Inaugural Address at the Educational Interaction Series by Rato Bangala Foundation
Kathmandu, 3 July 2014
It is a real honour to be invited to address this inaugural session of the Educational Interaction Series sponsored by the Rato Bangala Foundation.
I commend the Foundation for its continuing efforts to help improve the quality of basic education in Nepal’s public schools.
Although its origins and identity are associated with one of Nepal’s finest private schools, RBF’s commitment to public education, and that too, in some of Nepal’s most deprived communities in remote districts like Dailekh and Gulmi is admirable.
Two years ago RBF received the prestigious UNESCO-Hamdan Education Prize for excellence in teacher training and educational innovation.
The fact that this non-governmental foundation was officially nominated for that international award by the Ministry of Education of the Government of Nepal, is an exceptional honour.
It augurs well for enhanced public-private partnership in education, about which I will make some suggestions later.
The Agony of SLC
During the past three weeks, many of us have been deeply engaged in Nepal’s annual season of introspection, finger-pointing and soul-searching – triggered, once again, by the very poor results of this year’s SLC exam (the 10th grade nation-wide exam for School Leaving Certificate).
Indeed, this year we hit the rock bottom with only 44 percent of nearly half a million students passing the SLC exam. The performance of the nation’s public schools was the worst ever with only 28 percent passing through the infamous “Iron Gate” of SLC.
In contrast, a record 93 percent of students from private schools passed the exam, the majority of them securing distinction or first division.
This has led to the usual heated debates about the relevance of the SLC exam, and the future of public versus private education in Nepal.
There is a consensus that some drastic measures are needed to reform basic public education, though there are widely divergent views on possible solutions.
Global Partnership for Education
The crisis, and the opportunity for improvement, in basic education are not unique to Nepal, but widely shared among many of developing countries, in post-conflict, fragile situations.
This was apparent last week when I attended a pledging conference of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in Brussels in my capacity as a global advocate for GPE.
Also attending that conference were Ministers of Education, other dignitaries, civil society leaders and educationists from 90 countries, including a delegation of Nepal led by our Honorable Minister of Education.
The conference highlighted the importance of basic education as the key to national development, the progress made in the past decade and the remaining challenges.
Globally, good progress is being made in improving access to primary education as part of EFA and MDGs. There were 108 million primary school age children out of school in 1999. By 2012 that number fell to 57 million, or a 61 percent reduction in 12 years.
However, we have started noticing that the pace of progress has been stagnating in recent years. It appears that we have now reached a stage where further progress will be increasingly more difficult and expensive.
Experience shows that in providing many basic services, it is easier to reach the first 50 percent than to reach the last 10 percent – the hard-core of the hardest to reach population.
In addition to the 57 million primary school age children, there are 69 million children of lower secondary age, who are out of school. Of these 126 million out of school children, about one-third are children with disabilities; one-third live in conflict-affected, fragile states; and the rest are from among the most marginalized and deprived communities.
But even among those who do go to school, some 250 million children do not know the basics of reading and writing, even after four years of schooling. The quality of education is, therefore, a huge, universal issue.
Under-investment in Education
In most developing countries, basic education remains chronically under-funded. UNESCO estimates that there is a shortfall of $38 billion per year to attain MDG-2 of universal access to and completion of primary education.
The lion’s share of this shortfall will have to be met from national budgets of developing countries. But increased donor support is equally vital, if we are to have a fighting chance to achieve MDG-2, and place education high on the agenda of the post-2015 SDGs.
It is worrying, indeed alarming, that just at this critical time, international aid for education is declining precipitously. There has been a 10 percent decline in ODA for education globally in the past 3 years.
This decline is even higher in the two regions with the highest number and percentage of children out of school – South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
In the past decade, we have seen an interesting phenomenon. International aid for public health has increased considerably, including strong support from the private sector such as the Gates Foundation, for childhood immunization, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Such support is, of course, most welcome, and the world has made considerable progress in the health-related MDGs.
However, further progress in health, and sustainability of the gains already made in health and nutrition requires basic education. It is often said that education is the best immunization, the best contraceptive, and the best antidote to HIV/AIDS.
The kind of behaviour change that is required for sustained gain in health is only possible through education. This was part of the message from the Brussels conference of GPE.
I am happy to report that the Brussels conference last week brought some good news. Donors pledged $2.1 billion towards GPE’s target of $3.5 billion for the next four years.
