As the eyes of the educationists of the nation are fixed upon the upcoming SLC examinations, considered to be the Iron Gate for prospective college goers, scheduled from March 14, 2013, it may be relevant to discuss the instructional quality of school education with special reference to government/community schools in the country. Thousands of such schools, where the majority of Nepali children receive formal education, are unjustly blamed for the poor performance of their students every year.
Any independent observer would reasonably conclude that the root causes of eroding teaching standards in government schools, which provide free education up to secondary level, have either not been unearthed properly, or have been ignored by those enjoying perks and privileges at the Ministry of Education. But actually, the guardians of the students of community schools are also partly responsible for the falling standards of such government-funded institutions. They are blinded by the illusion that since they do not pay fees, they do not lose anything. Who can explain to them that the fund available to community schools is nothing but their own tax money?
The government of Nepal has been pouring billions of rupees as grants to maintain community schools, and also pays the teachers, some of whom draw a salary as high as a gazetted first class civil servant. Unfortunately, these schools continue to perform embarrassingly in SLC examination each year.
One may be tempted to remark that many government schools are not equipped with basic educational materials, and face a growing scarcity of trained and competent teachers. This point has some elements of truth, though the issue is not serious in a majority of schools in cities and suburbs. What is really lacking is dedication, and more significantly, accountability on part of the teachers in community schools. They have grown ungovernable due to lack of supervision from both the government and the concerned school management committees and guardians.
There are exceptions everywhere, and this applies to some government schools in different parts of the country. In the recent past, a community school (Gyanodaya Higher Secondary School) in Bafal, Kathmandu was much talked about in the media because it had set an example by maintaining enviable records of teaching standards, even though it is not a private school charging exorbitant fees. There may be many other schools which have been performing quite satisfactorily but are not highlighted in the media. This establishes that higher fees are not essential to running a school smoothly and efficiently and ensuring the maximum number of students get through the Iron Gate with excellent results.
Astonishingly, school management has been neglected in most schools, with dirty politics holding sway over its functioning. The intrusion of local politicians, who bear no accountability to the welfare of the academic institutions, in management committees has contributed heavily to the deteriorating situation of government schools around the country. Worryingly, a nexus prevails between incompetent teachers and local politicians who make schools their forums to execute nefarious political activities, utterly neglecting their own solemn duties.
An immoral partnership between teachers and school management committees is seen even in some private schools that operate near government schools. This scribe has himself observed this painful scenario while volunteering in a community school in Parbat as a former student, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the teachers and school management teams to refrain from such unethical behavior.
Last year, I had queued up at the Indian Embassy complex in Kathmandu in the freezing temperatures of mid-December, in connection with the applications for Mahatma Gandhi scholarships meant for grade XI students. I was carrying documents on behalf of the students of the school where I volunteer. A guardian of one of the applicants expressed dismay at the intellectual bankruptcy of government school teachers who send their kids to so-called boarding schools in the same village, where the worst performers of community school work as teachers. What a pity!
The standard of English in many of these private schools is ironically low. Students (with a few exceptions) are hardly aware of the correct use of the possessive forms of nouns. A number of times, I have noted that secondary level students of these schools find it difficult to answer correctly the question “What is your school’s name?” Most of the times, their answers will be “My school name is XYZ.” There are several examples of incorrect use of apostrophe’s, especially after plural nouns (boy’s, girl’s etc). We see many such examples in the signboards of Kathmandu-based hostels. More frustratingly, many boarding schools are seemingly ignorant of the true meaning of the word “boarding,” which means residential. Do all “boarding” schools provide hostel facilities as their names suggest?
A valid question arises as to why community schools, where we have a good number of qualified and trained teachers, do not meet our expectations compared to private schools which have less qualified teachers.
Teachers are supervised constantly and are hired and fired quickly in private schools. They are prevented from protesting against the injustices they may have to suffer in terms of limited facilities (such teachers are the lowest paid) because they are not given any appointment letters. The proprietors are all powerful, and can do whatever they like. These teachers are quite vulnerable, and they seldom complain fearing the possible loss of job. They are forced to be dedicated.
Conversely, teachers in government schools are not held accountable for what they do in classrooms. No one cares to find out if they are punctual and regular. They are not required to complete the teaching of allotted course in time. Astonishingly, the school management committee rarely discusses their performance, even when many students fail in Mathematics, Science or English in the SLC. When no one bears responsibility for poor results, how can one expect improvement?
Therefore, the three major stakeholders—teachers, school management committees and guardians—must rise up to the challenge and act determinedly to ensure quality teaching environment so that those who perform better are rewarded, and those failing in their duties are punished. “Only carrot and no stick” principle has been the main culprit for our deteriorating education system. It is imperative that such a principle is discarded sooner rather than later.
The author was Foreign-Relations Advisor to former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal