Kanak Mani Dixit of Himalmedia’s tv magazine Saglo Samaj interviewed former education secretary Mahashram Sharma about the role of local governments in revamping Nepal’s education sector post-Covid. Excerpts:
Kanak Mani Dixit: The gap between private and public schools is increasing, more so after the pandemic. How worrying is that?
Mahashram Sharma: From 2000-2015, the world over, the focus was on increasing school enrolment, especially of girls. Nepal did well on score, but not so much on quality. We have not prepared our education sector for times of crisis like this.
Private schools are more accountable to parents and students, but government schools do not have a system to incentivise teacher performance. Until that happens, quality will not improve.
But quality was supposed to improve after federalism put education under the purview of local governments.
This is a textbook case of being given rights, but not resources. Local governments are woefully under-funded. A few municipalities have education experts. At the end of the day, just devolving responsibility doesn’t solve anything. The focus should be on capacity-building and empowering local governments.
Local leaders are politicians, no educators. Even then, their priority is to deploy excavators to build more roads so they can be re-elected. Something long-term like education is not in their priority.
Can the pandemic be an opportunity to rebuild our education sector?
The pandemic did force us to assess SEE students based on internal evaluation instead of mandatory sit-in physical exam. This is a start, it will be the norm now. Similarly, we have been lagging in information technology, and the pandemic could kick-start a campaign to set up computer labs and connectivity in all schools. Digital instruction is the way forward, and the pandemic may spur our acceptance of that fact, even if we eventually get back to the physical classroom.
But it looks like the pandemic has actually widened the digital divide.
Yes, and that is precisely why the government should be playing a leadership role here. It not just to talk about it but implement plans to help poor and disadvantaged children with resources. Local governments should take the first step, and make an inventory of electronic devices and connectivity of each family at the local level and plan accordingly.
Why did we have to close all schools during the pandemic?
First and foremost, education is not on the agenda of local governments. What made matters worse was the blanket closure by the central government. Just before the lockdown, I was in Manang, Lamjung and Syangja, they had no Covid there. Yet schools had been closed for months.
Nepal is a federal state, the decision to open or close schools should be a matter for local governments, but Kathmandu forced schools nationwide to close. This resulted in unnecessary loss for students. The centre is responsible for developing policies but the management of schools is up to the local governments, they just need to be facilitated, especially when it comes to community schools.