28 March-3 April 2014 #700

Queen’s English in a new republic

Demand from parents and increasing competition from private schools have forced community schools to adopt English
Tsering Dolker Gurung in CHITWAN

It’s Social Studies period in Grade five in Balkumari Higher Secondary School. Sabita Shrestha greets her class with a cheerful “Good afternoon” and asks her students if all of them have had their lunch.

The class answers with a unanimous and enthusiastic “yes”, and the lessons begin. Shrestha tries her best to conduct the class entirely in English but there are moments where she has to rely on Nepali to explain things.

Like all community schools in the country, Balkumari started out as a Nepali-medium school. But after recording a continuous decrease in enrollment it changed into an English school in 2006. This school in Chitwan’s main city now offers classes in English to 700 students enrolled from Grade one to seven.

Other community schools in Chitwan and across Nepal which were losing students to private schools have responded to public demand for English-medium instruction. “These days, parents only want to send their children to English boarding schools, so it is tough for community schools to survive if they stick to being a Nepali medium,” says assistant District Education Officer Ram Chandra Khanoj.

Part of the reason seems to be related to migration, where Nepalis in the Gulf and Malaysia find that they earn less than their Filipino or Indian counterparts because they don’t speak English, and send word home to use their money to send their children to English schools.

Bhola Prasad Chaudhary is a farmer and sends his son to a English-medium community school in Dharampur, Chitwan. “Even though we are poor, we want our children to study English because it is a must in today’s world,” he told us on a visit last month. “I want my children to learn English because I know there is no future in this country and they should be able to communicate with others once they are abroad.”

Until four years ago, Dharmeshwar Lower Secondary School in Chitwan had less than 60 students. Today, the school in Kumruj VDC, Dharampur has a total of 200 students, a change that Headmaster Rudra Subedi credits to the school’s decision of changing into an English-medium. “The numbers went up almost instantly,” says Subedi.

Although schools are switching to English instruction, the teachers are not adequately trained, and the quality of English taught is not up to mark. One female teacher of English and Social Studies in Dharmeshwar admits her students don’t always understand her when she uses English. “Some of these children only started studying English this year so it’s definitely a challenge,” she says.

Eleven-year-old Gitanjali Saha (pic, above), a fifth grader at Balkumari who went to a Nepali-medium school until last year, says she has more trouble understanding the language than many of her friends who have been studying it since grade one.  However, Saha’s parents were adamant that she join the English-medium school even though she had been taught in Nepali since grade one.

Despite the uncertain quality, parents from all economic strata can now afford to send their children to the more expensive English-medium schools.

“What parents don’t understand is that private school is just a tag and is not an assurance for good quality. The same teacher who is teaching at a government school today can join a private school tomorrow,” explains Ishwor Kadel, vice chair of the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association. NELTA has been conducting regular training sessions (see box) for English language teachers in the district.

But with private schools threatening their survival, public schools see adopting English as the only way out. Says Subedi: “It is impossible for us to compete with private schools if we continue with Nepali.”

Learning to teach English

The ETTE+ (English for Teaching and Teaching for English) Project was launched by British Council Nepal and implemented by NELTA in Chitwan from March 2013 to February 2014. Around 130 teachers from 66 community schools took part in the 15-day training which was based on training manuals provided by British Council Nepal. The project was also launched in Lamjung.

“Earlier I was very conscious while speaking in English in class but after the completion of the training, I felt my confidence grow and I see this change reflected on my students too,” says Sabita Shrestha, a trainee.

Puja Gurung says she has started using more classroom materials and now assigns a lot of group and peer work in class. “Using such techniques has created a learning atmosphere that was earlier not present,” she says.

School supervisor Gopal Bhandari who assessed the teachers after the completion of training says students are now more curious and enthusiastic. However, assistant DEO Ram Chandra Khanoj notes, “If we can’t give continuity, then such programs won’t be effective in the long run.”

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