Living in the dormitory is good, but there is room for improvement

“I don’t think the people in the ministry have ever stayed in a dormitory, or they have to write wishful thinking. Because the standards are impossible to meet. We simply don’t have the resources to make wishful thinking a reality. And it doesn’t look like politicians and authorities are in a hurry to find more money for us”. The words come from an interview with a boarding school teacher and the local school principal during one of three regional workshops in Mongolia in late summer.

The standards in question are 147 mandates in the regulation, numbered MNS 6781:2019. The last four digits indicate the year of issue. The many injunctions are about the standards that apply to boarding departments in village schools in Mongolia. And there’s plenty to live up to.

Let’s look at some examples: At least 25% of the school area should be planted. It is prohibited to establish a parking lot on the area. A non-slip mat should be placed inside at the main entrance. On each floor, there should be a rest room or corner with chairs and a place for children to drink tea. There must be 4m2 per child in living areas, max. 8 children per bedroom. Girls and boys should sleep in separate bedrooms. The ceiling should be painted white and a light color should adorn the walls.

Under the hygiene section, it states that the shower room should be indoors and equipped with one sink per 20 children and one shower per 30 children. There should be separate bathrooms for girls and boys, and a special room for menstruating girls to change pads, wash, dress and undress. For (indoor) toilets, there should be one toilet per 20 girls and one per 25 boys. There must be partitions in between.

Some instructions can seem a little silly in their level of detail. Other injunctions are out of reach under the given conditions. Despite the political elite’s passionate embrace of the Mongolian nomadic tradition, tangible support for today’s nomadic children is severely lacking. There is simply a lack of money to bring especially toilet and shower facilities up to standard. Outdoor toilets with a few boards over a hole are still the norm in a large number of dormitories and there is a lack of resources for versatile extracurricular activities for students of all ages. Only the fewest and newest boarding facilities have indoor toilet and shower facilities.

A little way to go to meet the ministry’s standards for bathrooms at the dormitory in Chuluut

No drop-outs

Unfortunately, CICED’s project with our Mongolian partner cannot correct the physical deficiencies, but through advocacy, the project can highlight ‘where it’s wrong’. Here, the official standards provide legitimacy to formulate demands for improvements to authorities and local communities.

With a modest budget and zero money for bricks and plumbing, our focus has to be different. Working with nomadic children in boarding schools is all about care and education. And it’s the youngest children who take center stage. Dietary departments are still struggling to adapt to the challenge of welcoming young six-year-olds who are away from home and without mom and dad for the first time.

Previously, school started after the child turned eight years old. Our project ‘Better School Start – Better School Life’ is a response to the fact that 80% of all children who dropped out of school in the first few years were from nomadic families. The reasons turned out to be a combination of being ill-prepared for school and then homesickness and unhappiness.

With the home-based school preparation for 5-year-old nomadic children (CICED NEW…), children are better prepared to start school. They perform on par with their kindergarten classmates. With a focus on more care, adult attention and more leisure activities, we hope that the boarding facilities can feel a little more homely. Things are moving forward. Says students, teachers and parents alike. And so far, there are no dropouts at the schools involved in the project.

It’s relatively simple to allocate money to buy books and games, or to buy a boombox so you can dance and sing more. However, developing pedagogical skills and mobilizing additional resources to optimally care for the youngest residents in the boarding wards is a bit of a challenge. That’s why we are now stepping up our efforts with further training for dormitory teachers and a comprehensive pedagogical guide/ reference book is in the final editing phase. Unlike other guides, this one was developed in close collaboration with the people who will be using it.

The dormitory at Naranbulag school has designed the common room to be similar to home. At the same time, the interior design invites you to talk about nomadic life.

Our work must be valued – knowledge hierarchy at stake

Much to my – and our Mongolian partner’s – surprise, more money is not at the top of the wish list for boarding school teachers. No, it’s something as simple – and extremely complicated – as recognition and respect.

“We are not respected in the same way as the teachers who teach in school. We have the same education, but work a lot more. And we have many more and complicated tasks. Yet we are paid less because we are not paid for all the extra work we do. Several times a week I have to go to the dormitory in the evening, or I bring a few of the younger students home because they are sad and need a little more care. I have to help with homework, arrange all kinds of activities in the children’s free time, keep in touch with the parents, arrange medical contact if the children get sick. And often I have to come during the weekend. I love my job. It’s great to be something for the kids. It warms my heart to be greeted by happy children every morning. But I think we deserve to be appreciated and respected. We won’t be today”.

These are the words of one of the many dietary department teachers during an interview in Naranbulag sum in Uvs aimag, where one of the three regional seminars in 2023 was held. In other words, but with the same core, the desire for appreciation and respect is repeated in conversation after conversation.

As the interviews progress, it becomes clear that a familiar hierarchy is at play. Teaching in a classroom counts for more than being responsible for children’s wellbeing outside of the classroom. The teacher behind the desk is more respected and recognized than the (dormitory) teacher without a desk, but responsible for the well-being of a group of children and young people aged six to sixteen outside of school hours. Academic knowledge ranks higher than pedagogical knowledge. And this, as many readers will know, is not an isolated Mongolian phenomenon, but in a country where the nomadic tradition is the pride of the nation, it is quite remarkable that those who spend the most hours with nomadic children in their ten years of schooling are at the bottom of the list of recognized professions.

There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to recognition and respect for boarding school teachers. We’ve put together a multifaceted effort for the final year of the project:

School leaders need to step up their game. It is her/his responsibility to ensure that the dietary department and its staff get the attention they deserve. Boarding school students are a minority in all schools. This also applies to the staff who look after the well-being of these students. Therefore, there needs to be a focus on staff inclusion. They should not be a loose appendix to the school, but a living part of its everyday life. Awareness raising and advocacy towards policy makers and local communities is initiated. Even in schools with skilled and dynamic school leaders, the dietary department hangs out of daily attention.

Dormitory students make up less than 5% of the total student population in Mongolian schools.
‘When you don’t have a lot of people, politicians aren’t very interested. It’s about money and votes. There simply aren’t enough votes to increase funding for dietary departments. Especially not if it is to be done by moving money from other school activities’, as one school principal puts it.

However, politicians’ ears are particularly sensitive at certain times.
There are elections for local, regional and national khurals (assemblies) in 2024, and all relevant politicians will get to hear a whole lot about dormitories and home-based school preparation.

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