Mana Prasad Wagle

  • The system ensures jobs for teachers, not education for children
Mana Prasad Wagle

Jun 22, 2014-

This year's School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examination results were released about a week ago. Of the 394,933 who sat for the exam under the regular category, only 173,436 students, or 43.92 percent, managed to clear the tests. What is even more worrying is that only 28.19 percent of students from public schools passed in comparison to a remarkable 93.26 percent from private schools.This year is no exception. The dismal rates of failure on the SLC and the marked variance between the results of public and private schools are perennial features of Nepal's school level education. Binod Ghimire and Darshan Karki spoke to educationalist Mana Prasad Wagle about the continuing failure of students on the SLC, problems with policymaking and implementation in the education sector and the reforms that are urgently needed.

A majority of students have once again failed to pass the SLC. How do you see this continuing failure?

Until now, we have kept saying that students failed the SLC because teachers did not teach properly, students did not study, the government did not provide them necessary support, the investment in education was not enough and students did not have a proper environment to study at home. This is not entirely true. There has been little research on the reasons behind the failure. There was one by Kedar Bhakta Mathema and a few others about seven years ago called the SLC study. Since then, there have been many changes but no one has studied them. We continue to discuss the aforementioned reasons but I would add two more causes for this, the first of which is economic by which I mean investment in education.

Has the government invested enough in this sector?

No, it has not. We are nearing the end of the 2013/14 fiscal year, in which Rs 81 billion was allocated for education--Rs 62 billion was for teachers' salaries and of the remaining, Rs 19 billion was spent on different organisations within the Ministry of Education (MoE) and for higher education. Where is the money for students? In a school which has a budget of Rs 20 million, Rs 19.8 million is spent on teachers' salary. How then is it possible to buy chalk and dusters, hire assistant teachers and establish the required libraries and laboratories with the remaining amount? The current system guarantees teachers' jobs but it does not guarantee children's education. It ensures salaries, allowances, pensions, sick leave and promotions but does not give anything to students.

Teachers in public schools are embarrassed when we ask them whether they ensured children's learning while promoting them from grade 1 to 2. If we say the teachers did not teach well, they get angry with us. We talk of the SLC but the SLC is the accumulation of problems beginning right from grade 1. The reason more students from private schools pass the SLC is because these schools ensure that children learn their lessons right from grade 1. In public schools, the government has adopted a loose promotion policy. The teachers and parents are complicit in promoting students even when they have not been taught well. A national study conducted last year by the MoE showed that many students who had passed grade 4 could not even write their names in Nepali. Even the MoE spokesperson himself publicly admitted that the education policy had failed.

You spoke about the economic angle. What is the other aspect?

We always say that the ones who failed were poor and they did not have enough to eat and wear so they failed. This is not entirely true. A student from a very poor family in Palpa scored 91.2 percent in the SLC this year. This shows that if children from the poorest families are well supported they can perform exceptionally well. But the fact remains that almost 70 percent of students who failed the SLC this year belong to economically backward and lower middle-class families. They failed because there is no curriculum, textbooks, appropriate teachers' behaviour, proper environment in schools or a job market for them. Unless we focus on this social aspect of failure and overhaul the education system accordingly, there will be no improvement. We need to have a student support system in place that can help schools establish laboratories, libraries, obtain reference materials and necessary support whenever a student faces problems.

The SLC pass percentage in 2011 was 55 percent which fell to 46.16 in 2012 and 41.57 in 2013. How would you account for this fluctuation in pass percentage?

In countries with a dependable education system, the pass percentage increases gradually. Ours has been decreasing, which shows that the basis for trust in the current exam system is eroding. I see no reason for the increase in pass percentage this year by a few points to 44 percent. Last year, we suggested the government assign subject-related teachers in remote areas. It did not do so. We asked the government to recruit qualified teachers. Instead, there a provision to make teachers within the system permanent was passed. Physical infrastructure in schools has not improved nor have separate toilets been built for girls and boys. So the rise in pass percentage this year implies that instead of testing the abilities of students, we are testing their luck.

Where have we failed most--policymaking or implementation?

We are in the 21st century and should learn something from countries like South Korea, Japan and Singapore. South Korea is preparing its students for the future. By the end of 2014, it will be digitising textbooks till the primary level and providing all students with a laptop. It plans to digitise all courses till the secondary level and make its education system the best in the world. The US plans to do the same by 2020. We, on the other hand, are unable to even buy chalk. We should formulate our education policy not by looking at yesterday or tomorrow but looking 20 years into the future. Students who are admitted to nursery today will complete their Master's degrees in two decades. The knowledge we provide in nursery should help in nation-building 20 years on. As of now, we are fixing our education system as the way we fix roads, by pouring in a bit of asphalt in potholes now and then. We have not been able to come up with a sustainable policy, neither implement policies honestly.

What about the role of teachers' unions in education?

The Education Act states that there needs to be one teachers' union representing teachers from all 75 districts and that there should be one union unit in each district. But there are so many political organisations that keep protesting and the Education Ministry keeps yielding to their demands. The ministry itself makes one law and then acts differently. The purpose of a teachers' union is to ensure quality education but until now they have only talked of their own rights and facilities. Teachers seem keen on using state-provided benefits and doing politics. This is not to say that all teachers in public schools have failed to do their duty. Despite the dismal performance of a majority of public schools, the pass percentage in 163 of them is between 60-100 percent. Hats off to the teachers in those schools.

What about the responsibility of the political class, a significant proportion of whom attended public schools themselves?

We vote and send leaders to the legislature, whose main duty is to formulate laws. One example will suffice to reveal the extent of the irresponsibility of the legislature when it comes to education. A new education law was formulated and sent to the assembly in 2007; in 2009, the Education Ministry again revised the law and sent it back. Apparently, there was a change in government. Consequently, our representatives have not been able to pass an education law in seven years. This reveals their carelessness and utter negligence. Whether it is the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML or the Maoists, they have all been known not to trust the young and are far from thinking of the children as the future of tomorrow.

What should Nepal do to fix this situation?

We need a visionary plan that cannot be made by sitting in Singha Durbar or Sanothimi. All stakeholders, students, parents, teachers, civil society members and the government should be part of the process. The plan should be divided into three parts: short-term policy that must be implemented immediately, a medium-term policy and a long-term policy. As the education sector keeps changing, whether due to information and communication technology or other factors,these changes should be incorporated accordingly. The government should separate its expenditure in education into salary and non-salary items. An old research by Mahbub Ul Haq in South Asia says that unless we limit spending on teachers' salaries to 70 percent and spend the remaining 30 percent on schools, education development is not possible. Then, we need proper school management that can ensure the learning of students while monitoring the quality of education being provided.

Closer to home, Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Kerala are cited as good examples in achieving high levels of literacy. What can Nepal learn from them?

In Kerala, the government has invested in education and handed the management of schools to the private sector. These are called charter schools. We need to stir a debate on charter schools in Nepal. This would be the best way to do things.

Published: 23-06-2014 08:51

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