19-25 April 2013 #652

Unlearning education

Parallel education systems are driving a wedge in Nepali society, fueling youth discontent
Anurag Acharya
One understated fact about Nepal’s decade long conflict is that many young boys and girls joined the Maoist militia. A productive youth force that could have led the country to prosperity was at the forefront of its destruction.

Seven years after the conflict ended in 2006, Nepal has made up for lost time and now has one of the highest primary school enrolment rates in the region. The number of girls going to school has doubled in the last 10 years after the government offered free education, textbooks, and school uniforms. Female literacy has had a multiplier effect on child and maternal survival and Nepal is well on its way to meet its 2015 Millennium Development Goal targets.?

What isn’t as well known is that female literacy rates in particular have stopped growing because of high drop-out rates at the lower and secondary level. In the eight districts of Tarai alone, more than 200,000 boys and girls stay out of school.?

When I appeared for my SLC exams 12 years ago, we were assigned to examination centres in one of those cold, dimly-lit sheds that pass off as classrooms of public schools. Despite billions having been poured into education since then, things aren’t much better today.

Back then, the government had begun handing over management of the public schools to the local community. It was assumed that the locals whose children studied there would ensure financial transparency and bring quality in the classroom. Today, many community managed schools have become hotbeds of corruption with local leaders fighting for kickbacks in teachers’ appointments and allocations of contracts.

Without correcting this problem first, the government is looking for another quick-fix solution by privatising the management of more than 4,000 community run schools. By abdicating its role in basic education, the government has admitted its massive failure and resigned to the fact that these schools have become unmanageable.

The Department of Education seems convinced that partnership with PABSON, the association of private schools, will turn around public education in this country. Maybe it will, or maybe it won’t. But by the time we find out whether this latest experiment in education works or not it will be too late for another generation of Nepali school-goers.

Handing over the management of government schools to the private sector may sound like a good idea, but it smacks of desperation. There is something fundamentally wrong with this approach. Why would private schools, whose business depends on the mismanagement of government schools, invest in improving its quality??

To be sure, private schools in Nepal have stepped in to make up for the shortfall in both the quantity and quality of education in this country. The idea should not be to banish private schools, but to improve the quality of instruction of government schools. You don’t do that by handing over management to the private sector. Education is a business for PABSON, for the state it is an essential public service and there is a conflict of interest if we mix up the two.

More than half of Nepal’s population is under 40 and most of them are of school-going age. We have a parallel education system in the country, but a common job market with limited opportunities. The ones with better education get the better jobs and this is driving a wedge through Nepali society, fuelling youth discontent, and exposing them to political manipulation, vandalism, and crime.

In the last three years, the budgetary allocation in education has hovered around 15-17 per cent and almost a quarter of all foreign aid last year went into the sector. This indicates our priorities are in the right place. What we need now is a more efficient use of resources.

The government can begin by updating and improving the school curriculum with an emphasis on vocational knowledge and invest in teacher training and motivation. We have run education in this country by trial and error and handing over school management to the private sector is another risky experiment we can’t afford to make.???

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