1-7 July 2016 #815

Lessons not learnt

Restore the political will to raise the quality of instruction in schools, but keep politics out of education


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Nearly a decade after it was first tabled in Parliament, a bill to amend the Education Act 1971 was finally endorsed by legislators last month. This is the eighth time Nepal has amended the Act, which was originally promulgated by King Mahendra during the Panchayat era to create a conformist education system.

In 2009 when the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) was launched, donors supporting it pushed a 12-year school system and new grading scheme in exams to upgrade the quality of instruction. To facilitate this, the eighth amendment to the Act was necessary. However, the bill was never ratified throughout the seven years that the Rs 8 billion SSRP was in force, because the people’s representatives were too busy with the constitution-drafting process.

By the time it was eventually passed last month, the SSRP was already in the midst of closing shop, only to be replaced by a supposedly new and improved multi-billion rupee School Sector Development Plan (SSDP). But even those MPs who voted for the bill are now complaining that they had not been given enough time to scrutinise its contents. Days after the bill had been approved, MPs from the main opposition Nepali Congress met Prime Minister KP Oli to draw his attention to the fact that some of its provisions infringe upon the spirit of the newly promulgated Constitution. Oli hemmed and hawed and said he had not had time to read the bill thoroughly and, if flawed, it could be amended again.

The way the bill was drafted, delayed, perfunctorily debated, hurriedly ratified and finally signed into law by the President represents an all-too-familiar saga of how Nepal’s political leadership functions: squandering time in senseless and irresponsible political one-upmanship, making decisions at the eleventh hour, and then regretting them soon after. Time and again young Nepalis have been made guinea pigs in trial-and-error experiments with the curriculum, instruction, exam system and grading process.

This cavalier trait was on vivid display once more when the 80-year-old School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams were abolished and a new grading structure introduced from this year. A panel led by Education Expert Kedar Bhakta Mathema had recommended the new grading method as far back as 2005. But the country was mired in conflict, and no one took heed.

However, when donors grilled the Ministry of Education (MoE) as to why the SLC pass percentage has been constantly low in spite of their enormous investment in the SSRP, the new grading system was launched at the tenth-grade level to conceal failures. Now, as we report in our in-depth coverage of education in this issue (pages 4, 6 and7), the MoE is preparing to extend the letter grading to lower classes. It should have been done the other way round.

Donors, led by the World Bank and Denmark, are fed up with the lack of political will to overcome the obstacles where education is concerned. Despite its role in helping increase school enrolment and female literacy, the SSRP has failed to deliver quality and address the high dropout rate. Seeing that the government has not learnt its lesson, a number of donors are refusing to allocate money to the basket fund created to implement the SSDP.

Ideally, a country ought to allocate 20 per cent of its annual budget for education, but Nepal’s Finance Minister this year set aside only 11 per cent, down from a high of 17 per cent a few years ago. Of this, nearly three-fourths is spent on salaries of teachers and school administrative staff, with little left for infrastructure, classroom upgrades, scholarships, textbooks and Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres. Despite a dramatic increase in literacy, especially among girls, their dropout rate is still high. The quality of government schools lags far behind private ones, with persistently dismal exam results. No matter what the Constitution says — universal, free and accessible education is a mirage.

The Education Act was prepared by non-elected legislators nominated to parliament by political parties who have ensured that no new private schools will be allowed to be set up, and incompetent, under-motivated temporary teachers will be made permanent. Some donors continue to throw good money after bad, hoping for a miracle. And the MoE is still shifting the goalposts.

The government needs to muster the political will to raise the quality of instruction in schools, but it is imperative that politics is kept out of education.

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Peace dividend for quality education, Kul Chandra Gautam

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