Very little teaching, learning goes on in public schools

  • Kedar Bhakta Mathema
Very little teaching, learning goes on in public schools

Mar 22, 2015-

With the commencement of the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations last week, thousands of students and parents have shifted into study mode. The SLC holds immeasurable—many say undeserved—sway over the futures of students much too young. For an exam so important, the pass rates have long been miserable—43 percent last year, up from 41 percent. Every year, the SLC is criticised roundly in academia and newspaper op-eds and yet, it continues to be act as the ‘Iron Gate’ to higher education. A study was conducted in 2005 and a reform report produced by a team led by Kedar Bhakta Mathema, one of Nepal’s most respected educators. Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to the erudite Mathema about the SLC, the discrepancy between private and public schools, and the value and state of public education in this country.

Every year, the pass percentage on the SLC is dismal. What accounts for this failure?

There is something fundamentally wrong with our school system. Yes, 60 percent of our students are failing the SLC but if you look harder, only 28 percent of students from public schools are passing. This is a horror story and it does not bode well for Nepal’s future. We conducted a study in 2005, the biggest ever done on education in Nepal. We studied 24 districts and we discovered that there is hardly any learning and teaching taking place in most rural schools. Teaching does not just mean going to school and finishing one chapter after the next. It means giving homework, correcting and checking the work of students, regular assessments, and most importantly, remedial support. In public schools, around 95 percent of teachers are trained; in private schools, about 15 percent. Public school teachers have job security, pension benefits, Dashain bonus and a decent salary. But despite all this, performance is much better in private schools.

Why is this?

In private schools, they have classes every day. If you cannot hold a class on a weekday for some reason, they will have it on a weekend. In public schools, teacher absenteeism is very high, about 15-18 percent on average. Private schools give homework every day; in public schools, there is no homework. Public schools have half-yearly and end-of-year exams but private schools hold regular assessments. If you are weak in Nepali or maths or English, private schools will also provide you with remedial support. The famous reformist American educator Horace Mann once said, “Education is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” But in a country where 80 percent of students still go to public schools, this is the situation. The greater tragedy is that those who go to public schools are the poor, from rural areas, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and girls. People like us, who are already in the mainstream, are able to send our children to private school but the people who’ve been bypassed by development, the ones who’ve been marginalised, are still stuck in the public system. Another professor, Michael Apple, says that education simply perpetuates the existing class structures; it never helps social mobility.

This seems to be the case in Nepal. Our education is widening the class divide.

Exactly. Just look at America, the Mecca of capitalism—90 percent of students go to public schools; Britain 94 percent, Finland 96 percent, Singapore 98 percent. But in Nepal, the private sector is increasing while the public sector is in decline. This might be okay for people like us, since our children go to private schools anyway and this might be okay for the government, since it won’t have to invest too much in education, even as the education budget for this year has already been decreased. But is this good for Nepal? We need to understand what public education is and where it comes from. Education is a means of political socialisation. It can never be neutral, it is always political. It was instituted in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe with the understanding that education should not just be the province of the elite. Anyone can learn.

The Education Ministry is a powerful portfolio that gives you the power to shape the thinking of an entire generation. Elsewhere, people fight for this portfolio. Here, they run away because there is no money. Public education is also a means of creating social cohesion. When I went to public school, we studied alongside the children of bureaucrats, taxi drivers, ghee-sellers and goldsmiths. These days, my grandson goes to school in a bus, mixes with his own social class and comes home. And this is because people are losing faith in the public school system.

The economy was only liberalised in the 90s but in such a short time, private schools have managed to eclipse public ones. How did we get to this point?

In our time, we sent our children to public schools and watched how they progressed. Those with the means sent their children elsewhere. But a bigger problem is the issue of governance. The government pumps money but the students continue to fail. So shouldn’t there be any monitoring? Our 2005 report says that the monitoring and supervision system has almost collapsed. This was partly due to the Maoist war. In our time, police inspectors would visit our schools and ask our headmasters how many chapters they had finished teaching. If only 10, they would point out that other schools nearby had finished 14. So there was some level of supervision. Now, the District Education Officer, the fellow in charge of education at the districts, gets changed a few times every year.

