At Shibpur in Kapilbastu district last week, 50 children 5-10 years old sat on the mud floor of a shed, listening attentively to their teacher. Parents here in the central tarai are so poor they can't even feed their children properly. But they will save and scrounge to send them to school.
Such is the desperation of many parents in rural Nepal that communities are selling firewood, digging sand or crushing stones all day just so their children get an education. With such demand, the problem in Nepal is not to fill schools with children. It is to keep them there.
Currently, only 40 percent of those who enroll in Grade One ever finish primary school and only 10 percent complete SLC. From the Nepali new year on 14 April the government is launching an unprecedented drive to get children enrolled in schools-especially girls and children of disadvantaged families. Motivators will be going door-to-door on 'Enrollment Days' with admission forms to catch children who would otherwise not be sent to school by their parents.
The idea is to take a determined step to meet commitments Nepal made at a UN Summit in 2000 to reach Millenium Development Goals for universal primary education by 2015.
Nepal's enrollment rate is not bad. According to government estimates, 82 percent of children or nearly six million children are currently enrolled. The problem is that the dropout rate is as high as 40 percent or more although the government claims that it is less than 15 percent (Read Earning by learning).
There appears to be a correlation between democratic governments (1959-60, 1990-2002) and emphasis on education and the results can be seen in enrollments and a surge in literacy rates.
After 1990, successive democratic governments pushed the Education for All program and this raised enrollment at the primary level by 70 percent in a decade.
But government schools have been unable to cope with the demand for education and are plagued with poor quality. Private schools thrived because of liberalisation and privatisation of education. Quality education was available but for a price.
After 1996, the education sector has been deliberately targeted by the Maoists as a symbol of inequalities in society. The rebels have often said they want to dismantle the 'bourgeoise' school system and start from zero. Many schools have been closed and teachers have fled due to extortion and intimidation. The rebels have now warned private schools outside the Valley to stop enrolling children after the new year (Read Targetting schools).
Despite all this, Nepal's literacy rate has shown dramatic improvement since 1990. "Education is going in the right direction, there is progress despite the conflict," says Rajendra Dhoj Joshi at the World Bank. Joshi is a team leader of the $158 million Education for All project funded by a consortium that also includes the International Development Association (IDA), Danida, Finland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Norad and DfID.
The project will support the government's effort to increase the net enrollment rate from 81 to 96 percent by 2009 and take Grade Five enrollment from 40 to 60 percent. To entice girls and the children of poor families, the project will fund 116,000 scholarships worth more than Rs 200 million.
But what worries organisations like UNICEF is the challenge of retaining children once they are enrolled. The dropout rate, already very high, has increased in conflict areas. "What we have here is a crisis on top of a chronic crisis," says UNICEF's Nepal representative, Suomi Sakai.
One of the key obstacles to children completing primary schools is the poor quality of public schools. The average pass rate for students from public schools in SLC exams is less than 35 percent over the past decade compared to over 75 percent success rates in private schools.
The shortage of trained and motivated teachers is the main reason, and the others are understaffed and underfunded rural schools. "The government needs to emphasise training teachers and upgrading teaching skills so they can prevent children from dropping out," explains Sudarsan Ghimire, an advocacy journalist for upgrading education, "children drop out of schools because teachers are too strict or unfriendly."
Most experts pin their hopes on the growing trend of schools being managed by local communities. Nearly 2,000 schools across the country are already locally managed and financed. But the impact is still small because there are 21,000 public primary schools and most of them are in rural areas serving nearly 3.4 million children. The teacher to student ratio here is one for 40, only 12 percent are women and less than 15 percent are trained.
With less than 10 years to go to achieve the Millenium Development Goal of universal primary education, Nepal will have to move fast. If the enrolment campaign next week is a success, it will mean we are on the right track. If it falters due to official apathy, Nepal's children will have been let down once more by their rulers in Kathmandu.