Quality in educationEvery citizen strives for a good education but the criteria are elusive. Residents of big cities do not think twice before enrolling children into a private school (easily equating high fees with high standards) but the majority of Nepalis in rural areas do not even have that choice.
Every citizen strives for a good education but the criteria are elusive. Residents of big cities do not think twice before enrolling children into a private school (easily equating high fees with high standards) but the majority of Nepalis in rural areas do not even have that choice. They are compelled to sign up with the nearest government school without the knowhow to gauge its quality, nor the means to demand better. Education remains topical. But genuine investment from stakeholders and politicians are questionable. There have not been any noteworthy civic movement in Nepal to uplift the condition of public schools. However, some concerned citizens organise sporadic events. One such event took place at the beginning of June during which representatives from the government and from Tribhuvan University voiced their opinions. A former principal from a community school also took part.
Quality and purpose
The topic of the discussion was Rethinking Accountability in Education. Before speaking about accountability, it was important to speak about quality.
“Quality is an abstract term,” Hari Prasad Lamsal, who is affiliated with the Ministry of Education, began, “a mixture of objective measures such as points scored in an exam and subjective measures such as the development of thought and character of students.” He added that quality can also be viewed from the perspective of the market (is someone qualified for a certain job?); sometimes, it is used to assess an entire school system (is everyone receiving the same opportunities?).
Pramod Bhatta, however, started with the purpose of education, aptly connecting the theme to the larger idea, which, he explained, has evolved over the decades. “How does one become educated?” he asked. “One way to become educated was by going to schools and following a set of steps (studying specific subjects and passing the required exams). Whoever was able to go through this system and secure a job was considered to have received a qualitative education.” But this understanding can be problematic, Bhatta emphasised, because it narrows down the purpose of education. Within this understanding, “quality” is reflected only by the exam-result, which in turn is closely linked to the job-market. In the past, the understanding was different. Education was considered to be an end in itself. One educated oneself in order to acquire knowledge. These days, one educates oneself in order to acquire a well-paying job.
Dhananjay Adhikari, former principal of Gyanodaya Higher Secondary, a community school in Bafal, also elaborated on these points. “Education is increasingly related to livelihood,” he said. “The general understanding is that an educated person needs to work, earn an income and take care of his family. After that, he needs to contribute to the community, the society and the nation. Within this definition, numbers do not necessarily indicate quality because a person who has excelled in exams may not necessarily make the aforementioned contributions. Education ought to produce a well-rounded individual who is mindful of ethical and moral issues. The person should also demonstrate admirable character traits and acquire a set of skills that are useful for her community. In Nepal, quality is largely and solely measured by the SEE results. But there are no measures to assess these students later in life—What did he do in the long run? What kind of contributions has she made to others? And is she happy with her life—keeping in mind that happiness can be defined in various ways. These days, it has become apparent that anyone who can earn an income and sell himself in the national and international market is considered to have received a qualitative education.”
Who is accountable?
Regardless of these varying views, we expect students, at the very least, to develop a love of learning and acquire a set of utilitarian skills. Who is responsible for this? There are different ways to think about accountability in education. Various personnel are responsible for various aspects in order to ensure continual student engagement and motivation. Teachers often make the biggest impacts. And the state is responsible for recruiting and selecting government school teachers. According to Lamsal, this process has never been as rigorous as it should be. He implied that the Shikshak Sewa Aayog, a government body, ought to ask serious questions in order to assess the backgrounds and attitudes of candidates applying for teaching positions. Certain mechanisms seem to be outlined on paper but the actual implementation is dismal. Bhatta also pointed out that the Nepali government has not taken full responsibility because it has not been able to appoint a single teacher to approximately 8,000 schools.
Adhikari agreed that the weakest aspect of government schools in Nepal is the way teachers are managed, not a lack of resources or manpower. Most teachers merely report to the principal and follow basic school rules, he added. “Teachers ought to be accountable to the students and their parents. Is the teacher fully present in the classroom and engaged with his students? Are the lesson plans well-prepared? Is the teacher able to inspire students, transfer her knowledge, and facilitate learning by creating a safe and conducive environment? Students should be active learners and thinkers. How can the school administration and principals ensure this? Teachers should have an inherent desire to read, write and continue learning. Compliments and encouragement go a long way when it comes to motivating both teachers and students. To this end, principals play a huge role because she is at the centre of a network involving the teachers and the community, as well as the state and its resources. That’s why principals play an equally crucial role when it comes to quality and accountability in education.”
