Primary education in Nepal has seen major developments in recent decades.Given that there were so few when the country opened its doors to the world in 1950, the very fact that there are schools in the countryside is a marvel. Today, the schoolhouse stands out as proof of the existence of the state, given the terrain, the spread-out population and the shrinking of government services during the long years of conflict. For a country that started with just over 310 primary schools half a century ago, that there are about 30,000 serving the populace today is something to take satisfaction from. The literacy rate for those between 15 and 24 years is now as high as 85 percent in males and 73 percent in females, and the primary-education enrolment rate is at 92 percent. Most Nepali children, including the marginalised Dalits, Muslims and girl children, today find themselves in a school rather than out of it. Needy students increasingly get scholarships, whether in token amounts from the government or as generous support from individuals or international organisations. Foreign assistance has been vital for the advances achieved, for it is the ‘projects’, supporting teacher training to curriculum development and providing guideposts for inclusive education that have improved access for the marginalised.
No one would deny that the achievements have been praiseworthy, but there is no evading the fact that today Nepal’s education system at the primary level remains one of the weakest in the world. The situation requires introspection on the part of the Nepali authorities as well as the international agencies which have been sponsors and supporters of the Ministry of Education over the years. Who drives the country’s school system, and who sets its standards? Why is it always in a state of flux with no institutional memory, moving from one donor-funded mega-project to the next? Why are bureaucrats averse to understanding and acting on the big picture regarding education? Why are there more consultants and analysts than implementers of good educational practice? Why is there not a single model school that the government runs among the 30,000? The answers undoubtedly lie in the low priority given to education administration by the civil society, the intelligentsia, the media and therefore the politicians.
Free and flawed
When the isolationist Rana regime fell in 1950, the first sector to attract support from the international aid community was education, as a means to undo neglect by the fallen oligarchy. The policy makers of the new Nepal were assisted by international experts in setting standards, and the government’s very first five-year plan (1956-1961) articulated the worthy but ambitious goal of free and universal education by the year 1985. But even though the numerical expansion of schools and growth of the teaching profession may be seen as the success of the initial half of the half-century journey of Nepali public education, no policy has been able to inject quality into the pedagogy, teaching material or teacher training.
Through the slogan “universal and free”, the government is being asked to provide for the whole country on the basis of very limited resources per capita. The schools exist, but without adequate classrooms and with abysmal teaching aids. There is a lack of qualified teachers, and, in some cases there are more than 80-100 children in a classroom. The Ministry of Education barely manages to provide the teacher salaries, and a small miscellaneous expenditure. Drinking water and toilet facilities are at a premium, and textbooks in many districts arrive well after the academic sessions begin. The parents, even when they understand the need to improve educational quality, are kept at arms length from the school’s affairs.
The parents and communities were not always without agency. There was significant community participation in the running of schools through the 1960’s. However, with the National Education System Plan (NESP), in 1971, the government severed all relationships between the schools and communities and took the entire onus of education upon itself. The NESP was short lived, but the damage was done, with the communities suddenly turning lethargic and looking to the government for everything regarding education. This was followed by the advent of the “rights based” approach, which, though with some advantages, did not address the accountability question. The teacher, now a permanent government servant could receive a salary without teaching. With the community removed from evaluating the teachers, the latter did not feel responsible about their jobs and concentrated instead on demanding facilities. The parents demanded free education and forgot that it is a quality education which would ensure their children’s future. The children meanwhile lost their right to quality education.
Ideally, the Education Ministry would provide certain expenditures – teachers’ salaries, money for textbooks and extra reading and teaching material, miscellaneous expenses, and additional per-capita support for poorer areas and the traditionally disenfranchised – while leaving the schools free to engage with the guardians and charge for additional needs in order to enhance standards. This would make parents invested in their child’s future and also energise village level activism and philanthropy, which is how the schools gained quantity and quality in the first two decades of the modern era.
But the bureaucrats are not able to act on their understanding of the need for unpopular steps, such as allowing parents to pay for a portion of their child’s education. They do not speak up because the development partners so vital for raising resources are committed to “universal and free” education. Familiar with that formula in their own home countries, Western donors are loathe to allow government schools in Nepal to charge fees. Neither is it possible for the government to contemplate making the public pay any amount for community school education under the current atmosphere of populism. And, of course, quality is a relative term, if this meant literacy in the 70’s, the minimum expectation is higher now, and soon computers will be wanted in all the classrooms.