For the first time, we got a substantial pledge from the private sector for basic education – with the UK-based Children’s Investment Fund pledging $22 million, and Dubai Cares Foundation pledging $1 million.
Moreover, we have a commitment in principle of $450 million from the Islamic Development Bank for debt buy-back and other innovative financing modalities for basic education.
We are hopeful that this is the beginning of a new trend in public-private partnership in innovative financing similar to what we have seen in support of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and for HIV/AIDS and malaria.
It was heartening to note that many developing countries also pledged substantial increase in their national budgets for basic education, amounting to an additional $26 billion for the period 2015 to 2018.
Many developing countries also pledged to undertake significant policy reforms, including concrete actions to improve access, enhance quality, equity and accountability, and special efforts to reach the hard-to-reach children from the most marginalized communities.
On behalf of the Government of Nepal, our Minister of Education pledged a strong commitment to GPE. If we can honour those commitments, and come up with a robust proposal by early 2015, Nepal can expect GPE’s funding support of the order of $100 million for the next four year period.
Not by Money Alone
It is clear that basic education requires considerably increased financial investment in most developing countries. However, in some countries, including Nepal, better utilization of the available money is equally, if not more important.
I would even say that in some countries proof of better utilization of existing budget will be essential to generate public support for increasing future budget allocation for education.
Let me illustrate this point with the example of our own country, Nepal.
As we all know, Nepal has made impressive progress in access to basic education in recent decades. Today over 95 percent of our children enroll in primary schools, and there is virtual gender parity.
Government spending for education in Nepal has tripled in the past six years in absolute amounts, from NRs. 27 billion in 2007/8 to NRs. 81 billion in 2013/14.
This amounts to nearly 16 percent of our national budget and 4 percent of GDP, which is quite respectable compared to most other developing countries, though it is a little short of the 5 % of GDP and 20 % of total budget that is the recommended global standard.
But the quality of public basic education remains very poor. Even if we disregard the shockingly poor results in this year’s SLC exam in which 72 percent of students from the public schools failed, we have many other worrying trends.
According to the latest Flash report, 8 percent of our children enrolled in grade 1 drop out, and 20 percent repeat the grade. Only 83 percent of the original cohort of children entering grade 1 complete the primary cycle, and less than a third reach grade 10.
Many people are now wondering, how can we justify asking the government and donors to spend more money on a system that produces such high rates of failure, drop-outs, repetition and wastage?
Will more money solve the problem, or does the problem lie somewhere else?
Who is to blame for these poor results? We can find many scape-goats to blame. But I know one group that we cannot blame – our school children. They did not fail the exams; rather it was our un-child-friendly public education system that failed to deliver quality education to those children.
In the recent commentary on the failure of our education system, the most common reasons cited are – poor school governance, high rates of teacher absenteeism, hyper-politicization of our education system; and a pedagogical approach that is not child-centred or accountable for results.
More money alone is not going to solve these deeply systemic problems. Money can help only if we are committed to making some profound systemic and behavioural changes.
To avoid any misunderstanding, let me quickly add that I strongly support the need for further increases in our national budget and donor funding for basic education.
However, I firmly believe that any such increase must be conditional on some bold measures to improve our school governance, teacher performance, accountability for results, and initiation of some innovative public-private partnerships.
Let me present to you a 10-point agenda to improve the quality of basic education in Nepal, and turn it into a strong foundation for our national development.
Some of you have heard my views on education before, and you will note that I keep repeating certain suggestions again and again.
Please forgive me for the repetition, but I have learned from the advertising world that there is some virtue in repetition, and that good ideas do not become obsolete simply because we have heard them before.
Actually, many of the ideas I present below are not new or original. These are inherent in Nepal’s on-going School Sector Reform Program (SSRP). These are also reflected in the many articles, editorials and op-ed pieces that we have seen in the Nepali media in recent weeks.
So, here is my 10-point agenda:
1. Expand Early Child Development
Nepal’s politicians and community leaders tend to give higher priority to upgrading schools from primary to secondary, and from Plus-2 to colleges as a sign of educational progress.
We need to reverse this trend, and give higher priority to building a strong foundation for life-long education starting in the earliest years of a child’s life.
Please consider this: 80 percent of human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child’s life.
Whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner, and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child’s life, before the child enters primary school.