Shouldn’t our political class share some of the blame? Almost all of them are products of the public school system and yet, they do very little to reform these schools and instead, send their children to private schools.

Absolutely, there is no political will present among politicians of any hue. They have unleashed a wave of privatisation but without the necessary regulatory mechanisms. The government should always have a strong presence in basic health, education, and transport, particularly in a country like Nepal where a large majority still live in poverty. A recent World Bank report says that there is barely any middle-class in Nepal; about 70 percent live just above the poverty line. And this is how we are going to become a mid-income country in the next 20 years? During the Panchayat years, the state was responsible for education. You might not agree with the kind of education being imparted but at least the state was assertive. That kind of responsibility is missing now, especially from our socialist-communist politicians.

The situation seems just as bad with higher education, where political interference is rampant.

This problem is worse with higher education. Every time the government changes, there is a new vice-chancellor. I’m not saying universities should be free of politics; students have to be interested in politics but party politics should not interfere. Political interference and student unions have ruined our universities. Classes must be allowed to run every day. I had written an essay a long time ago, where I said, “In the afternoon, Kirtipur campus looks like a cemetery, haunted by the ghosts of miscarried lessons and unkept appointments.” There is no life in the campus, that too at the country’s premier university. Every country has a few premier universities that are government-run and act as reservoirs of knowledge and wisdom. If the government needs advice on certain issues, the university is where they must turn to. But we are one of the lowest investors in higher education in the world. When I was vice-chancellor at TU about 20-25 years ago, six percent of the age group went to university. Now, that figure is about 17 percent, much lower than the international average. For sustainable development, they say at least 30 percent must go to university. Instead, government funds are shrinking and universities are not trained to look for other sources of income. In other countries, universities make money from endowments, alumni funds and consultancies. Naturally, our universities are starving. About five years ago, the government said that the number of universities and colleges in the country, along with the number of students, had doubled. But the funds going to higher education have remained the same—eight percent of the education budget.

Coming back to the SLC, many have suggested that it is not prudent to hold the exam after class 10 and should instead be conducted after Plus Two. Do you think this would help?

Yes, this was part of my recommendation in the study. The current SLC exam can be held at a regional level and another exam held after Plus Two can be called the SLC and be run nation-wide. We had also suggested letter grades, which have now been adopted. But everything is driven by politics so everything is stuck at Parliament. The constitution might be deadlocked but other acts could have been passed. Development doesn’t have to be halted because of the constitution. But first, what the government needs to do is bring the Plus Two into the school system. It should not be a separate experience; grades 11 and 12 are part of school. College starts at the Bachelor level.

On a final note, the SLC has been criticised for focussing too much on regurgitation and not enough on creativity or critical thinking. Would you agree?

If we’re talking about the levels of knowledge, at the lowest level is the repetition of facts. Above that is analysis and synthesis, giving one’s own opinion, problem-solving, and creating. These higher skills are neither taught nor tested. In this day, you can find facts at the push of a button on the computer. What we need to teach now is how to solve problems, how to critique others and how to create. Critical thinking also makes teaching and learning interesting. For many students, going to school is like going to a foreign land where the teacher speaks a language they understand very little of. Teachers need to be able to relate what is being taught to the reality of their daily lives.

Let me quote a few lines from my 2005 report, “There goes a mad race to achieve high pass rates in SLC in schools, especially schools operating in the private sector. Since student enrolment in private schools depends on student performance, the schools must work hard to appease their customers—the parents. When very high stakes are involved in the examination, it fails to do its job…Examination overload threatens to turn education from an intellectual and spiritual adventure into a treadmill. Public examination, if not designed and monitored properly, can cause narrowing of the curriculum and associate neglect of what is not examined...”

Published: 23-03-2015 08:55

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