Local government schools have failed to win over students, resulting in a number of them closing. In the past two years alone, 33 public schools in the Kathmandu Valley were shut down for want of students. At this rate, officials at the District Education Office say that the number of school closures will increase drastically in the next five years. The quality of education is usually cited as the reason for students and parents preferring a private education. But private education does not come cheap and as a result, education has become an important indicator of status and class. In Kathmandu particularly, those fortunate and well-off go to the best education institutes at home and abroad while those less fortunate find themselves at run-down public schools. The best schools are private and cater to an elite class of students whose parents can afford the high tuition fees that pay for a variety of extra-curricular activities and the high-end teachers with substantial teacher training. Unfortunately, the majority of Nepalis cannot afford such luxuries.
Policy-makers and those in the education sector often talk of the sub-standard quality of government education but little is done to improve the plight of public schools. Because education has morphed into a class issue, parents are keen to do whatever they can to ensure that their kids aren’t subjected to a government education, often preferring private schools that are sometimes worse than their public counterparts. In the Valley, for example, there are at least a couple of local private schools down every road, alley and neighbourhood. Lower-middle and working class families take pride in the fact that their children are going to “boarding” schools and not sarkari ones. However, discouraging private education is not the answer. Instead, the government needs to take assertive steps to lift and ensure the quality of state education and its image in the public sphere, enough so that they can compete with local private institutes.
While the disparity in quality of education between state schools and elite private institutions is apparent, a good education is not only a matter of resources and infrastructure. In fact, many government school teachers take second jobs at private schools. The problem seems to be one of management and motivation more than anything else. Teachers in private school settings are held accountable by the schools that employ them. The same teacher that students at private schools consider the “best” maths or social studies teacher fails to arouse similar sentiments at government schools. Teachers see little incentive and are not held to account by the state. In turn, students lack the motivation necessary to succeed as they internalise the fact that their education is not on par with that of others. The principal of one state school in Kathmandu, Dhananjaya Sharma, is right in believing that state education is easily dismissed by the middle-class and policy-makers for being substandard but that they fail to realise that money and a good name does not guarantee a good education. At the core are the teachers, and when they are held accountable, as is done at Gyanodaya High School in Kathmandu, where Sharma is principal, it’s evident that all’s not lost in a sarkaari education.