The damage caused by malnutrition, poor child care and lack of psycho-social stimulation in early childhood often lasts for the whole life, and it cannot be easily reversed later. That is why most developed countries invest heavily in early child development, and so should Nepal.
Actually, in terms of ECD coverage, Nepal does better than most other countries of South Asia. In the last decade, ECD coverage jumped from 8% in 2003 to 55% in 2012.
Such exposure to ECD has undoubtedly contributed to the drastic reduction in repetition rate in grade 1 from 29 % to 20%; and of drop-out rate from 16 % to 8%.
In recent years, there has been quite fast growth of kindergartens and pre-school centres in urban areas and district headquarters of Nepal. But the quality of these centres leaves much to be desired.
Many pre-schools and kindergartens advertise themselves as following the Montessori system, but hardly any actually do so.
It is reported that there are now over 34,000 ECD centres of varying qualities in different parts of Nepal. This is still quite short of the Nepal government’s goal to establish 74,000 ECD centres and reach 80 % of 3-4 year old children by 2015.
This worthy goal deserves our full support, with concomitant investment in training and deployment of pre-school child care workers, monitors and teachers.
Almost all of Nepal’s ECD monitors and teachers are women who serve with great dedication and very little payment, of around NRs. 3,000 per month. We need to pay them more, and provide them with better training.
If I had to make a difficult choice between establishing one more college or university in Nepal versus a thousand more ECD centres with well-trained and well-paid ECD monitors, my choice would be unambiguous – I would vote for ECD.
2. Make Schools Truly Child-friendly
Far from being safe, wholesome and joyful centres of learning, many schools in Nepal today are places where children fear to go. Teachers are often untrained, uncaring, and quick to give corporal punishment.
Our schools are generally teacher-friendly, but not child-friendly.
Most schools spend 90 percent or more of their total budget on teachers’ salaries.
Teachers are treated as government civil servants; given generous holidays, study leave and sick leave. The government spends huge amounts for retired teachers’ pensions.
Teachers’ unions, supported by their political party patrons, are vocal about their rights, but silent about their duties. Nobody seems to care about students’ right to quality education in a child-friendly environment.
We need to balance teachers’ rights with even greater emphasis on students’ rights, and set aside 25 to 30 percent of every school’s total budget for items other than teachers’ salaries.
Most schools lack basic educational materials, and every year there are widespread reports of textbooks not reaching schools on time. Teaching and learning are not child-centered, and the school atmosphere is not child-friendly.
For example, most of our schools are dirty and lack minimum sanitary facilities, especially for girls. This discourages many girls from regularly attending classes.
There are no libraries or labs, no organized extra-curricular activities, such as sports or recreational facilities, in our schools.
The method of instruction involves rote learning rather than encouraging children to explore, analyze and understand what they are learning.
Fortunately, there are some excellent child-centred learning approaches in Nepal, pioneered by various organizations.
For example, the use of locally produced educational materials in different types of Tin Trunk Libraries that UNICEF, World Education and the Rato Bangala Foundation provide; or the Room-to-Read’s school libraries, and the Open Learning Exchange’s digital libraries, are some very simple, child-friendly quality-enhancing measures, which merit massive replication.
We need to learn and benefit from these experiences, and make going to school a truly joyful and stimulating experience for our students.
3. Vastly Increase Women Teachers:
A strategy for making schools more child-friendly is to vastly increase the number and proportion of female teachers in schools.
It is well-known that having more women teachers is not only desirable from the perspective of gender equality and social justice, but in Nepal, as in many other countries, it has a very direct impact on the enrolment and retention of girls in schools.
Currently, we have about 40% female teachers at the primary level, less than 30% in lower secondary and 20 % in higher secondary schools. Even the very modest government objective of having at least one female teacher in every primary school has not been achieved yet.
We must go for a much more ambitious goal of having at least 50 % of all teachers up to the high school level being women in the next 5 years.
Given that currently only one-third-of teachers are women, to compensate for this imbalance, we should adopt an affirmative action policy of recruiting at least two-thirds of all new teachers to be women.
I would urge all women’s rights activists to give this issue a very high priority. This is one way in which educated women in Nepal can serve as role models for our young girls, and influence the whole of our future generation to become more gender sensitive and egalitarian.
Nepal probably needs an additional 50,000 primary teachers and a similar number of ECD monitors as net enrolment reaches 100 % and the concept of basic education stretches from ECD to the 8th grade, as part of the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP).
