A school too farThrough a child rights perspective, the school merging programme goes against the right to education
On a recent trek to Annapurna Base Camp, I met a girl, three or four years old, in a small tea house. Like any kid, she was happily playing outside her house. I asked her mother, a tea house owner, if she went to school. Her reply evoked introspection: “Yes, she does, but she just came home a few days ago for the Dashain vacation.” Wasn’t she too young to leave her mother to travel far just to join school? Later, I discovered that the little girl was staying with her elder siblings in Pokhara to study since the neighbourhood primary school had merged with another school, and was now located some distance away. Her story is not a new phenomenon, particularly in the remote villages of Nepal where school merging policies and programmes are being implemented.
Declining populations in remote areas due to out-migration is prevalent across Nepal. Consequently, the implications of the existing education policies in sparsely populated areas is evident. A large corpus of literature on migration and remittances suggest that it has improved the living standards of remittance recipient households and led to internal migration, mostly for the children’s education because student numbers in remote areas have dropped. To address the decreasing number of students in public schools, the government introduced the School Merging Implementation Directives 2014, but the long-term impacts of school merging policies on children were not considered prior to its design and implementation.
The Directives followed the scheme to restructure the education system from classes one to 12 by creating uniformity as per the School Sector Reform Plan 2009-15. According to the Directives, schools located within 30 minutes’ walking distance and serve a small population and are unable to meet the minimum criteria of a full-fledged foundation, primary or upper primary school, can be merged and run as a full-fledged school. According to the Status Report 2014-15 of the Department of Education, out of the 35,223 schools in the country, 443 schools were merged with neighbouring schools, 627 were closed and 43 were downsized. This number might have increased since then.
The provision of merging schools located within 30 minutes’ walking distance overlooks the grim realities of a difficult topography and the absence of transportation in remote areas. The addition of 15-20 minutes to the commute time has exacerbated the children’s problems and increased chances of dropouts. Taking into account the widespread poverty and the country’s dependency on intensive agriculture, the government introduced the mid-day meal programme to support families in need and encourage children who have to walk long distances to school simply in search of enrollment. Due to irregularities and the insufficiency of such programmes, cases of children not getting the mid-day meal exist.
Shrinking populations in the villages and the merger of schools with a minimal number of students is depriving children of their right to quality and easy access to education. However, the government has moved to build children’s hostels in remote areas in the hills and mountains in a bid to ensure their right to free education and encourage them to enrol as Nepal has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 31 (1) of Nepal’s constitution states that every child has an inherent right to education on the basis of equal opportunities. And the practice of building hostels providing food and accommodation, particularly to the children in the hills and mountains, addresses the problem to some extent, but it is not a comprehensive solution. Some parents contacted during a survey were skeptical about sending their children to a hostel far away from home. Their fear was that the children might fall into bad company due to the absence of parental guidance.
Article 7 (1) of the Children Act Nepal, 2018 ensures the right of every child to receive appropriate care, protection and love from their parents and other family members. However, the provision of merging schools has curtailed the children’s right to education and also their right to be raised by their parents. Children who are forced to stay in a hostel or move to other places to study might face the unavoidable consequences of long-distance relationships from their families, feelings of abandonment, increased emotional distance and increased teenage delinquency.
It is said that the practice of merging schools is intended to enhance the quality of education by centralising scattered resources, but it is very crucial to assess the feasibility for each and every child before merging schools.
When schools are merged, children have no alternative but to quit school, endure the hardship of commuting over longer distances or leave their parents and live in another place. When seen from the lens of child rights and the perspective of local communities, the school merging programme goes completely against the children’s right to education. It has somehow aggravated the children’s problems and driven them away from school.
- Rai is a researcher at Social Science Baha and holds an MA in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.