Bridging the gapPublic education must not be politicised if it is to catch up to, and surpass, private education
The growing gap between the public and private education sectors in Nepal is concerning. In the fiscal year 2016/17, the government of Nepal (GoN) allocated only 11.6 percent of the budget for the education sector despite its commitment at various international forums to allocate 20 percent.
While the global average expenditure on education is around 4.9 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Nepal spends only around 4 percent of its GDP on education. Besides inadequate government investment in public education, lack of sufficient resource allocation for teachers’ training programmes, inadequate focus on accountability and transparency, and the politicisation of schools are some of the major issues which are contributing to an increasing gap between public and private sectors.
The GoN implemented the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) from 2009-15. This plan was implemented as a means to continue the progress made by the preceding ‘Education for All Program’ (2004-09). SSRP primarily promoted accessibility, inclusion and quality of public education. In 2016, the government introduced the School Sector Development Plan (SSDP) 2016-23 with an aim to make primary education completely free and mandatory for all children, and to minimise dropout rates in primary schools. It also aims to implement a mandatory provision for secondary schools to cater to the education of children up to grade 12. Over the past years, the government has done a commendable job in making public education accessible to most children around the country. Now, the government needs effective mechanisms to implement ambitious policies and uplift the quality of public education in Nepal.
Lack of incentive
As Nepal moves towards a federal system of governance, the country now has an opportunity to restructure its public education system. To understand problems in public education, we have to ask ourselves: What explains the gap between public and private? It is not true that all private schools have better resources compared to public schools, nor can we argue that private school teachers are better qualified. Private schools have a pressure to perform well on regional or national exams to stay competitive in the market. However, public schools lack this incentive, and thus don’t have the same drive to perform. Many public schools are failing to produce reasonable outcomes in standard metrics like district, regional or national level exams. Many public schools in remote parts of the country had zero percent pass rates in the School Leaving Certificate (SLC), while many private schools excelled in these examinations.
What explains this difference in performance? To make public schools competitive, underperforming schools should be held accountable. From reprimanding underperforming teachers to providing extra support to underperforming schools, action needs to be taken. Likewise, steps should be taken to reshuffle teachers between schools. Systems that make coordination between public schools easier should be encouraged. An exchange of ideas between schools—of what works and what does not—would benefit the entire system. District Education Offices (DEOs) have a strong role to play to facilitate these exchanges.
As mentioned earlier, politicisation within the public education section remains a big problem. If a teacher is strongly affiliated with a political party, it becomes almost impossible to reprimand such teachers under the current social construct. The contribution of teachers in past social movements is commendable. However, moving forward, the political parties must minimise interference in schools. Incompetent teachers find cover in party affiliation. As a result, it becomes hard for the school management as well as observatory bodies like DEOs to bring positive changes in the public education system. Although we do not have any empirical evidence to suggest that teachers who have a strong affiliation to a certain political party have students who perform poorly, it is generally understood that that politicisation of teachers has a negative impact on public education.
It is of great interest to see how the education policy will be normalised among different states in Nepal. The challenge is to increase the standard of public education while making it accessible for all. The demand for education is increasing, and both private and public systems have a role to play. We see that there are new private schools mushrooming around urban areas. It can be argued that the poor performance outcomes of public schools contributed to a private-school boom. In a fair market, there should not be any cap or barrier for private schools to open. However, the government has to make sure that private institutions are adding value to the society, treating students fairly, charging reasonable fees depending on what they offer, and not merely taking advantages of the gap in the education market. Almost all private schools use English as a medium of learning and this holds special appeal, thus leading to the increasing demand for private schools. The challenge is to make public education competitive. Could this be done by offering a few more English classes? We are sure that there will be many people vehemently arguing against this notion. Public schools should not be the ‘poor man’s choice’. Some of the more developed countries employ private management for public schools. While this model has its own pros and cons, perhaps it is a good time to test if the system could work in Nepal to make public education competitive.
Poverty is connected to lower educational achievement. Promoting access to education and quality of education helps households escape the ‘generational poverty trap.’ Education is one of the most promising path that individuals can take if they wish to achieve more productive lives. It is one of the primary drivers of national economic development. The citizens and the government of Nepal have invested heavily in improving both the quality of education and access to it. They should continue doing so in an effort to realise the education-related Sustainable Development Goals, and the GoN’s own vision for a better Nepal by 2030. To realise this, a strong commitment from the political leadership to minimise interference in schools’ decisions in appointing teachers and to put an end to the protection of poorly performing teachers is a must.
Pant is a development consultant; Basnet is pursuing a degree at Yale University