Thus we have great opportunity to increase the number of female teachers, without displacing existing male teachers.
As elsewhere in the world, in Nepal too, it has been shown that having women teachers is conducive to attracting and retaining more girls in school, especially from some of the more conservative families, and making schools more child-friendly.
However, to attract and retain women teachers, and to deploy them where they are needed most, it is necessary to provide them with certain special facilities for their safety, security and comfort.
This should not be considered an extra expense, but a valuable investment for Nepal’s development as a progressive society.
4. Affirmative Action for the Disadvantaged
While the overall enrolment of over 90 percent in primary school in Nepal is quite impressive, the 10 percent who are out of school comprise a disproportionately large share of child population from the historically, geographically, economically and socially deprived and marginalized communities.
Only 38 % of children from the indigenous Janjati communities, 22 % of Dalits and a mere 1% of disabled children are enrolled in primary schools.
This is totally unacceptable in today’s Nepal that subscribes to the universal principles of human rights and an inclusive democracy.
Even for those children who do have access to schooling, the survival rate to grade 5 is only 83%, and literacy rate among 15 to 24 year old youth is 73%. At current rate of progress, Nepal is unlikely to achieve the Millennium Development Goal #2 for which Nepal’s national targets are to achieve by 2015: 100 % net enrolment in primary school, 100 % completion rate to grade 5, and 100 % literacy among the 15-24 age group of youth.
With business as usual, incremental approach, it will take an unacceptably long time for Nepal to reach all the children who are not currently enrolled in primary secondary schools.
We need an aggressive affirmative action policy to ensure that children of Dalits, certain indigenous communities, and others who are disproportionately disadvantaged do get extra support for pursuing basic education.
Regarding children with disabilities, we must go beyond the physically handicapped, to children who suffer from dyslexia and dysgraphia and other learning disabilities. Many such children are actually highly gifted and talented, but are condemned as slow and dumb in our society.
The SSRP does include special provisions of scholarships for such disadvantaged students. These provisions need to be implemented and their effectiveness reviewed and improved periodically.
Targeted scholarships, free textbooks, school meals and other incentives should be provided to reduce the opportunity cost of schooling for families of disadvantaged children.
A rights-based approach to basic education can be helpful to secure greater public support for such affirmative action.
Even well to do private schools and corporate houses need to be encouraged to support such affirmative action as part of their corporate social responsibility, if necessary, with tax and other incentives.
5. Make Education more Inclusive and Multi-cultural
Nepal’s population is a mosaic of many ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups. But historically our education system has not been responsive to or reflective of this diversity.
Recently, some progressive changes have been made in our text books, other educational materials and teaching methods befitting a multi-cultural society.
But more needs to be done. For example, Nepal needs a judiciously calibrated language policy for basic education. Experience of many multi-lingual countries can offer valuable lessons for Nepal.
Depending on the level of development of the children’s mother tongue, the wishes of their parents, and the demographics of the local community, a bilingual or tri-lingual policy may be appropriate.
Initially, using the child’s mother tongue as a medium of instruction, while gradually introducing Nepali as the major national link language, and English as our favoured international language, would seem sensible.
But it would be unwise to follow a rigid formula in this regard. Pedagogical soundness and parents’ wishes should be given priority over the wishes of ethnic or linguistic activists.
Regardless of the language of instruction, the curricula should be sensitive to Nepal’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, while preparing young Nepalis to be enlightened citizens of a rapidly globalizing world.
Honouring diversity without encouraging ethnocentric tendencies, adapting to the challenges and opportunities of the fast pace of globalization while preserving our unique local cultures is going to be a tricky balancing act for Nepal’s educational leaders.
As basic education is likely to be a subject dealt with by the new local and federal governments, this balancing act will become all the more complex and important. Our eventual aim should be to eradicate all forms of exclusion, marginalization and discrimination in education, as in other basic services.
6. Holding Teachers Accountable for Quality Education
It is often said that huge financial investment is needed to provide quality education that poor countries like Nepal cannot afford.
However, experiences like the Rato Bangla Foundation’s outreach programme in Dailekh, Gulmi and elsewhere show that much can be done to improve the quality of education with relatively modest additional investment.
Greater involvement of parents in the education of their children, and frequent interaction between teachers and parents is another helpful approach.
