A primary school in Sindhupalchowk has only 27 students in it. But the headmistress, who is the only teacher in the school employed under relief quota system, has appropriated the record to 35. "If I do not do so, the District Education Office will cut the funds and the school will collapse," she confided to me in good humour while circuitously owning that she was trying to save her job by forging the student number in records. What may appear to be a typical case of a hill district out of Kathmandu is, in fact, a complement to a phenomenon that is slowly taking a firm root in Nepal.
Nine primary schools in Lalitpur district were reported to be closed for want of students (Kantipur November 16). And as many as forty nine schools in Dolakha are facing the same predicament (Kantipur December 25). The abandonment of public schools across the country is a serious matter.
These happenings have critically devastated my enduring belief that the public schools will continue to remain an alternative site of learning for the low income people. Private schools have become the unrivalled priority of parents nationwide. Usually, only if the parents are too poor, do they tend to place their children in the public schools in the rural villages. And in towns and cities, public schools are mostly populated with the domestic helps or the children of the lowest income people. Out of Kathmandu, they are retaining students only in those areas where private schools have failed to secure access or where attempts to upgrade education quality at par with the private schools are bearing fruit.
Public schools are emptying nationwide. And this fact is gaining currency as an uncontested truth which is plaguing the public education sector in Nepal. In the suburbs and the rural villages, public schools, primary schools mainly, are repelling students every year. A primary school in a rural hill houses 50 students, at most, while it may have as many as five teachers. Perhaps, never before in the history of Nepali education had public schools to face this kind of student crunch.
There are more factors than one that have contributed to the worsening fate and future of public schools in this country. Politics is one major factor. No offense intended, but the political parties have turned the public schools into the godown to dump their cadres and pander to their employment hunger. The first qualification for a person’s appointment in public school still remains to be political allegiance. It might be surprising revelation for some, but for 15 years, since 1996, Nepal’s Teacher’s Service Commission has not announced vacancy for open competition to recruit new teachers in permanent status. This means that teachers are being appointed internally based on their political character and loyalties. Public schools thus populate the appointees belonging to almost all the political parties, mainly UML and NC. If it were not so, UML and NC who held the rein of this country for the longest period after 1990 must have acted to avert the arrival of the present day education dystopia.
"It’s because of private schools," some will say. On the surface, they seem to be right. Had there been no private education institutions, Nepali parents and students would have no choice but to enroll in public schools. Those who could afford their children’s education abroad would do so but they would be handful in number. The remaining would have no alternative but to choose the public schools. However, the longstanding mess in the field of public education is not an offshoot of private schools alone. It is the outcome of utter ineptness of the state agencies to regulate and monitor the irregularities in public schools and check the insubordination of the teachers working there.
Notwithstanding this, few measures could possibly contain this situation. First, the state should refrain from succumbing to such populist gimmick as that of providing monthly allowance to the students (the idea had been floated by the caretaker finance minister and was in the press headlines too. What stopped him from announcing it in the budget he might well know.) Instead, books and stationery could be given for free. The expenses of school uniforms could be reimbursed. Second, donors could take moves which are capable of checking the mess in the field. That they hold the key to effective reform measures became evident in February 2010, when they exerted pressure on the government to sack the then education minister Ramchandra Kushwaha. If it were not for their warnings to halt all donation on education program and Kushwaha not terminated, the nation would still harbour the person that allegedly sold thousands of seats allotted for quota teachers as the education minister today. Third, the government should make it mandatory for every teacher of public school to educate his child where he teaches. It may sound like a hard-to-believe-in fact to some. But public school teachers do not educate their children where they teach. And this trend is taking toll. One of the reasons why public school teachers do not work sincerely is because their children study elsewhere. Once the provision is made compulsory for him/her, s/he will start becoming more honest to his/her profession. Also coordinated efforts with the private schools to launch teacher’s training programmes in the rural schools will offer a viable alternative.
There are so many things that should be done to terminate the ills in public schools. In a bid to counter the epidemic of desertification of public schools, the government has recently been announcing a scheme to merge "empty schools" or schools with low student number to the neighboring schools with considerable student number. For me, this is the most immature solution at best. How many schools will the government keep merging? It will be like transferring disease from one place to the other. Public school education stands at the most critical juncture now. If the mess is not cleared in time, in few years Nepal’s community schools will turn empty altogether. The signs have begun to surface. You may only wait for the graver consequences.