Nepal’s public-school wars
1 October 2019
Political dissonance is threatening the vitality of public schools in Nepal’s new federal arrangement.
Although Manekharka is only 80 kilometres from Kathmandu, it takes almost six hours from the country’s capital to reach the village, which lies in Nepal’s Sindhupalchok district that borders Tibet. The road leading northeast from the capital rapidly deteriorates, reducing the wayside town of Sankhu to a dusty junction. The blacktop here has managed to cling to small segments on the road, but much has fallen off. I spot chunks and strips of asphalt while bouncing towards Melamchi, the largest municipality in that part of Sindhupalchok district. The driver confirms my suspicions: “Yes. This section was once paved. But from Melamchi to Manekharka, never.”
I was travelling to Manekharka – which lies in Panchpokhari Thangpal Rural Municipality – with a group of mentors and musicians as part of an arts-education programme. Jointly started by Srijanalaya (an organisation founded by art educators) and Shikshya Foundation Nepal after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, Art Works’ goal is to introduce alternative, arts-based teaching methodologies to children and teachers in under-resourced public schools. In the past four years, Srijanalaya and its evolving network of professionals have worked with a number of communities across Nepal. In Panchpokhari Thangpal, which was severely affected by the 2015 earthquakes, we were hoping to start a partnership with the municipal government, to provide teaching material and training to its public-school teachers.
Underfunded and often understaffed, public schools – also referred to as community schools – across Nepal have serious limitations in fulfilling their educational duties. Such neglect across public institutions was among the reasons why federalism emerged as a strong agenda following the democratic movement of 2006. Implementation of the federal structure and the subsequent local elections in 2017 were made possible, in part, because of the vocal demands for decentralising political and administrative power concentrated in Kathmandu. Public services could be equitably and efficiently delivered only if they were produced and distributed in close collaboration with the public, it was argued. This would enable multilingual, multicultural communities scattered across the country to finally make decisions regarding their own resources.
But as federalism takes shape in Nepal, school education has emerged as a site of contestation between local aspirations and entrenched powers. Community schools in municipalities like Panchpokhari Thangpal illustrate how necessary autonomy is for the future of its residents’ education. Yet the federal government, along with the old gatekeepers of Nepal’s schooling system, is increasingly undermining local governments’ right to shape their education system.
Debate over control of education is one among many as Nepal goes through a major transition in governance. A number of laws are being drafted and old ones are being amended in the Parliament to specify the roles and powers of the federal, state and municipal governments. Since the 2017 local elections, many institutional changes have gradually shifted power from the centre to the local governments. But the transition has been fraught with a lack of clarity.
Nepal’s new Constitution, promulgated in 2015, explicitly grants authority to local governments to manage all aspects of school education. This is further spelled out in the Local Government Operations Act, which grants local governments the authority to institute, manage and regulate school education. However, the law which is expected to provide greater clarity on distribution of educational jurisdiction between the federal and local government – the Federal Education Act – is still at the drafting stage. Moreover, serious disagreements between municipal leaders, teachers’ unions and the bureaucracy on how to restructure Nepal’s school education risks this devolution of power. Among the most contentious issues are the management, recruitment and transfers of teachers and staff in public schools.
The Federation of Nepali Teachers (FNT) – an umbrella body of nearly two dozen teachers’ associations, currently led by members affiliated with the ruling Nepal Communist Party – has been lobbying with the central government to ensure that teachers in public schools do not come under the jurisdiction of local governments. This is part of their longstanding demand to be effectively absorbed into the cadre of the central government. In response, in December 2018, the centre instructed municipal governments to seek its authorisation before formulating new laws on education. The constitutionality of this order has been challenged through a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court. The petitioners argued that the centre was illegally undermining the local government’s authority.
While the case remains sub judice, the teachers’ unions and the Ministry of Education – traditionally seen as antagonistic to one another in Nepal’s pre-federal past – appear to have come closer in the aim of retaining the central government’s jurisdiction over education. An agreement struck between the Ministry of Education and the FNT in February 2019 indicates that the Federal Education Act will likely favour the demands of the FNT, with the teachers being appointed by a federal commission. In mid-August, 2019, the FNT issued an ultimatum to the federal government, once again demanding that the centre should manage teachers and not the local governments.
Since 2018, to quell the protesting teachers’ demands, the Ministry of Education has revived its subordinate bodies across Nepal’s districts – though such administrative units, earlier called the District Education Office, were expected to be phased out under the new federal arrangement. The role of the newly formed Education Development and Coordination Unit (EDCU), its relationship and powers vis-a-vis the municipal government remain ambiguous. While the Ministry of Education claims these are units necessary for liaisoning between the local and the centre for federal projects, local political leaders see it as an exact replica of the former District Education Office, and thus encroaching on the municipal governments’ mandate.
Public education in Nepal was limited to an elite minority before the end of the Rana regime in 1951. While the number of schools dramatically increased during the autocratic Panchayat years (1960 – 1990), the government was wary and vigilant of any form of dissent; it saw schools as a potential brewing ground for resistance against the state. Starting in 1971, the National Education Plan nationalised Nepal’s community schools, turning teachers and staff into government employees and bringing the schools under government control. The Panchayat government also stringently controlled the content of textbooks, the examination systems, the school-management teams and the appointment of teachers, ensuring access to basic literacy but controlling and restricting criticism of the state.
