Enhancing Quality Education for All in Nepal

Keynote Address by Kul Chandra Gautam
at Rato Bangala Conference on School Education
Kathmandu, 6 April 2013

Let me start by acknowledging that a catalyst for this important conference was the receipt of the UNESCO-Hamdan Education Prize by the Rato Bangla Foundation last year following its nomination for this prestigious award by the Nepal Government’s Ministry of Education.

The fact that a non-governmental foundation was nominated for an international award by a government entity, and that the present conference involves participation of both state and non- governmental actors is something for us to be proud of.

I wish to congratulate the Government of Nepal, UNESCO, UNICEF, ADB, the Norwegian and Finnish embassies, the Open Society Foundation and other partners for their openness to collaborate in such multi-stakeholder partnership.  This is a true sign of the times that educational development in Nepal requires and can greatly benefit from public-private partnership.

Congratulations to you all for this mature and creative partnership!

Most of us hold a deep conviction that the future development and prosperity, and even the sustainability of our new-found democracy, depend very much on the strength of Nepal’s education system, starting with basic education for all.

Quantitatively, Nepal has made impressive progress in basic education in recent decades. Today over 90 percent of children enroll in primary schools, and there is virtual gender parity in enrolment.

In terms of budget allocation too, Nepal does a pretty good job compared to most other developing countries. In recent years nearly 4 percent of GDP and 17 percent of our national budget is allocated to the education sector, a lion’s share of which is earmarked for basic education. While this is still short of the 5 % of GDP and 20 % of total budget that is the recommended global standard, the fact that our education budget more than doubled in the last five years (from Rs. 27 billion in 2007/8 to NRs. 64 billion in 2011/12 ) is very encouraging indeed.

But the quality of public basic education is so poor that 8 percent of children enrolled in grade 1 drop out, and 23 percent repeat the grade. Only 70 percent of the original cohort of children entering grade 1 complete the primary cycle, and less than a third reach grade 10.

In 2011, only 46 % of students from public schools appearing in the national School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exam passed, compared to 90 % of those from private schools. No wonder, many parents, even from relatively poor background, vote with their wallets to send their children to private schools instead of supposedly free and more readily accessible public schools.

Although we recognize basic education as a fundamental human right of all citizens, we see in Nepal a dual education system emerging with relatively better private schools for the rich and lousy public schools for the poor.

So far, very few attempts have been made to bridge this gap. With a few notable exceptions, many private schools have become money-making enterprises, and many public schools have become factories for producing low-quality manpower.

The tragedy of this massive failure befalls disproportionately on the students of government schools, mostly from poor families.

Our main problem, therefore, is not one of budget and financing, nor that of the structure of our public school system, nor even that of quantity and accessibility, but that of quality, quality and better quality schooling. Unsurprisingly, this is related directly to the quality of our governance in general, and school governance in particular.

Since the broader issues of governance of the country are beyond the scope of this conference, I will focus my remarks today on what we need to do to improve the quality and relevance of our basic education and to make our schools more child-friendly.

I must say here that many of the ideas I will speak about are already inherent in Nepal’s latest educational reform agenda, the SSRP – School Sector Reform Programme. What we need is more effective implementation of SSRP.

Here is a 10 point agenda I would propose to improve the quality of basic education in Nepal, and turn it into a strong foundation for our national development:

1. Expand Early Child Development Programmes:

Nepal’s politicians and community leaders tend to give higher priority to upgrading schools from primary to secondary, and from Plus-2 to universities as 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 thus largely determined in the first few years of a child’s life, before the child enters 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.

In Nepal too, we have seen how ECD can have a dramatically positive impact in increasing the efficiency of primary education, with demonstrably much higher success rate of children with some pre-primary early child development exposure than those without it. According to a recent Flash report, in the last decade, there was a massive increase in the number of children entering grade 1 with some exposure to ECD – from just 8% in 2003 to nearly 50% in 2009. This has undoubtedly contributed to the drastic reduction in repetition rate in grade 1 from 29 % to 23%; and of drop-out rate from 16 % to 8%.

