Public Schools Facing Unpredictable Future

Prem Khatry

 

The future of mainstream schools is uncertain. Only specialist doctor can resuscitate them if we find one on time. This is right. When a remote primary school runs with four teachers and three students, there is a question: Why should the government keep funding such schools? Why not close the school altogether, start using it for other purpose and say goodbye to the teacher? This is one extreme thought which may not be palatable to the hard working teachers, though.

Blame
Hardworking teacher may sound affectionate. The writer is one the kind having four decades of study and teaching assignment at TU Kirtipur. That saying, he is of the opinion that teachers are to bear the large part of blame for the gradual and steady march of the public schools toward the dark alley of disappearance and death. There are some valid reasons for this.
Just a quick flashback on time line going back to 1950s and 60s, for example, would show the local community rising for the sake of an elementary school in the middle of the village. It could also be at the pass or the village crossroads linking several villages and small towns. The idea was to attract the attention of the passers-by and spread the news. The teacher hunting was a tough task and elders would travel long distances to find a teacher even to Indian border cities like Darjeeling, Kalimpong or as far as Kharsang in the east to Lucknow, Dehradun, Mussorie, etc. in the west.
Hill cities would also cater for the village school needs. Even an under SLC would be a special bird in the village. He would command respect and receive both cash and kind as his salary and extra tuition classes. Smart teacher would organise ‘Saraswati Puja’ every Thursday and, upon complaint from parents about the unusual frequency of the elaborate Puja, they would compromise to have one every month as if the goddess was hungry for rice. Sacks of good quality rice offered to the goddess would end up at the residence of the ‘high priest’, the HM. For us students few hours off the routine was a relief and fun.
Then the community and the teachers worked together to see that the school makes progress and engages all school age children. With some exceptions, it did. The generation that is now retiring from the government job or the University must have this experience if s/he is from the village. In the cities also there would be a Management Committee (MC) with a strong Secretary to monitor the HM’s plans, implementation skills, and the overall result. There would be invisible competition between schools of one city/area and the other.
The MC kept busy raising fund beyond the annual Rs.7200 government donation for a registered secondary school. Cash and kind were collected in the leadership of the Secretary and the Cashier. Teachers’ only focus was on regular classes and growth in the number of students so that they could receive their salary on time. There was nothing like politicking even in free time. Schools were partisan politics free zones. In many cases, teachers from across the borders were highly respected and paid well for subjects like Maths, Science and English.
A great chasm appeared after the formation of National Education System Plan (NESP), popularly known as Naya Sikshya or New Education. It was new for sure and it attempted to bring about change in the relation between education and employment through the auspices of National Planning Commission of the government. On the face it looked new, functional and oriented toward overall development of the country. But critics dubbed it as the ‘Academic Pillar’ of the Panchayat System aimed at strengthening the system itself at the cost of democracy and freedom of the people.
What NESP did first was seek divorce from the age old, functional and creative community management system. The government took full and complete responsibility of education pushing the community to the back bench as watcher, not even as watch-dog. That was the major event that heralded the final demise of socio-cultural relation between education and its manager, the community. From this time onward, the teacher became a tool of the government not responsible to the community and this continued after the 1990 political change.
Worse still was the dubious role of the local leaders and the community of teacher across the country. Public school became a tool of the party and a platform for power show-off. School Management Committees were formed and positions were sold and bought. Much earlier, the private stream was taking advantage of the government loopholes in matters related to quality, commitment and stability. Gradually a shift was visible. Parents even with low income turned their back to the unmanaged and politically influenced public schools and took it even a prestige issue to have the child in private schools as and when they were available.
Large amount of financial aid and loan began to pour in in the post-1990 eras from Asian Development Bank, World Bank and other international financial agencies in areas such as curricula, physical facilities, teacher training, and so forth. There were basket funds also. But the proper school mapping and incentives for parents were either non-existent or inadequate. From management perspective, a strong, non-partisan or at least independently functioning management committee was not made universal.
Big political parties have always influenced the school education through cadre recruitment from teachers’ community, creation of fraternal wings at school, grossly neglecting the campaign ‘make school a peace zone’ initiated by the students themselves and served to all leaders. This sober and very urgent plea has not been heard at all as parties encroach on school schedules and student interest.

Emptying
Finally, public schools of Nepal are dying unnatural death not only in remote regions but right around Singha Durbar, New Road, three Metropolitan cities and all corners of the valley. They are dying in the Terai, in the hills and the mountains. What kind of New Nepal are we working on and which generation is the potential builder of that Nepal if school buildings are emptying on daily basis? Or, can we find one alive, go there and shout proudly like the one biogas plant in Biratnagar, we will have schools in all villages, in all blocks and corners of the country in no time? That situation, of course, is only one speech away.

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