Much of the disjoint in Nepal’s education system and the state of flux within the education bureaucracy comes from the Education Ministry’s constant need to incorporate ‘world trends’ in education, goaded by international partners who would like to see quick results. All of this is done in a haphazard and overly centralised manner, given that the massive education infrastructure is entirely within the government’s control and without scrutiny of the civil society and intelligentsia. Rather than having internationally promoted advances enter the educational slipstream as an ongoing feature, the Ministry goes in for a stand-alone project that forces a redirection, that too without laying the basic groundwork. Humongous projects have defined Nepal’s educational journey – the Basic and Primary Education Program (BPEP – 1992-2004), and the Primary Education Development Project (PEDP – 1992-1999), Education for All (2004-2009), Secondary Education Support Programme (2003-2007, 2007-2012), Community School Support Programme (2003-2007), Teacher Education Projects (2003-2007), have been the major ones.
Even though they ran parallel, the BPEP and PEDP were not coordinated. The curriculum of one was not reflected in the teacher training of the other, despite the fact that PEDP focused heavily on the latter aspect. It was then that the National Centre for Educational Development (NCED) was established to provide long-term teacher training. The training provided was, however, far from satisfactory, mainly because it was content-based rather than process focused. Large numbers of trainees meant that they did not get supervision, follow-up or practice teaching. Trained teachers went back to their schools without teaching material or proper implementation plans, and content-based training made teachers feel inadequate as textbooks changed.
Ill-equipped resource centres
The project mentality which pervades the education system prevents the ministry officials from reflecting on and reviewing the system in ways that would allow them to make plans for, say, the next two to three decades. There is no doubt that if the Ministry were to draw up a feasible and long-term plan for the government school education sector, the international agencies would be happy to provide the requisite support for quality improvements. The best example of support for a home-grown educational innovation was evidenced in the early 1970s, when the government started the National Development Service (NDS), which required students to spend nine months as volunteers in the villages before they received their Masters degree. It was an ambitious plan which got the support required from the agencies – until it was undone by the Panchayat authorities fearful that the students in the villages would campaign against the regime during the plebiscite of 1980.
A telling example of ‘paper-designed’ programming was the establishment of local-level education resource centres designed under the BPEP (1992-2004). The idea was worthy. Eight to 15 such school clusters were formed in each of the country’s 75 districts, to be supervised by a Resource Person (RP) who would run a Resource Centre (RC), often housed in a primary school. The RP was to be an expert in school management and classroom teaching and tasked by the District Education Officer with penetrating further into the villages and providing the supervision and support needed for schools and teachers. This is what led to Fridays being established as half-holidays, in order for teachers to go to the RCs and return with ideas for new lessons to be implemented during the following week.
The idea of RCs did not work well from the start, simply because it had been designed in Kathmandu, possibly in front of a computer screen, with little understanding of the obvious ground realities. First off, many of the schools were too far from the resource centres (see map of Tilepata RC and its cluster of schools in Dailekh), often as much as over five hours walk away – a clear indication that the Friday meetings were never really practical. Second, the RPs were not equipped with training and supervision for their function. Additionally, each RP was given too many schools to cover – anywhere from 20 to more than 60.
At a recent workshop with two dozen RPs from the two mid-hill districts of Dailekh and Myagdi, all of them conceded to this writer that they had never realised that a major part of their job was visiting classrooms and supporting teachers. Mostly, they had thought it was collecting school statistics from documents in the headmaster’s room. The expectations were never made clear, neither were they provided appropriate training. The RCs having failed, the Ministry – unable to abandon the concept altogether – has now settled on a seemingly convincing model, that is, the establishment of Lead Resource Centres (LRC’s). So, there are now 75 LRCs in the country, one per district. These LRCs are housed in higher-secondary schools, tasked with providing support and training to all the over 100 secondary schools their district. It will be interesting to see how this model pans out, and how the other schools benefit from the services of the LRC as part of the SSRP.
A significant part of the problem is that the mega-projects have rigid evaluation and report-writing demands, which occupy the few capable people in the education sector. So engrossed are they in churning out reports that they do not have the time to unveil important trends. Thus, it will come as a surprise that there are many schools with more teachers than students; teachers who receive salaries without ever stepping into the classrooms; and teachers who farm out their jobs to others, paying a percentage of their salary, while they retain the provident fund and retirement benefits.