Indeed, societies derive extraordinary long-term benefits from investing in early child development. Among the most tangible, early benefits are in school performance by children. Nepal’s very high gross enrolment rate in grade 1, as well as the high rate of drop-outs and repetition in the early grades is, in large part, attributable to lack of any pre-primary education and psycho-social stimulation of children.

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. In rural areas such facilities are still very rare.

It is reported that there are now over 31,000 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 full support, with concomitant investment in training and deployment of pre-school child care workers, monitors and teachers.

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. Schools are dirty and lack minimum sanitary facilities, especially for girls. There are no sports activities or recreational facilities. The method of instruction involves rote learning rather than encouraging children to explore, analyze and understand what they are learning.

A test of whether a school is truly child-friendly is to ensure that it is especially girl-friendly.  Worldwide experience has shown that girl-friendly schools are beneficial for boys as well, whereas the other way around is not always the case.

Listening to children’s own views and promoting their participation – for example, through a network of creative child clubs – are other features of a child-friendly approach.

There are excellent child-centred learning approaches in Nepal, some of them pioneered by institutions like the Rato Bangala Foundation. UNICEF, UNESCO, World Education and others have rich experience world-wide in child-friendly schools.

Nepal needs to 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 as primary 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.

We have about 40% female teachers at the primary level, 17% in lower secondary and a miserable 13 % 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 the 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 needs at least 60,000 additional primary teachers right away, and perhaps a similar number of early child care monitors. Further increases will be needed as net enrolment reaches 100 % and the concept of basic education going up to 8th grade is implemented as part of the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP).

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. Having more women teachers also helps serve our broader national goal of gender equality and empowerment of women.

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 communities, 20 % of Dalits and a mere 1% of disabled children are believed to be 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 81%, 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.

As with all basic services, in education too, reaching the last 10 % is always much harder than reaching the first 50%. 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 school.

What is needed is an aggressive affirmative action plan to ensure that children of Dalits, indigenous communities, and others who are disproportionately disadvantaged do get extra support for access to basic education. 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.

In terms of 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 in our society as slow and dumb.

Targeted scholarships, free textbooks, school meals and other incentives should be provided to reduce the opportunity cost for families of disadvantaged children.  In recent years, a targeted “Welcome to School” campaign has already produced some good results. More such programmes are needed.

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 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. Our text books, other educational materials and teaching methods tend to perpetuate certain stereo-typical images of traditional inegalitarian Nepali society.

The language of instruction for the most part, has been one national vernacular, Nepali, although in recent years there has been a fashionable tendency to use English as medium of instruction, especially in private schools. Both the neglect of mother tongues and over-emphasis on rote learning of English starting at pre-primary level is pedagogically unsound.

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 introduced. This usually involves initially using the child’s mother tongue as medium of instruction, while gradually introducing Nepali as the major national link language, and then a favoured international language.

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.

As Nepal is now committed to creating a more inclusive, egalitarian society, it is important to review the school curricula, textbooks and other educational materials and teaching methods, including the languages of instruction to ensure that it reflects the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of Nepal in a meaningful manner.

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 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. Focus on Quality:

Quantitatively, Nepal has made impressive progress towards universal access to primary education. But in terms of quality of education, we have a long way to go. Our new slogan should not be just education for all, but quality education for all.

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 show that much can be done to improve the quality of education with relatively modest additional investment.

Use of locally produced educational materials in different types of Tin Trunk Library that RBF, World Education and UNICEF provide in Nepal is one example. The Room-to-Read program also offers many good examples. Greater involvement of parents in the education of their children, is another helpful approach, as is genuine multi-grade teaching.

Many of these interventions require changes in attitudes and behaviour, not necessarily huge capital intensive investments.

Over-crowding in our classrooms is another huge problem, especially in the Terai. 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, and it is not uncommon to see over 100 children per class in many schools. There cannot be any meaningful teaching and learning in such huge classes.

It is estimated that Nepal has a shortage of at least 60,000 primary teachers, and the need to regularize some 18,000 existing temporary teachers. Rather than further inflating the number of civil servants or soldiers in the Nepal Army, part of our job creation programme for the youth should be to create thousands of new jobs that are really needed for our educational development.