Referring to his research and experiences, Bhatta further provided insight. He mentioned that there are major problems when it comes to teacher preparation in Nepal. “In most countries, universities prepare teachers by offering the required foundational courses,” he explained. “After that, states follow their own processes to select from that pool of qualified individuals. For example, in Japan, after four years of university courses, teachers in training go through two additional years of courses offered by the government, and then one more year of student teaching (during which they work closely with experienced teachers inside classrooms and get mentored). Teachers are given permission by the state to teach independently only after fulfilling these requirements. In Nepal, these fundamental steps are lacking.” Bhatta also mentioned that temporary teachers, permanent teachers and those hired by private schools go through different processes of recruitments and assessments. The system is not well-defined. Based on casual conversations, he surmised that most teachers cheat their way into the system; they do not even follow official steps in order to become permanent. “One cannot expect them to deliver ‘qualitative’ education.”
Regarding the responsibilities of teachers and their supervision, Bhatta implied that there may be a severe communication gap between the system and individual teachers. “The more explicit and specific employers are regarding the duties and roles of employees, the easier it is to make them accountable,” he explained. “But if there is no clarity regarding the job, it is very difficult to make anyone accountable. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case in the public school system of Nepal.” A 2005 study conducted by the Ministry of Education’s Institutional Analysis study had demonstrated that school supervisors and resource persons appointed by the government were not fulfilling their jobs properly. Instead of observing lessons on a regular basis and providing constructive feedback to teachers, these personnel were merely completing administrative paperwork and were entangled in bureaucracy.
It is clear that there are severe problems in Nepal’s education system. In order to ensure qualitative education, teachers ought to be prepared, supervised and monitored closely. On one hand, the administration—whether it’s the government or private school boards—should schedule regular professional development that exposes teachers to new methods and provides opportunities to reflect on their practices. On the other hand, it should also hold teachers accountable if students are not engaged in lessons or if they do not demonstrate grade-level achievements.
Reflection on the part of practitioners is key because it enables one to change one’s attitude, which can in turn instigate positive systemic change. School supervisors should be held accountable if they do not visit classrooms regularly and hold in-depth conversations based on observation. Unfortunately, the entire system of public education seems rigged by politics. Those seeking permanent positions in government schools are able to do so by offering favours, rather than by demonstrating appropriate merits or qualifications. During the few times I visited schools outside Kathmandu—whether it was a remote village in Rasuwa or rural Rupandehi—there was minimal state presence. In some cases, even principals were absent from their jobs for many days. I learned that resource persons sporadically visited these schools but it was mainly for paperwork. They rarely entered classrooms and observed lessons. There was negligible monitoring and feedback from the state or from school principals. Since teachers in most rural schools are placed on a temporary basis, they are not connected to the community, nor are they genuinely invested in the holistic growth of their
students. Many of these teachers are not open to innovative teaching methods because that requires them to put in extra hours of work. Since they do not get paid accordingly, they are unwilling.
Towards the end, Lamsal referred to an exchange from the Mahabharata between the blind king Dhritarastra and Sanjaya, “The battle was about to end; the Pandavas were winning. Dhritarastra was anxiously asking Sanjaya to provide an update. And Sanjaya says, ‘Maharaj, what do you want me to say? You are not able to listen to the truth. And I’m not able to lie.’ Since I am employed by the government, I’d like to end on this note.”
This reference provides a glimpse into Nepal’s failing education system. To change the situation, local communities should also participate and take action, especially now that the country is transitioning to a federal, provincial model. Community leaders should work closely with school management teams in order to hold principals and teachers accountable. When politicians fail, civilians should organise. By holding on to hope and believing in change. Without hope, possibilities become extinguished.
The event was organised by Daya Foundation in collaboration with Canopy Nepal. Kunwar can be reached at email@example.com.