Nepal: On the Threshold of Change

Kathmandu | This spring around 350,000 boys and girls are on the threshold of clearing what Nepalese call the “Iron Gate” – graduating from high school.  That’s a 10 percent increase on last year’s number of graduates.

However, not all of those students will have the chance to take their final exams and advance to higher secondary education.  The Maoist government recently threatened to exclude students from private schools if they fail to pay a new added service tax, a move that affects more than one third of the country’s 41,000 schools.  In the absence of adequate educational resources and infrastructure, many Nepalese parents have turned to the private sector.  Moreover, according to the Ministry of Education, students in private schools are more than twice as likely to pass their final exams over their peers in the regular system, due to the poorer quality of education in Nepal’s beleaguered public schools.

Private school students in Nepal. Photo by Ah Zut. Creative Commons licensed.

Private school students in Nepal. Photo by Ah Zut. Creative Commons licensed.

Nepal entered a new phase in its history when the former Maoist rebels formally ended a decade-long armed struggle and signed a peace accord in 2006. In April 2008, the Maoists won a majority of votes in elections to the country’s Constituent Assembly and went on to form a coalition government.  One month later, the assembly almost unanimously voted to end the monarchy, ushering in the world’s youngest republic.

The Maoists had waged a war against what they termed a non-inclusive state structure and the resulting economic and social disparities within the country. They vowed to initiate a “revolutionary” land reform system, institute a federal structure, and install free education targeting those living in rural areas.  But, with all efforts invested in the peace process and the accompanying transformation of the country’s political structure, anticipated reforms have been slow going – and the education sector has been no exception.

A Controversial Tax

The situation was complicated almost immediately after the new government took power. Authorities slapped a 5 percent service tax on the revenue of all privately operated schools, starting with the fiscal year that began in July 2008. The government said that this new income would be applied toward educational expenses for children in remote villages.

The umbrella organizations of private schools, PABSON and N-PABSON, promptly announced that they would oppose the government order, and closed down schools in protest several times over the course of the current academic year. That has only led to confusion among their students, who have already faced many school closures organized by political parties pressing that their demands be included in the country’s new constitution.

The operators of private schools have refused to pay the tax, an additional burden they say they will have to pass on to parents in the form of higher fees. In the meantime, the government has begun raiding some private schools, and officials have confiscated school documents. However, the schools are still running, as negotiations continue with the government.

Lacking Books and Money

Many students at government-run schools haven’t had an easy time this academic year either. Students in at least 20 of the country’s 75 districts have yet to receive their textbooks, with around a month remaining until year-end examinations.  The delay is apparently the result of too little attention being paid toward a proper printing schedule in the wake of the country’s climatic changes.

Kedar Koirala, a researcher in the field of education, says: “It is very difficult to imagine what the students must be going through, with the lack of books. Actually, the government should have started printing the textbooks for the next academic session much earlier, as it takes some three to four months to get them printed, and more time to dispatch them to the schools in rural parts of the country.”

Around 20 million books are to be printed for the next session, which starts already in mid-April. Fortunately, the printing of the textbooks has begun, even though it is already a little too late to distribute them to all the districts in time for the students to get them right at the beginning of the new session.

The government allocated 26 billion rupees ($325 million) to the education sector this fiscal year, which is roughly 16 percent of the total annual budget. But those in the field say this may not be enough to implement all the programs mentioned in the annual program. Even the ministry of education admits that the goal of 28,000 new classrooms cannot be reached with the current allocation and has put a more realistic number at less than 10,000.

Moreover, a total of 11 percent of boys and girls of school age, according to government statistics, do not attend school. Education NGOs put the figure much higher, at around 25 percent, saying that official estimates mainly focus on children entering the school system and do not include the number of students who drop out during the academic year. The poverty in rural areas has virtually ensured that parents rarely send their children to school, instead having them work in the fields or even in stone quarries where they have a chance of earning desperately needed income for the family. Such high numbers of non-attendees have left Nepal with the unenviable – and obviously impossible – task of making 7-8 million people literate this year in line with its UN Millennium Development Goals.

Private Over Public

Gauchaneshwori Lower Secondary school, a government-run facility, lies just half an hour’s drive from the capital city, and a stone’s throw away from one of the leading private residential schools of the country, Shuvatara. The contrast between the schools is stark even at the level of appearances: the basic Gauchaneshwori building hardly compares to the sprawling Shuvatara complex (see the accompanying photos).