Currently, nearly a quarter of primary teachers are untrained or inadequately trained and many lack even minimum qualifications to be teachers. Schools lack basic educational materials, and every year there are widespread reports of textbooks not reaching schools on time. Teaching and learning is not child-centered, and the school atmosphere is not child-friendly. For example, the lack of basic sanitary facilities in public schools discourages girls from regularly attending classes. This must be remedied as a matter of top national priority.

Teachers without adequate training and motivation are simply incapable of helping improve the quality of education in Nepal. As most trained teachers gravitate towards better schools in urban areas, the vast majority of teachers in rural schools are effectively untrained and unskilled.

Nepal needs to invest massively in teacher training and ensuring that trained teachers are motivated enough to impart quality education. This is where innovative experiences like that of the Rato Bangla Foundation can be very helpful.

Let us capitalize on such experiences to improve the quality of education in both our public government schools and quite a few low-quality private schools as well.

7. Cultivate Public-Private Partnership in Education

Basic education must be made a constitutional right of all children, and the government must invest adequate resources to provide all children with quality basic education.  Nevertheless, in a democracy, parents should have the choice to send their children to private or parochial schools, if they so choose.

Indeed, 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 seen as highly commercialized money-making enterprises. Some religiously-affiliated private or community schools are also seen to be giving 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 over-regulation, Nepal 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. Private schools should also be encouraged to reach out to and accommodate some poor but bright students, which some schools are already doing.

Beyond that, private schools should be encouraged, if necessary with some incentives, to help improve the quality of public schools in peri-urban and rural areas. In this context Rato Bangla and several other private schools attending this conference offer good models which are worth emulating and replicating.

Given that nearly one-third of Nepali children – many from rather poor families – attend private schools, the government, as well as donors, ought to pay greater attention to not just regulating but actually helping such schools become more effective partners in our national campaign for quality education for all.

This is an era of mutually beneficial public-private partnership. Given the proliferation of many private schools, Nepal must harness such partnership for the benefit of public education.

8. Transform Schools into Zones of Peace

During the decade of conflict, many schools became battle zones, and were used by the Royal Nepal Army as their temporary barracks, and by the Maoist as recruiting grounds for their “PLA”. Much intimidation and violence was inflicted against children. And education was seriously interrupted.

The Maoists denounced “burgeois education” and introduced what they called revolutionary pro-people education. In their “people’s schools” they even introduced a subject called “military science” that taught primary school children how to make and use explosives, to serve as sentries and informers and to glorify revolutionary violence. The UN and many other organizations confirmed that thousands of minors were recruited as “child soldiers”.

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, the Maoists, and all other groups must unequivocally renounce 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 conflicts 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. But as we have a preponderance of many Communist parties of various Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist variety in this country, I want to share with them one profound observation made by Amartya Sen, the famous Bengali Nobel Prize winning economist.

He said that historically whenever Communist parties came to power, although they did many bad things, they had a consistent record of good achievements in basic health and education – in countries ranging from Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, and in the Kerala state of India, and elsewhere in the world.

But Sen had seen one major exception – West Bengal – where a reformist-sounding Communist Party had been in power continuously for nearly 3 decades, but that the situation of health and education there was hardly any better than in Bihar or UP or other backward states of India.

Analyzing the reasons for this, in the case of education, Amartya Sen came to the conclusion that a major reason for this was the hyper-politicization of teachers in West Bengal. Unlike in other countries with Communist-led governments, party-affiliated teachers in West Bengal had become full-time political activists and neglected teaching. Hence the poor record of basic education in West Bengal.

I would hope that all our political parties, and especially the Maoist ones, would learn from this experience 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, strikes, demonstrations, chakka-jams and jana-andolans led to prolonged closure of schools. Instead of pursuing higher education, hundreds of thousands of our youth went 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.

Let us redouble our investment in education, by creating a “peace dividend” of reduced military expenditure, and other wasteful expenses. Let us recognize that education is not only a human right, it is the engine of all human development.

The 10 year war was fought by both sides in the name of better future for our children. Now that peace and democracy are with us, let us redirect all our resources and energies for that better future – starting with quality basic education for all our children.

Thank you.