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School Education Reforms in Kyrgyzstan: By Way of Traditions or Innovations?

“Ongoing efforts to reform the education system are carried out mainly by endless experimentation, often insufficiently thought-out and inconsistent. As a result, we are currently resorting to teaching load reduction,” – says expert Ekaterina Kasymova, specially for cabar.asia, pointing to the main problems of the school system.

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kasymovaIt has been 25 years now since the time of independence in Kyrgyzstan, that profound social and economic changes have been taking place.  Despite the introduction of reforms to a considerable extent, problems in the field of education still persist, as it is described in the National Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2013-2017: “The analysis of the current state of the education system of the Kyrgyz Republic shows numerous problems, hindering progressive development towards quality education”[1]. This article does not focus on the education system as a whole, but only secondary (general) education, because it is the most significant of all the stages of education, due to the sheer numbers of people engaged in it, both students and teachers. It should be emphasized that the system of general secondary education of the Kyrgyz Republic includes 2218 schools, with1,007,855 children and adolescents enrolled in them[2]. The scope of general education in the Kyrgyz Republic is quite high and constitutes 85% of the population between the ages of 7 and 17 inclusive[3]. There are 75,000 teachers working for the general education system, which is 2.15% of the total working-age population (3 million 488.1 thousand people)[4].

Figure 1. The school education system in Kyrgyzstan


The aim of this work is to identify and make an overall analysis of the current problems in this field. The choice of the given perspective is not accidental, considering the fact that in the light of a new vision of the world, as well as the transformation of the human potential into the main resource of development of the world civilization the importance of education increases in the world community.

The Era of Human Capital

Western political thought already in the 1970s put forward the concept of “post-industrial society”[5], which in the 1990s was replaced by the theory of “information society”[6], the only significant resource of which is knowledge, and to do without it would be unthinkable, if any significant progress is to be made[7].  At the end of the XX century terms such as «knowledge society», «knowledge-value society» have become part of the lexicon of political scientists, sociologists, economists and teachers.

The National Sustainable Development Strategy of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2013-2017 also stresses the importance of the quality of education and the increase of the value and quality of human capital: “… the education system must ensure the competitiveness and economic prosperity of the country, as well as enhance the value and quality of human capital”.[8]  And this is for a reason, given that in recent years the Human Development Index (HDI) has become the main indicator of a state’s development, alongside the Gross National Income (GNI). HDI is compiled on the basis of four indicators, while two of them are related to education:

  • health status of the population (life expectancy);
  • literacy level of the adult population (the average duration of education);
  • expected duration of education;
  • the population’s standard of living, estimated in terms of GNI per capita and purchasing power.

Thus, people with good education become the most important resource of any country as a productive factor of economic development and the wellbeing of the state as a whole.

The PISA Tower of Kyrgyzstani Schoolchildren

Despite the fact that the HDI showing in Kyrgyzstan has been steadily growing over the past 10 years, Kyrgyzstan occupies 126th place (out of 187 countries) with the human development index equal to 0.62, meaning that the country is on the lower level of a group of countries with an average human development potential[9].

As noted by international experts, the rate of adult literacy in Kyrgyzstan is traditionally high. According to the UN estimates of 2015, the figure in the age group of 15 to 24 years is 99.84%[10].

However, along with a high level of literacy, as another expert group noted, the republic experiences a sharp decline in the education received. Data from an international survey of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years, show—the quality of education in Kyrgyzstan leaves much to be desired.

Given the very high cost of the survey[11], the Kyrgyz Republic participated in it 2 times: in 2006 and 2009.  In both cases the students from the Kyrgyz Republic participating in the testing ranked last: in 2006 – 57th place out of 57 participating countries, and in 2009 – 65th place out of 65 participating countries, respectively[12].   In 2012, Kyrgyzstan refused to participate in the ranking due to the discontinuance of funding from the World Bank, which paid for Kyrgyzstan’s participation in PISA-2006 and PISA-2009.