The increased control of the centre shifted accountability, making teachers answerable to the government in Kathmandu rather than the local community. It put potential educators from local communities at a disadvantage, as it was high-caste groups which had greater access to levers of power in major cities or the capital. This made the teaching force less representative of the ethnic and culturally diverse communities.
Over the decades, the distance between the teachers and their students grew even wider. According to Lokranjan Parajuli and Devendra Uprety, researchers at Martin Chautari, a Kathmandu-based academic research institute, this is one of the primary reasons for the dismal state of public education in Nepal. Textbooks mandated by the government are written exclusively in the Nepali language and there have been minimal efforts to write textbooks in various ethnic languages spoken in Nepal. Due to the political elites and bureaucrats’ tendency to disparage the country’s multilingual reality, children whose mother tongue is not Nepali are severely disadvantaged. At the same time, teachers whose mother tongue is Nepali gain an upper hand over local educators when it comes to job placement and security. A truly federal arrangement would tackle problems like these and would design local curricula based on the communities’ histories and cultures in order to engage schoolchildren.
The first school in Panchpokhari Thangpal was established in 1963. Even after the advent of multiparty democracy in 1990, the area – mostly made up of Tamang janajatis and Dalits – saw very little progress in education. In fact, there were no secondary schools in the area until 1997. The low educational attainment not just of the general population, but its local representatives – half of the municipality’s eight ward leaders have not completed primary school – could be a serious disadvantage for Manekharka, as it negotiates policy decisions with an unsupportive government and bureaucracy.
When I visited Manekharka in May 2019, Babu Lal Tamang, the acting principal of Shree Chilaune Secondary School, told me, “One of the biggest problems is the lack of adequate permanent teachers in our schools.” At his school, the central government had hired only nine teachers, even though the school goes up to the tenth grade. At one school in the neighboring Bhotang Ward, there have been no government teachers in grades nine and ten for four years. At another school in the neighbouring Bhote Namlang Ward, 157 students are enrolled in a single early-childhood classroom. According to a 2019 study conducted by Martin Chautari, principals from 82 percent of the community schools surveyed complained about inadequate number of teachers. As a result, even school principals are sometimes expected to take classes in many community schools, in addition to the already time-consuming management and coordination tasks.
Such apathy from the central government has meant that public schools are in dire need of extra-governmental support. And this explains why the Art Works programme was welcomed by the community in Panchpokhari Thangpal. There are more immediate systemic problems, too. Influential American educational reformer John Dewey called schools “embryonic democracies”, a place where students are taught to think for themselves and their societies. Over the decades, several progressive thinkers have articulated a direct link between politics and the practice of education. Across Nepal, community-school teachers have little time and resource for pedagogy or planning, and training modules provided by the government are short and superficial.
The challenges facing local governments and marginalised children in Nepal – from language and pedagogy, to infrastructure and resources – are complex and vast. To complicate the situation, English-medium schools managed by the private sector have seen rapid growth in the past three decades. Around 19 percent of total schools in Nepal are private, but their total investment exceeds that of the public sector. Most parents who can afford the fees choose to send their children to private schools, lured by the promise of readying their offspring for the global market. Nepal’s middle class seem to have acquiesced to this arrangement. And if the middle class is not affected by a particular issue, it is difficult to influence policies and governance.
This divided form of mass education in Nepal, which has been producing two classes of citizens in the country, is deeply problematic for a democratic society. In August 2018, the government formed a High Level Education Commission to recommend education policies that would benefit a federal, democratic population. One of the recommendations was to convert the country’s private schools, which largely operate as private limited companies, into trusts within ten years. The full report of the commission has, however, still not been released yet, likely due to strong opposition from the groups representing the private, for-profit schools.
The government’s most recent budgetary allocation for the education sector illustrates its lack of commitment towards public education. While the ruling Nepal Communist Party had pledged to allocate 20 percent of the national budget to the education sector in its election manifesto in 2017, its government allocated only half of what the party had promised, the lowest in a decade. Allocating around 20 percent of the national budget to the education sector is seen as a global standard and Nepal has reiterated this commitment in international forums. “Out of the total budget [on education], around 80 percent goes in the payment of salaries to teachers and officials, around 10 percent for infrastructure development and around seven percent is spent on administrative affairs. And this leaves only 3 percent for improving the quality of education,” a report in Kathmandu Post stated.
Since its inception in 2015, the Art Works program has expanded and the Sindhupalchok edition while ambitious – with an agreement with 29 schools – seems far-fetched given the community’s scant resources. The tussle for political power between the three tiers of government will for the time keep creating hurdles for sustainable, consistent work. For instance, even convincing the Shree Chilaune school’s administrators to construct a proper toilet in the school seemed difficult; there were other practical concerns: Chilaune is preparing to merge with three other schools in the area in order to save funds and resources. Stakeholders have already bought land and have decided on a name for the new school. According to their projections, Thangpal Valley Secondary School will be ready to welcome students within two years.
~Niranjan Kunwar has an M.S.Ed from CUNY and teaching experiences in the New York City public-school system. Based in Kathmandu, he writes about arts and education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
~Disclaimer: The writer is a member of Srijanalaya and one of the founders of Art Works.