly 20 percent of rural-dwelling children do not attend school, especially female students). The instruction at this level focuses initially on the basic skills of reading, writing and fundamental arithmetic, subjects that are gradually supplemented by courses in language arts, social and cultural studies, geography, natural science and the arts.
Secondary and higher education in Laos, while widely available in the country’s urban centers are virtually non-existent in the more rural areas of the country, where resources are thin.
The education system in Laos continues to face many challenges, including inadequately and poorly trained teachers, insufficient government funding, facility shortages and the geographic, ethnic, gender and wealth disparities in the distribution and quality of educational services.
However, despite these, education has continued to evolve and improve since the idea of universal education was first raised in 1975, and the country now boasts an adult literacy rate of 85 percent.