The doubtful “garland of victory”, brought by the students from Kyrgyzstan has caused a major stir and a barrage of criticism directed at the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic. However, there, no one looked for a guilty party, explaining away the results received, by a difference in the levels of economic development of countries[13]. The fact that the low rating of Kyrgyzstan is affected by such factors as the level of economic development, was also noted by PISA. However, it should be noted that education in Kyrgyzstan is being spent on 5.8% [14] of the GNI, which holds one of the highest rates among the countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. According to the Ministry of Finance of the Kyrgyz Republic, government spending on education is no less than 20% of the total amount of the national budget and has increased almost twofold between 2011 and 2016[15].  However, despite the fact that education in Kyrgyzstan costs the state dearly, investments do not bring desired outcomes. Perhaps, in order to promote the quality of education, there is a need for a more complex combination of measures than doubling spending on school education?

According to the former Minister of Education Kanat Sadykov, the most important thing for Kyrgyzstan in the PISA evaluation is not the rating, but the extensive survey material for the adoption of effective measures aimed at improving the quality of education. But it is quite a daunting task, taking into account a range of issues identified in the system of the national education. It is not hard to guess that they all relate to financial difficulties experienced by our country. The matter is simply about a shortage of schools, insufficiency of school furniture and textbooks.

Shortage of school furniture and textbooks

School furnishing across the republic requires 927 million soms, which the state budget does not have[16].  In Jalalabad oblast alone, “there is an acute shortage of school furniture – 7945 sets of school desks, 1610 white boards, 2011 bookcases, 2508 desks and chairs for teachers”[17].

As for the textbooks, the situation is even more complicated. In total the library collection comprises more than 9 million textbooks.  Yet on average, the supply of textbooks to schools in 2013-2014 academic year was only 73%. That included those with Kyrgyz language of instruction – 80%, Russian language of instruction – 66%, Uzbek language of instruction – 75%, Tajik language of instruction – 72%. This situation has changed slightly at the beginning of this academic year, when the supply of textbooks was 79.6%, according to the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic. In addition to the shortage of textbooks, it is necessary to take into account the dilapidated state of the existing resources, given that the average duration of service of a textbook according to sanitary regulations should not exceed five years.

To resolve this issue on the eve of the new academic year, the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic suggested to introduce textbook rental[18]. This question was raised a number of times, and has been actively discussed over the past few years at the level of government departments and parent community, but so far with no positive outcome. According to the head of the pre-school, secondary school and adult education of the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic Marat Usenaliev, the initiative to institute a Textbook Rental Fund is being proposed by their office for the fifth time. Prior to that, it was rejected by the Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic, as being contrary to the Constitution, according to which secondary education in the country should be free[19]. Having been turned down by the Ministry of Justice, the educators have promoted a number of alternative solutions, such as placing electronic versions of the material in the public domain. But that hardly solves the problem with the shortage of textbooks, especially in the field of book publishing, considering the introduction of new state-standard curricula. Perhaps the creation of a textbook rental fund will be a good solution to this problem, especially since in many countries it has been an accepted practice to buy textbooks for personal use.

“Cadres decide everything!”

Another problematic issue — the shortage of staff in the schools of the republic. We have about 2.4 thousand vacant teaching positions. More than others, there are not enough teachers of the Russian language and literature[20]. At the same time, there are 24 pupils per teacher in our country[21].  For comparison, in the group of countries with a very high level of human development, this figure fluctuates between 8 and 22 students per teacher. In Russia, a member of the group of countries with a high HDI, the ratio of “student-teacher” is equal to 18, in Kazakhstan – 16, Tajikistan – 23, Uzbekistan – 16[22]. At that, the average age of teachers in Kyrgyzstan is 50-60.

