Crux of the matterA focus on the formative years of childhood helps students perform better in their later academic life
In Nepal, the success of school education is usually evaluated using the Secondary Education Examination (SEE) results. There is a huge discrepancy in the results of public and private school systems; the student pass percentage rate is approximately 80 percent and 20 percent for private and public schools respectively. However, in 2016, the numerical grading system was replaced by the letter grading system, which does not categorise students as having “passed” or “failed”. But still, if we consider student performance in the SEE, private school students do much better than their public school counterparts. This gap in educational performance has remained prominent through the years.
Many studies have shown that a child’s learning abilities later in life are directly affected by their early grades. This has been forgotten amid the huge emphasis put on the SEE results. Therefore, those working to improve high school or college results may need to focus their attention on a milestone that comes far earlier, for example whether students can read well by the end of the third grade. Subject content will become increasingly complex after the third grade, and students who do not have adequate reading skills are more likely to fall behind.
In 2014, the Government of Nepal (GoN) formed a partnership with the US government to conduct the first early grade reading assessments for students from grades one to three in public/community schools. They aimed to collect baseline data on the foundational reading skills of Nepali students. The result of this assessment was quite shocking; 34 percent of the second graders and 19 percent of the third graders were not able to read even a single Nepali word correctly. Teachers have received the bulk of the blame for their alleged inability to teach effectively. However, we cannot overlook other contributing factors behind students’ low performance.
As indicated above, there is no denying that children’s early years lay the foundation for their development later in life. In the Nepali schooling system, basic education includes Early Childhood Education and Development (ECED) up to the eighth grade and an early grade reading programme focuses on students from grades one to three. The ECED curriculum clearly indicates that the main objective of this programme is to prepare students for formal schooling by emphasising their holistic development. This indicates that this is the most important phase during which students should be directed towards their future learning. Research also shows that 90 percent of brain development takes place in the first five years of a person’s life.
Well-trained teachers are therefore needed to handle the ECED curriculum. Unfortunately, however, government policy certifies that female teachers who have passed the eighth grade and have undergone a 16-day professional training programme are eligible to teach children under the ECED programme. Many of these teachers have limited exposure and cannot adequately prepare children for primary schools. Similarly, teachers who have passed the 12th grade and have attended a 10-month government training programme are considered qualified enough to teach children from grades one to eight. These qualifications are hardly enough to help foster a child’s foundational learning.
Additionally, most public schools in Nepal lack resource materials. There are still many schools in which access to textbooks is always an issue at the start of the academic session. In such a situation, how can one expect students to enhance their reading skills?
Research has proved that parental involvement helps cultivate children’s literacy skills. In the context of Nepali public schools, a home-school partnership is almost non-existent. In contrast, looking at good private schools gives us quite a different picture. They have well qualified teachers and resource-rich classrooms and libraries. Parents who send their children to private schools also seem to be more concerned about their children’s education. As a result, students in private schools outperform those in public schools by quite a margin. They are given a stronger foundation and this is often reflected in their SEE results.
The GoN, the US government and various (I)NGOs have formed a partnership to implement an early grade reading programme. However, so far an encouraging improvement in children’s reading skills as a result of these interventions has not been seen. If various organisations whose work is related to the early grade reading programme pay attention to upgrading teachers’ qualifications, supplying sufficient and age-appropriate reading materials and fostering home-school partnerships, the reading performance of the target group will improve. This improvement will result in better performance by public school students in the SEE. Otherwise, this programme will also turn out to be yet another unsuccessful project.
Sharma has a PhD in English literacy education from Monash University, Australia