Many of these interventions require changes in attitudes, behaviour and organization, not necessarily huge capital-intensive investments.
One issue we must address is that we have too many schools and teachers in some regions and too few in others.
Compared to the SSRP recommended national target of 34 students per teacher at the primary level, the average in many Terai districts hovers around 60 students per teacher. There cannot be any meaningful teaching and learning in such huge classes.
It is estimated that Nepal has a net shortage of perhaps up to 50,000 primary and lower-secondary teachers, and the need to regularize some 40,000 existing temporary (raahat) teachers, and about 50,000 teachers that are paid by local communities.
If we consider basic education as our citizens’ human right as guaranteed by our Constitution, it is the obligation of the government to pay for the teachers needed for all public schools.
On the other hand, in many hill districts of Nepal there are too many schools, and in some cases, too many teachers, compared to the declining child population, because of migration and low fertility.
But local politicians try to open new schools in every ward of every VDC, and there is constant pressure to upgrade schools from primary to secondary, and from secondary to ‘plus two’.
We really need a clear policy and stronger enforcement of consolidation and merger of many scattered poor schools into a smaller number of larger and better schools.
Many existing primary schools should be turned into early child development centres; and some secondary schools should be downgraded to primary schools.
Instead of setting up or upgrading schools in every ward, serious consideration should be given to investing in a fleet of school buses to transport children to fewer but better equipped primary schools in VDCs that are now increasingly connected with motorable roads.
Good teacher training is, of course, a sine qua non. Currently, nearly a quarter of our primary teachers are untrained or inadequately trained and many lack even minimum qualifications to be teachers. Teachers without adequate training and motivation are simply incapable of helping improve the quality of education in Nepal.
We need to invest massively in quality teacher training and to ensure that trained teachers are motivated enough to impart quality education. This applies to both our public schools and quite a few low-quality private schools as well.
However, the biggest change we need is in holding our teachers accountable for teaching. Teacher absenteeism and their irregular attendance in schools is now of epidemic proportion. This is especially the case with teachers with permanent contracts.
Neither the head-master nor the local school management committee can discipline teachers with permanent contracts who are chronically absent, who miss classes, who misbehave with students, and who are bad role models in terms of their conduct and appearance.
There is no effective system of rewards and punishment of teachers based on their performance and results. Teachers unions affiliated with various political parties protect their members from disciplinary action, even when they are guilty of gross misconduct and criminal activities.
This is undoubtedly a main reason why public schools do so poorly in the SLC exam. Indeed, the performance of most public schools is so poor that most teachers in those schools send their own children to private schools.
Most local political party leaders and other influential folks also send their children to private schools. So they have no vested interest in improving public schools or holding teachers accountable for teaching.
No amount of money spent in infrastructure, equipment and training will change this reality, unless we change the system of accountability of teachers in public schools.
This will require a radical change in our political culture, and a binding multi-party consensus on a code of conduct for teachers, and a system of performance-based rewards and penalties that all parties agree to abide by.
A starting point for this could be to use the results of the SLC exams.
We should gradually introduce a system whereby teachers of public schools that perform exceptionally well in the SLC exam over a consecutive period of two to three years, are given a bonus payment.
And teachers of schools that perform poorly over a similar period should have their salaries reduced by a certain percentage.
Initially, this could be a collective reward or retribution for all teachers of a given school, but over time this could be refined into a system whereby individual teachers would be rewarded or penalized based on subject-specific results.
In the long-run, we should not give so much importance to the results of SLC alone, but introduce this system in earlier grades as well.
Ideally, we should introduce a 360-degree assessment of teacher performance in which the highest weight is given to student evaluation of their teachers, along with assessment by their peers, supervisors and school managers, which would get lesser weight.
This system of 360-degree evaluation of teachers is already applied in many countries, and even in some private schools in Nepal. This could bring about a revolutionary change in our teacher performance and accountability for results, which is so sorely lacking at present.
In the long-run, we should even reconsider the whole system of permanent contracts, and introduce performance based contracts for teachers, and even for our civil servants, as is increasingly the practice in the private sector and even in the government service of many advanced democracies.
7. Cultivate Stronger Public-Private Partnership in Education
Free and compulsory basic education is a constitutional right of all children, and the government must invest adequate resources to ensure such education.
Nevertheless, in a democracy, parents should have the choice to send their children to private or parochial schools, if they so choose.