Table 1. The ratio of number of students per teacher


To address the notorious staffing issue the state instituted a program named “Junior Teacher’s Deposit”. The aim of the program is to attract graduates of pedagogical institutions to work in the country’s schools. The program provides for the opening of a deposit account for junior teachers, including interest and payment of the entire amount under the Program after three years of continuous work in a general education institution[23].

Apart from that, each year the government allocates 5500 state-financed placements for university applicants, more than half of which are given to teaching specialties due to the shortage of teachers in the country. Given the fact that pedagogical specialties are of low prestige among young people, passing scores on the entrance examination for them are set at a lower standard compared to others. According to Education Minister Elvira Sarieva, in 2015, 2.8 thousand students completed their studies on a state-financed basis, but only 800 of them were assigned to work. “Young cadres graduate on state funding, but only 44% of them go to work”[24]. As noted by the head of the Union of Educational Institutions Gaisha Ibragimova, according to the National Statistics Committee, the country has nearly 36 thousand citizens with pedagogical education who are not willing to work in schools[25].  At the same time, the state must fulfill its obligation to provide compulsory education. According to the law “On Education”, the state not only provides the opportunity to every citizen to receive primary and secondary education free of charge in state and municipal educational institutions, but also obliges citizens to obtain it[26].

Fee-based “Free” Education

But to what extent secondary education can be called free, even in public schools? While bantering among themselves, parents advise one another to save up money for the state “free education” in advance, before the child goes to school. According to Saule Meyrmanova, head of the Education Department at Bishkek Mayor’s office, unofficial fees at schools are indeed being collected, but, in spite of the efforts to reduce corruption risks, effective levers of influence on the situation are not yet found. As the head of a community trust “The League of Children’s Rights Advocates” Nazgul Trudubekova notes, the main reason it is impossible to combat the collection of unofficial fees in schools is the position of the parents themselves, who refuse to publicize the situation, on the one hand due to apprehensions of “consequences” for the child, and on the other hand due to the realization that public schools simply cannot survive without their support. Despite a rather impressive amount of “voluntary” fees collected from parents (from 500 to 1500 soms per month) the overwhelming majority of parents have no choice, because the alternative offered by private schools is ten times more expensive. If all of these contributions to the maintenance of the schools are done in an open and transparent way, perhaps the state budget would have funding to address priority needs in education. All the more so, because such a practice is already in place with the introduction of legal monthly payment at public kindergartens.

By way of traditions or innovations?

In addition to the aforementioned logistical problems, there are problems of an ideological nature. More specifically, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet education system had also undergone this process, but here, it is likely that a “half-collapse” took place, as one cannot say that Kyrgyzstan has fully moved away from the Soviet model, just as it could not entirely preserve it either. Moreover, after 25 years we still do not have a clear-cut strategy and vision for reformation of education. Constant efforts to reform the education system are carried out mainly by endless experimentation, often insufficiently thought-out and inconsistent. As a result, we are currently resorting to teaching load reduction. If in the Soviet period, in accordance with the basic curriculum the10-graders were to study physics 4 times a week, now it is – 3, chemistry used to be 3 times a week, now it is – 2. Perhaps the current setback in education has just begun, and we all hitherto rested on past achievements of the Soviet classical education.

It is important to note that education reform is necessary because, again, the information society recognizes — knowledge, as the main value–while scientific and technological progress requires new relevant approaches to teaching and education of the population. However, this does not mean we should destroy what was good. Innovations should improve the old system of education, which Elvira Sarieva, head of the Ministry of Education confirms in her words: “We have two plans: the conservative one – to return to the level of education of at least the Soviet period, and the maximalist one – integrate completely new approaches following the example of the countries with best students’ performance, such as Korea, Finland, Poland. I believe that at the junction of these two approaches a weighty curriculum should be developed”[27].

The solution to all these challenges can be a consistent policy of the state, based on balanced and informed decisions, relying on the majority opinion of the citizens and in accordance with the principles laid down in the Constitution. In the field of education, a centralized and systematic approach of the state is required, taking into account the demands of the civil society.


