Originally published in Prespectives, The Himalayan Times on May 10,2015.
School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations, to a large extent, are as important an identity stamp as anything else in Nepal. We group ourselves with strangers on the first meet by asking when they passed their SLCs. We don’t really ask for the other person’s age anymore; we infer it according to when they sat for their board examinations. We all have chances at five destinies; distinction, the first, second or third division or well, a non-destiny. In 2014, it was reported that only 28.19 percent students from public schools passed the SLC examinations compared to 93.12 percent students from private institutions. What causes or is causing this massive divide between the two?
Legalized private schooling entered Nepal only very recently; it was only after the third amendment of the Education Act in 1980 that private schools were allowed to operate in the country. Previously, in 1971, the state had nationalized all existing private schools and introduced standardized curriculums and operations. Inability to meet demands for a growing need of education from the public then caused the state to give in to private education as a supply alternative. Private schools are generally seen as a preferred substitute to public schools even now, a comparison based primarily on board examinations’ results, but that which connects and addresses numerous other sub-problems. A World Bank Report on Education in 2011 identifies a number of these sub-problems. These are inclusive but not limited to: high politicization of the teaching force, frequent transfer and changes of District Education Officers that cause changes in education rules and regulations, formerly nationalized schools, after 1971, have lost community ownership to a large extent and are seen as government ‘owned’ schools and a highly centralized education system structuration among others.
It is interesting to note that public schools in Nepal, more or less, go by the book and have comparatively airier and studier infrastructure than their private counterparts. It should also be noted that private school teachers are ‘less trained’ than their public counterparts (84.1% fully trained public school teachers, as opposed to 75.1% fully trained private school teachers in the Central region, Nepal Education Figure, 2014). They also provide free education up to grade 10 since 2000. Why then are people and more interestingly, the poor, also choosing private education over public education? What does a market-led education system provide that a state-controlled system does not?
Accountability. Both parents and teachers are accountable to each other because of a direct exchange of money for the service. The teacher’s length of duration of stay at the institution and pay is dependent on his/her performance and rate of absenteeism. An absence of a direct fee paying environment in public school causes parents to think that their obligation to educate their child ends with enrollment alone. Parents are more likely to be actively interested in the performance of their child and the teachers of the institution because they are spending hard earned cash for the service, thus willingly follow-up with their child on day-today school activities. Conversely, public school teachers are paid by the state regardless of their physical presence in the school and usually choose to turn up sporadically. He/she has little or no fear of being fired due to absenteeism as public schools operate from seemingly perpetual funds. A private school teacher is hence more likely to teach well because he/she is under constant watch by parents and the management alike. For a non-quality teacher shall mean dissatisfied parents and eventually, pulling the child out of the school in question.
On a similar line of questioning, does a larger classroom translate into better education? Surely no parent in their right minds would send their child to a less-spacious private classroom. But they do. Larger classrooms mean more number of pupils in the same class, thus more students that a teacher has to look after. Private schools have smaller student-teacher ratios, perhaps because of smaller classrooms, but because of which the teacher can better keep an eye on all children and also engage them well in academic interaction. Aggressive politicization of education has ultimately led to an erosion of public school infrastructures, where school appointments are nepotistic as opposed to meritocratic. Parents look thus, to be choosing accountable institutions with possibly fewer amenities than be handing over their children to the unaccountable, physically larger public institutions.
The process for registering a private school is wrought with bureaucratic hurdles and rent-seeking behavior on part of school inspectors and officials. A number of provisions such as having to seek letters of approval from similar schools beg revision. No school will want to invite and ‘approve’ competition while this is exactly what public schools lack. When a private school application is rejected, there are no formal reasons given for the decision thus the prospective school-head is unaware of what he/she is to do differently next year when re-applying. The District Education Office also takes 3 months to give its decision when it comes to private school registration which is decided on the basis of a 2-3 hour visit by a school inspector during the said duration after a lengthy procedure of stipulated documents procurement and submission. It is understood that private schools too need to follow basic guidelines when it comes to infrastructure upholding, but as previously stated, sturdy infrastructure does not always lead to quality education. Accountability on part of the teacher and parents does, which private schools are impressively better at providing in Nepal.