Every year, at least six in every ten young Nepalis fail their high school exams. This year, 152,300 students appeared for their tenth grade tests three months ago. Only 47,565 passed.
Hidden behind these shocking figures are the disparities between government schools and private ones. Only 17 percent of the students from government schools this year passed their School Leaving Certificates (SLC), with some government schools having a zero pass rate. Eighty-three percent of the students who passed the SLC exams this year were from private schools-even though only one-third of all schools in the country are privately run.
"The SLC results have spread hopelessness in public schools, and children have become cynical about everything," says Chakra Bahadur Maharjan of Saraswoti Secondary School in Dhading. "This is a mass inferiority complex dragging all of society down."
The glaring inequality exposed by SLC results is what the Maoists have been using to pressure the government and private schools to reform the education system. Even those who do not agree with the Maoists' murders of teachers, their threats to close private schools and roll back fees, agree that there is a serious unevenness in the quality of education.
Educationist Dr Man Prasad Wagle told us: "What it represents is a total failure of ten years of hard work and a waste of the Rs 100 billion that has been spent in the education sector in the past years." Wagle blames politicisation, lack of proper monitoring, and centralised decision-making. As it became clear that government schools were failing to fulfil their mandate, private schools moved in to meet Nepalis' demand for better schooling, and have collectively invested Rs 4.5 billion in the sector so far.
Private sector involvement in education has met a part of the need, but the higher fees in these schools they have also exacerbated class differences. After the Maoists targeted private schools as symbols of the country's social inequities, 41 teachers and 81 students have lost their lives-mostly at the hands of the Maoists. Since 2000, the Maoists have forced 500 private schools to close, affecting 100,000 students and 9,000 teachers, according to the Private and Boarding School Organisation-Nepal (PABSON).
In April 2002, all schools still open in six far-western zones received new threats to close down. "Your schools go against the policy of the jana sarkar ("people's government") and you have contributed towards creating a class hierarchy," the letters state. The closure of schools has revived the exodus of Nepali high school students to India.
What makes private school administrators even more angry are the latest government amendments to the Education Act which specify new categories of private schools and a fixed range of fees they can charge on basis of investment and facilities provided.
Bhoj Bahadur Shah, general secretary of PABSON, says: "The government isn't sympathetic to the causes of private schools, the new amendments prove that point."
The Maoists's demand for lower fees was initially welcomed by the public, which felt that private education was too expensive, and beyond their reach. Private schools tended to be mostly profit-oriented establishment and were concentrated in urban areas. Figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics last year showed that only five percent of rural children attended private schools, whereas up to 42 percent in Kathmandu Valley did.
A School Fee Monitoring Taskforce formed earlier this year also found that many private schools had fees, other extras and deposits that made them exorbitant and unaffordable for most Nepalis. This two-tiered education thus widened the gap between those who can afford quality education and those who can't.
The government's amendments are intended to redress this gap. But many private school principals say it may throw the baby out with the bathwater. "The new amendment could revive the education sector, but only if the government doesn't try to use it as a weapon to control schools. If that happens the outcome could be just as devastating," says Wagle, who is also a member of the high-level taskforce that recommended revisions in the new legislation.
The danger here is that the country's best private schools may be forced to close because they cannot meet the stringent fee structures and other unrealistic rules in the amendment. Says one school principal: "The idea should be to improve government schools, not punish those that are giving quality education." There are also questions about how this legislation will play out in the highly politicised district education offices, concerns about the absence of a clause guaranteeing autonomy to lower-level education agencies, and a sense of scepticism about how sincerely the government will implement the Act.
Besides trying to regulate private schools, the government has the added burden of sorting out the mess in Maoist-affected areas. Many teachers have fled either because of Maoist threats or because they fear security forces, and there are 25,000 teaching posts vacant throughout the country. The government says it will soon start appointing more than 400 "teaching volunteers" in public schools in 35 Maoist affected districts who will be paid half the salary of a normal teacher.
"If the vacant places are not filled immediately hundreds of schools in 35 districts might not function in the coming academic year," says Yubraj Pandey, spokesman at the Ministry of Education. What is clear is that unless something is not done urgently, next year's SLC results may be even more skewed than this year's.
Despite the problems, Nepal has made impressive gains in literacy, which is now at 53.7 percent, up from 30 percent 15 years ago. The rise is even more dramatic for women: female literacy grew from just two percent in 1951 to 42.4 percent now.
Education was declared "free for all" in 1990, and fees in primary schools were waived. But the government could not pay for the subsidies, and schools were allowed to charge small fees. Communities felt cheated because they had to pay fees, and the quality of education was not guaranteed. However, in some villages where the elected local councils took greater interest in education, locals have invested in better teachers and raised the quality of instruction. This trend had started to spread across Nepal in 1995, but was affected by the insurgency.
The amendment to the Education Act endorsed by parliament last month restored the fees for post-primary levels. It also recommends mandatory teacher training, teaching licences, more severe punishment for teachers who fail to carry out their duties, decentralisation and greater participation of communities and local government. The legislation also prohibits the direct involvement of teachers in politics.
The allocation for education had jumped from 10 percent of the budget in 1980 to 15 percent in the late 1990s, with more than half going to primary education. With security expenses growing, this fiscal year the government allocated only Rs 3.5 billion for education-only about 7 percent of the total annual budget.
Concludes educationist Vidhya Nath Koirala: "There is no one single sector that can be blamed for the deterioration. Government, planners, teachers, bureaucracy and communities have failed our children."