Private sector investment in education has flourished in Nepal in recent years, especially in urban areas. It is believed that in Kathmandu Valley, there are 1,200 private schools compared to only 300 public schools.
While some private schools offer high quality education, many are highly commercialized money-making enterprises. Some religiously-affiliated private or community schools are also known to give undue importance to proselytizing over academic excellence.
Nevertheless, private schools do meet a felt need of parents for quality education. Even many vocal critics of private schools – including Nepal’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist leaders – vote with their wallets, and send their own children to such schools.
Indeed, it is believed that over 300 private schools in Nepal are owned and operated by Maoist leaders.
Instead of threatening to close private schools, or disempowering them through excessive political interference and extortion, we should harness the power of public-private partnership to improve the quality of basic education.
Private schools should, of course, be required to meet certain minimum basic standards of the national curricula; safety and security of their students, teachers and staff; and ensure transparency in their operations.
The huge discrepancy between the success rates of public and private schools in the recent SLC exam has ignited a big debate on what leads to such discrepancy and what to do about it.
A populist interpretation is that the private schools are only for the rich and powerful and their money buys good education, and perpetuates socio-economic inequality. However, this argument is not quite evidence-based.
Contrary to general perception, most students who attend ordinary private schools are not necessarily the children of the rich and powerful.
Many middle and low-income parents, including migrant labourers who toil in hard labour in the deserts of the Middle East, the Gulf countries, and Malaysia make huge sacrifice to send their children to private schools, instead of supposedly free and more readily accessible public schools, because the quality of education in public schools is so poor
And here is another irony: the government of Nepal spends a respectable amount of its budget on public schools and donors provide generous support. Teachers of public schools are generally better trained and better paid than those of most private schools. And generally public schools have better buildings and facilities than most low-cost private schools.
Yet, the performance of public schools is far worse than that of private ones.
Now, most private schools are also not very child-friendly, or of high quality, but unlike public schools, they generally hold their teachers and school administrators accountable for good results.
I am a strong supporter of public schools. But if in some countries, government systems are so highly corrupt and dysfunctional, or if there are good opportunities for productive public-private partnership in the best interest of children, I believe we must be flexible and pragmatic.
I come to this conclusion based on my experience in many countries and continents. In a variety of countries, both democratic and autocratic, capitalist and socialist, rich as well as poor, the non-government sector provides basic education for a quarter to one-third of children; the vast majority of whom are relatively poor children studying in low-cost private, parochial or NGO-supported community schools.
Many countries have found constructive ways to foster public-private partnership in education. For example, basic education is publicly-funded but privately operated in some wealthy countries like the Netherlands and Belgium.
The Gambia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Haiti rely heavily on private schools to provide public education. Over 90 % of secondary schools in Bangladesh are privately run, but the government heavily subsidizes their salary costs.
Some countries like Colombia contract private or semi-private institutions, like the Escuela Nueva, to operate public schools, or manage their teacher training.
There is much rich literature on the subject of PPP for basic education conducted by the World Bank, showing how publicly-funded and privately managed, or a combination of community or privately managed public education can be quite viable.
One well-known example of such public-private partnership is the “Charter school system”, which is found in countries as diverse as Canada, Chile, the Kerala state of India, Sweden, UK, USA, and New Zealand, where such schools are called “partnership schools”.
“Charter schools” receive pubic funding but operate independently and are under private or community management.
Such schools can be for profit or non-profit, but they must follow government regulations and minimum standards.
Some countries allow “school vouchers” which parents can use to send their children to a school of their choice – whether public, private or parochial.
In the US, there are approximately 5,600 public charter schools with 2 million students. Under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2002, the US Congress specifically encouraged public schools that were under-performing to become Charter schools to help improve their performance.
I would strongly recommend that Nepal should try out a “charter-based” system of public-private partnership in basic education. I understand that this idea has already been discussed in the Ministry of Education. I would urge the Ministry’s leadership now to take action.
The government can, of course, provide conditional support for charter schools – to ensure accountability, equity and inclusion.
As part of the “charter agreement” it can demand admission policy that is non-discriminatory and even promote affirmative action in favour of the poor and marginalized communities.
What it must not do is to interfere in the hiring and firing, or promotion and transfer of teachers, and in the internal management of schools, so long as the schools do not violate any law of the land.