School statistics such as student enrolment that arrive at the Department of Education in the form of ‘flash reports’ lack credibility. Exaggerated numbers are reported so that the schools get more money from the government’s ‘per child funding’ policy. A sample district with a total population of less than 250,000 will report 75,000 children at the primary level. No population pyramid, unless adults have disappeared due to some extraordinary cause, would show 30 percent of children below 12 years and school-going. The District Education Office will know the reality, but there is money to be made and shared so everyone maintains silence.
Perhaps the biggest failure of the education leadership has been the inability to generate models – model government schools most importantly, but also model teacher-training centres, functional school-management committees, and model data-collection and -dissemination standards, in order to help spread the learning. As a result, all over, there is no measure by which to set school standards, only empty guidelines.
It is against this background of governmental weakness in the face of continuous international support that the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) was introduced in 2009, even as “Education for All” was ending. The SSRP is an ambitious, seven-year plan, taking up the bulk of the national education budget. It expects to help Nepal meet the education indicators for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and aims to improve education from preschool to higher-secondary, as well as non-formal, technical and vocational education. The government’s portion of the SSRP is 80 percent, for which it has diverted 85 percent of the total education budget.
The development agencies which have put in 20 percent of the SSRC budget include nine ‘pooling’ partners including the ADB, AusAid, Denmark, EU, DFID, Finland, Norway, UNICEF and the World Bank, as well as ‘non-pooling’ partners. The SSRP does away with long-term teacher-training provided by the NCED under the BPEP project. Instead, the focus now will be short-term ‘demand-based’ training. The SSRP document specifies the physical requirements for schools: class size, teacher-student ratio, and extracurricular materials and activities to be made available; and guidelines for assessments and multi-grade teaching. Multiple textbooks will now be used across the country, with education materials and contextualize local curriculum to be developed.
Another project ending
There are numerous positive aspects to the SSRP as planned. It is based on a comprehensive decentralised model, geared toward strengthening education at the grassroots by working with the Department of Education as well as the local government entities such as the District Education Committees (DEC) and the Village Development Committees (VDC). However, there are several concerns regarding the delivery of quality education: teacher training, including handling large classrooms, and the optimal use of teachers’ time and the policy shift towards ‘continuous assessment’ and ‘liberal promotion’ of children.
First, under the SSRP’s model, teacher training will also now be decentralised and made ‘demand driven’. This is good in theory, but in practice the ‘demand driven’ training is far more challenging to implement than the ‘packaged training’ provided by experts under the NCED in the nine PTTCs around the country. In the name of decentralisation, a more demanding training is now being handed down to personnel with less experience and lesser qualifications. The SSRP will base its RPs in the VDCs from where the training and support of teachers will originate. Currently, there are only eight to 15 such RPs in each district of Nepal, so basing a RP in each VDC would require 3913 RPs. The SSRP does not talk of hiring more people to supervise schools, but it will hire 750 trainers to train required personnel. Not much seems to have been learnt with regard to the quality of RPs in the districts under the BPEP. They are now given more responsibilities.
Second, ‘continuous assessment’ is a method of testing children in what is known as a ‘constructivist’ classroom, where students are engaged in various projects with adequate instruction from a well prepared teacher. In such a system, the teacher has the freedom to observe the children and evaluate them in a holistic manner. The present lecture-based system does not allow the teacher to move around the class and there is nothing to observe when children are busy reading and writing in unison as per the teacher’s instructions. It is a pity that an assessment plan is being put in place before ‘child-centred teaching’ has filtered down to the government school level.
Third, word is already out that under the SSRP, students are going to get liberal promotion though Grade VIII, meaning that students will be upgraded whether or not they do the required work. The SSRP is laudably interested in ensuring that children move up with their cohort and have a good sense of self-worth. But the negative implication of this policy is left for society to deal with. Sharp youngsters may become lazy because they are not challenged, and lose out in the long run. Meanwhile, if parents know that their children will be upgraded without meeting grade-specific expectations, they might not have the incentive to make sure their wards to be serious about their work. The document states that teachers will teach for 1000 hours a year and work on non-teaching responsibilities for another 500 hours. By not instructing the teachers that much of the 500 hours must be used for planning lessons and assessing children’s work, the SSRP fails to capture the opportunity to move towards excellence in the classroom.