[1] National Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2013-2017, available on the website of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic p.39:


[2] Strategic data of the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2014-2015 academic year. Available on the website of the Ministry of Education: http://edu.gov.kg/ru/map/stat/

[3] UNDP Report on Human Development 2014, Fig.9 p.194

[4] According to data from National Statistics Committee for 2014 www.stat.kg

[5] Bell, Daniel (1976): The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: a Venture in Social Forecasting (Basic Books, New York)

[6]  The knowledgeable society, knowledge society, knowledge-value society.

[7] Castells, Manuel (1996): Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume I: The Rise of the Network Society (Blackwell, Oxford)

[8] National Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Kyrgyz Republic for the period of 2013-2017, available on the website of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic:


[9] UNDP Report on Human Development, 2014 р.194, fig. 9.

[10] UNESCO Institute for Statistics http://data.uis.unesco.org/

[11] OECD official website, the organizer of the rating, shows the cost of participation in PISA 2015 – 182,000 Euro for four years.

[12] Results of the PISA survey are available on the website of the Center of Evaluation in Education and Teaching Methods http://www.testing.kg/kg/nashi-proekty/pisa/rezultaty-issledovanija-pisa-2009.html

[13] Press conference of the Education Minister Kanat Sadykov on PISA test results of December 8, 2010 http://www.kabar.kg/science-and-culture/full/17414

[14] UNDP Report on Human Development, 2014 р.194, fig. 9.

[15] Report of the Central Treasury of the Ministry of Finance on the Implementation of the State Budget of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2015 http://www.kazna.gov.kg/index.php/ispolnenie-byudzheta/otchety-ob-ispolnenii-byudzheta/category/43-otchet-2015

[16] In accordance with information provided by the Ministry of Education, presented to the Jogorku Kenesh, published on the website of the news agency 24.kg http://arch.24.kg/parlament/187246-cholpon-sultanbekova-nesmotrya-na-prodelannuyu.html

[17] According to Gulzat Alimbaeva, acting head of the Department of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Policy of Jalalabad Oblast State Administration, available on the website of http://www.for.kg/news-71412-ru.html

[18] It is suggested to charge pupils 15 soms per textbook, lent for temporary use.

[19] Kanimetova Ainura “Textbook Rental Fund: There’s nothing doing!” published in “Kutbilim”, February 7, 2014

[20] According to the Minister of Education and Science of the  Kyrgyz Republic Elvira Sarieva, presented at a government session, available on  24kg website.  http://www.24kg.org/obschestvo/18351_v_shkolah_kyirgyizstana_ne_hvataet_2_tyisyachi_340_uchiteley_-_v_osnovnom_russkogo_yazyika_i_literaturyi/

[21]  UNDP Report on Human Development, 2014 р.194, fig. 9.

[22] Ibid р. 192-194

[23] “Junior Teacher’s Deposit” Program in the version of July 28, 2009. Available on the website of the Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/55864

[24] According to the Minister of Education and Science of the  Kyrgyz Republic Elvira Sarieva, presented at a government session, available on  24kg website.  http://www.24kg.org/obschestvo/18351_v_shkolah_kyirgyizstana_ne_hvataet_2_tyisyachi_340_uchiteley_-_v_osnovnom_russkogo_yazyika_i_literaturyi/

[25] Posted on the website of the Union of Educational Institutions http://www.union-eduinst.kg/index.php/ru/activity/smi-o-nas/246-ia-24-kg-gajsha

[26] The Law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On Education”, Chapter 1, Article 4. Available on the website of the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic http://edu.gov.kg/ru/docs/zakon-kr-ob-obrazovanii/

[27] An interview for “Novye Litsa” (New Faces) Magazine, published on August 17, 2015

Author: Ekaterina Kasymova, independent analyst (Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek)

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect that of cabar.asia

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