The government can even include a clause for an independent audit of the charter school, and terminate its grant agreement, if the school consistently fails to produce good results or to assure transparency and accountability.
Short of this kind of public-private partnership, I do not see Nepal redeeming its public schools in the foreseeable future from their current morass of poor performance, political interference and great injustice to our children.
But let me be absolutely clear about one possible misunderstanding – I am not recommending this as part of a plan to privatize education. This is a pragmatic plan to make schools more accountable for results.
It is not some rabid free-enterprise, capitalist idea, but a deeply socialist idea to ensure that even the children of the poor and marginalized communities get quality education, and our teachers and school administrators are held accountable for results.
This is not just an idea for Nepal. I am encouraging this for serious consideration by the Global Partnership for Education in other countries eligible for GPE support.
I would hope that the Government of Nepal would officially include such a component of public-private partnership in its proposal for GPE support next year.
I would commend to the Ministry of Education to invite, challenge and encourage some of Nepal’s private schools, perhaps through PABSON, and some NGO-run schools too, to join the government in developing such partnership proposal.
This is an era of mutually beneficial public-private partnership.
Given the proliferation of many private schools, including those that cater to children of lower middle class families; given the dysfunctional nature of many public schools, and possibility for improving them through innovative public-priavte partnerhsips, I would urge Nepal’s external development partners too to be open-minded and supportive of such partnership as part of our national campaign for quality education for all.
8. Transform Schools into Zones of Peace
During the decade of armed conflict, the sanctity of our schools was violated by both sides. Schools were even used as recruiting ground for child-soldiers; and students were taught to glorify “revolutionary violence”.
Alarmed by such exploitation of children and violation of their human rights, a number of Nepali NGOs and international organizations introduced the idea of children – and schools – as a zone of peace.
As we have now entered the post-conflict era of peace, all political parties and groups must unequivocally renounce the use of violence and coercion under any pretext especially in academic institutions, and commit to cultivate a culture of peace and non-violence.
To counter the culture of violence and impunity, we must teach our children peaceful resolution of conflict, and non-violence as core values of a new humanistic education system.
And children as a whole and schools in particular must be regarded as inviolable zones of peace and tranquility.
9. De-politicize Basic Education:
Currently Nepal suffers from hyper-politicization that affects all aspects of life. Teachers’ unions, student’s organizations and educational institutions, even at the primary level are not exempt from political activism, often quite unrelated to genuine educational issues.
All political parties in Nepal are guilty of such politicization of education.
The culture of “bhaag-bandaa” or sharing the spoils, has become such a pervasive phenomena that all sectors of government, including education, have been infected with this disease.
As a result, even our competent professionals among District Education Officers and other officials of the Ministry of Education are not allowed to do their job properly because of undue political interference.
All our political parties need to recognize that their interference is largely responsible for the poor quality of our educational institutions, and desist from over-politicization of teachers and students’ unions, especially at the level of basic education.
While trade union activism is a basic human right in a democracy, irresponsible, political party-affiliated trade union activism is the greatest malady in Nepal’s governance. It must be restrained in all sectors, starting with basic education, health and other social services.
10. Education as Genuine Peace Dividend for Nepal
Finally, I hope that our children’s education will be the major beneficiary of the new era of peace and genuine democracy in Nepal, whenever that comes.
Education suffered greatly during the decade of conflict. Not only were many schools destroyed and rendered dysfunctional, the construction of new schools, and expansion of rural education came to virtual standstill. Students, teachers and parents were all traumatized.
Even in urban areas, frequent strikes, demonstrations, chakka-jams and jana-andolans led to prolonged closure of schools. Instead of pursuing higher education, hundreds of thousands of our youth were compelled to go abroad in search of employment often braving great risk.
Now that peace and democracy are at hand, we must make up for all the lost time and opportunity.
Nepal must redouble our investment in education, by creating a “peace dividend” of reduced military expenditure, and other wasteful expenses. We must recognize that education is not only a human right, it is the engine of all human development.
Currently, the United Nations, and the international community at large, are preparing an ambitious global development agenda as a successor to the Millennium Development Goals. Basic education is likely to feature even more prominently than before as part of the post-2015 sustainable development goals.
Organizations like the Global Partnership for Education will be actively mobilizing support for countries like Nepal.
It behooves Nepal to develop its own strong public-private partnership to empower its children with quality basic education to face the challenges of the 21st century.