Fourth, it is universally accepted that in a classroom where active learning is the norm and there is continuous assessment of children, a class size of 30 is already larger than ideal. The SSRP advocates a class size of 40 children. Yet with the ‘liberal promotion’ policy, any government-school classroom will begin to look like a multi-grade classroom by the time the children reach Grade III-IV, and gets worse as they move up. This is because students with various ability levels and interests will all land up at that grade, whereas the SSRP aims to provide multi-grade teacher-training only in 750 schools – in mountain areas where one classroom typically has less than ten students. If liberal promotion is to be implemented, all the teachers must be comfortable with multi-grade teaching methodologies, as, after all, varying abilities is what multi-grade teaching is meant to address. Without intending to, the SSRP might be responsible for lowering the achievement level of children all over Nepal. Of course, continuous assessment and liberal promotion are both good ideas, but can only be applied in situations in which the teacher has been trained to do the job differently, and where the teacher’s load is far less than it can realistically hope to be at present in Nepal.
An overriding problem with the SSRP is its rigid cookie cutter approach. For instance, the SSRP Volume II document decrees that no class size shall exceed 40 students. If a class size is more than that number, the School Management Committee (SMC) might resort to, “alternative class days, morning and day shift, and so forth”. Clearly the planners have not thought through the implications of such outrageous suggestions. What does “alternative class days” mean? That children stay home half the week? What does “morning and day shift” mean? That teachers work all day? Why was the most logical and practical solution of having large schools with two to even five sections per grade if the population allows for this not discussed here?
One of the SSRP’s most significant pledges is to construct some 19,500 classrooms that meet quality education standards by 2015. It also plans to provide 300 schools with libraries and laboratory facilities. But how is this project going to choose which schools will receive these new facilities and which will not? Will good performance be rewarded, or will the non-performing schools be provided these facilities as encouragement? The SSRP document does not talk about providing toilets, but rather specifies the number of toilets that are required in specific types of schools, while “each school must have its own source of potable water.” We can surmise that, even by 2015, Nepali children will almost certainly not have schools equipped with even the most basic of facilities, nor the benefits of quality primary education.
Mega-projects such as the SSRP, this last consuming most of the government’s education budget, do create a focus for everyone in the education system. The latest international trends in education get incorporated into the country’s education super structure, while research and analysis built into the project allows for the collection of current statistics and an understanding of where we are and where to go. The SSRP too will come to an end with the United Nations summit on Millennium Development Goals scheduled for the middle of the coming decade, at which point Nepal will present its paper and find a notch for itself among countries going through similar exercises.
And after that? What will happen to the training, teaching and evaluation systems that have been put in place over the course of this half-decade of work and planning? Who will ensure the long-term sustainability of activities that have been shown to be useful? What about all the schools that were not allotted the required classrooms, libraries or laboratories within this project period? When will all the teachers that did not get multi-grade teacher training receive this crucial guidance? At its heart, the SSRP continues to promote the vision that the government is to provide everything, uninformed that this robs the local communities of the excitement of schooling. The SMC’s are given the responsibility of looking out for various funds in order to enhance quality, but only the SMC’s that have the influence and the money can put things in place. Therefore, in significant areas it succumbs to the populism of mass education which will ultimately cheat the poorest Nepalis of a good education.
The experience in Nepal has always been of populist programming developed by those who will not be around to see the fallout of their high-minded but impractical projects. Accountability in education, from both the Nepali policy-maker and the expatriate expert and donor representative, is vital. The question the development partners and their Nepali counterparts should ask themselves is what they would have done if their children were going to government run schools in the hills and plains. In the effort to look good, are we willing to compromise on the future of our children in government schools?
The SSRP is taking off, and will be around for many years. But the program must be a continuous one, owned by the government and supported by the development partners. It must emphasise the child-centred component in teaching practices and ensure continuous quality training of teachers. It must also abandon impractical ideas such as liberal promotion and move towards making students accountable for their learning. Alongside, it must shed populism and take unpopular decisions for the sake of the future of Nepali children. Finally, SSRP must be different from all the other projects that have come before. Nepal will lose much if the mistakes of the past are made in the implementation of the SSRP.
~Shanta Basnet Dixit is a public-health specialist turned educator and director of Rato Bangala School in Kathmandu.