If you still need proof about the poor quality of government schools in Nepal, just visit one of them. Not at a remote village in a remote district, but right here in the heart of the capital.
Dark and dingy classrooms, cold as a refrigerator in winter, decrepit furniture, absent teachers, putrid waterless latrines. Classrooms are nearly empty, and most of the students are girls. Parents have such a low opinion of government schools that they send children to more expensive private schools — ingrained patriarchy means government schools are deemed just fine for the girls.
Still, some 80% of students in the 35,000 schools in Nepal go to government and community-run schools, while about 18% go to private ones. Yet, only 30% of children enrolled in government schools make it to Grade 10, while 77% of students in private schools do. Only 25% of students in government schools pass the Secondary Education Examination (SE’E), while 81% of private school students graduate.
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The state of state-run schools is the result of chronic, criminal failure of successive governments to run its schools properly. So a 25-member High-Level National Education Commission headed by none other than Education Minister Girirajmani Pokhrel has taken the populist route to recommend that all private schools be scrapped in ten years. In that period, the fee structure of private schools and their taxation will be determined by local governments.
Of all the instances of the Nepal government making decisions to shoot itself in the foot, this one is the most appalling, and one with serious consequences to the future of the country. It is like the pilot of a plane who finds one of his two engines has malfunctioned, and shuts down the one that is still running.
To be sure, there is over-commercialisation in the private school system, with over-charging and lack of quality control. But the government’s job is to improve the quality of the schools it runs, not close down the schools that are trying to fill the gap in quality left by the state school system.
The High-level Commission says it is institutionalising constitutional provisions for free and compulsory education for all Nepali children. But this does not factor in the crucial issue of quality. Private schools are thriving purely because of high demand from parents for better education. They work hard in Nepal and abroad to be able to afford the fees. Nepali parents deserve the choice to send their children to private schools if government schools are not meeting minimum standards.
The only way to remedy the crisis in education is to improve the quality of instruction in community schools. In fact, we have reported in this paper about many instances where private schools have lost students to government schools with motivated teachers whose students excel in SEEs.
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Private schools are profit-driven, and that is their incentive to maintain a quality threshold. Teachers are compelled to be more accountable because there is direct supervision and an absence of unionisation that prevails in government schools. Parents work hard to be able to afford these schools.
Turning private schools into non-profit trusts would remove the incentive investors have to open schools to meet the demand. Enforcing that rule would kill private education, and reduce Nepal’s education to the lowest common denominator.
The private school system is definitely not fair to poorer parents. But a crucial reason why so many citizens are mired in poverty is precisely because they themselves did not get relevant, proper education. No matter how commercialised, private schools at least provide better level of instruction. And citizens have made it clear they prefer more expensive quality education over shoddy, free education.
Taking away the option of a private school education would compel many Nepali parents to send their children abroad for high school studies, further exacerbating Nepal’s balance of trade deficit.
The High-Level Commission and Minister Pokhrel who heads it would do well to pay attention to the 80% of students who still go to government schools, and ensure that they get the level of education that will guarantee better earnings and skills when they grow up.
In a globalised world, Nepal must prepare human resources that can compete with other countries. The emphasis should be on upgrading the quality of community schools to ensure our children’s — and our nation’s — future.