The principal of the Gauchaneshwori school, Bishnu Thapa, says that his school has a mere seven students, down from the 500 that used to attend just a few years ago. That is the result of students moving to private institutions which opened up in nearby areas and offered higher quality education, despite being more expensive. Most of the schools in the hilly regions of Nepal, where the decade-long insurgency led to the displacement of thousands of people and abject poverty, face a similar dearth of students.

Thapa accuses the government of promoting private school culture. “The state is doing nothing to improve the standard of education in government schools. It is trying to ignore its responsibility,” he says, adding, “We did not join the [school] system just to kill time. We want to teach students.”

Calling All Teachers

Gauchaneshwori Lower Secondary School. Photo by Somesh Verma.

Gauchaneshwori Lower Secondary School. Photo by Somesh Verma.

However, the situation is different in the southern plains of the country, home to more than half of the population. In these areas, schools must accommodate huge numbers of students, with minimal infrastructure and a limited amount of teachers. In places like Janakpur, 350 kilometers southeast of the capital, there are up to 250 students per teacher.

“It is a problem for us to teach, as the number of students in a single class goes up to 200 at times, with classrooms that can hardly handle them. Sometimes, we run classes out in the open, under trees, or just outside the school building,” explained Prakash Mishra, a teacher at a school near Janakpur.

Government policies aim for classes with a ratio of one teacher for every 34 students – a proportion that clashes sharply with the current number of educators. At that rate, Nepal needs a further 85,000 teachers, according to government estimates. Independent experts offer up similar figures. “We still need 62,000 teachers,” said Kedar Koirala, “even if we were to provide a single teacher for 40-50 students.” As educational opportunities have been limited outside urban centers for years, qualified teachers are rare in the countryside.

The lack of teachers and teaching materials, as well as overcrowding, has had a profound impact on the quality of instruction. If past records are anything to go by, some 100,000 out of the 350,000 students taking their final exams this spring will not advance to the next level, that is, the two years of higher secondary school before having a chance to enter university.

In the hope of raising standards, the government proposed a School System Reform Program (SSRP), after much consultation with education experts in the country. Starting with the academic year that will begin in the spring of 2009, the program is being piloted in three of country’s 75 districts.  It will be implemented in all districts following a review of the pilot program’s progress.

Shuvatara, a private school. Photo by Somesh Verma.

Shuvatara, a private school. Photo by Somesh Verma.

School levels will be divided into two stages. Grades 1-8 will be considered as basic school, while grades 9-12 will be taken as “higher” secondary school (until now, school has run from grades 1-10, with the divisions: grades 1-5 as primary, grades 6-8 as lower secondary and grade 9-10 as secondary schools). However, the plan has again collided with the dearth of teachers, this time those with graduate degrees, since the SSRP counts on teachers with master’s degrees working in the secondary school level. The system remains short of an estimated 10,000 teachers on that count.

Additionally, changes to the curriculum have been proposed.  Education experts have long complained about outdated courses and the lack of practical instruction that would prepare students for particular vocations. The SSRP proposals mandate that the central government decide on four subjects for the secondary-school-level curriculum, and the provincial authorities choose three, such as ethnic language and some other ethnic-related topics. However, this plan has been put on the backburner until the country has a new constitution that clearly defines the federal and provincial structures and the new administrative system.

On the Positive Side

However grim the situation looks, experts do point to progress and a few bright spots.  The government has created a “basket” fund, with contributions from international donors to its National Education for All campaign. The food for education program, part of that campaign, was initiated in 25 rural districts and has proven effective at increasing enrollment among girls, who have traditionally stayed at home in rural Nepal to perform household chores.

Under the program, girls receive food and three-five liters of cooking oil per month as a “reward” for attending school. That incentive and awareness-raising campaigns have, according to the government, doubled female enrollment in the target areas, over the course of five years.  The Save the Children charity website reports improvements among marginalized children as a result of “alternative approaches to education, such as out-of-school children education programmes, including a school outreach programme, and flexible hour schooling.”

The education ministry and international organizations, such as UNICEF, also cite an encouraging efforts to integrate the students studying in madarasas, Buddhist monasteries, and Gurkuls (traditional Hindu schools), which have had a separate education system for years, into the mainstream school system.

But challenges remain – for the students to successfully complete their classes despite all the difficulties, and for the government to give these students some relief. Attending school itself still requires too large an effort for many, as a result of widespread poverty and the low emphasis on education in rural communities.




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