The government spends the biggest chunk of its annual budget on education. But the quality of education in most public schools is below average. As a result, parents are often compelled to spend a significant amount of the household budget on children’s education in private schools. Sabitri Dhakal of The Himalayan Times talked to education expert Bidhyanath Koirala on performance of the public education sector and changes that need to be introduced in public schools to enhance quality of education. Excerpts:
How do you evaluate public education sector’s performance in the country?
Local governments are keen to improve the quality of education because elected representatives are aware that they won’t win the next election if they fail to address problems seen in this sector. But they do not have clarity on how to proceed with the task of introducing reforms. They are not sure whether they need to seek technical support, motivate teachers, introduce reforms in the school management, or change the teaching style. What is further complicating their problems is that they are not getting adequate support from provincial and central governments or any association or organisation. Since the federal system of government is new in Nepal, it becomes the responsibility of the federal government to play the role of facilitator to enhance the capacity of local governments. But the federal government appears to be keen on centralising power and authority, which is counterproductive for the education sector. So, the rights and responsibilities of the three levels of government should be clarified.
How do you assess the new education policy?
The education policy was introduced without holding proper consultation with all the stakeholders. As a result, the policy has paved the way for opportunists to serve their vested interest. The policy should have focused on enhancing the quality of public education in the country. Instead, it has promoted establishment of private schools.
If the government wishes to promote private schools, it should also ask them to expand their services to settlements where the poor and the marginalised live. Also, the policy has not said anything about management of teachers.
Today’s teachers are not sharp or tech-savvy. So, the policy should have focused more on providing adequate training to make the teachers more competent and skilled.
The new policy, on the other hand, has given the authority to provincial and local governments and the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training to provide vocational education by opening technical and vocational schools. If all three bodies work in the same area, the result will not be good. Also, the policy has not made universities fully autonomous, as they are still under the prime minister. This can have a serious impact, especially, on medical education.
The government has been advocating vocational education. How important is it?
If the objective of providing vocational and technical education is to increase the outflow of skilled labourers to overseas job markets, then the country will not benefit much. But if we are providing vocational and technical education to create skilled labourers for the domestic market, then we should look for sectors that can absorb those human resources. Producing a skilled workforce without finding a market for them would do no good to the country. But again the crux of the matter is quality education. The teaching and learning process should guarantee jobs.
Why doesn’t the education our schools impart spark creativity in children?
The teacher is the main agent of change in the education sector. But our teachers have not been able to revamp their teaching styles and are deploying the same technique to teach all the students. Teachers need to understand that different teaching methods should be applied to different students based on their learning abilities. But our teachers think that they should strictly follow the given curriculum. Following a given curriculum cannot spark creativity in students. Creativity is all about thinking out of the box. But nobody does that here. So, we have become a herd of sheep. Many of us also do not think critically, as many political leaders discourage that practice. So, if we are to make our students creative, teachers must change their mindsets.
The government has decided to remove mathematics from the curricula of grades XI and XII. Do you think that was necessary?
There are two kinds of curriculum – broad-based and tertiary. In a broad-based curriculum, students are taught various subjects to broaden their knowledge. This curriculum is followed till grades XI or XII or till grade VIII or X depending on the country’s education system. We are very unclear about our broad-based curriculum as well as the tertiary curriculum. As credit hour has already been incorporated in our education system, there is no point in compelling students to choose certain subjects as majors. If anyone who has not studied Mathematics in Grade XI and XII wants to study engineering or wants to major in Mathematics in Bachelor’s, then they should be told to get certain credit hours in Mathematics, not prevent them from studying engineering or Mathematics in the Bachelor’s level. So, again, mindsets need to change. Having said that, the government should include Mathematics in the broad based curriculum up to a certain level.
Why does a teacher need a licence to teach in public schools?
The licensing provision was introduced to keep teachers updated. Our teachers do not have reading habit and they do not update themselves on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons the quality of education in public schools is eroding. If students are very talented, they can concentrate on multiple things at the same time. The teachers should use different techniques to teach such students.
In my opinion, the pass marks in the teacher licensing examination should be raised to 80 per cent because we need good teachers. Many may not agree with me saying public schools won’t be able to hire teachers for 10 years if the bar is raised to that level. But that is fine. We can wait for 10 years to hire quality teachers. So, if we can revise the eligibility criteria for becoming a teacher, we can improve teaching and learning process. But in Nepal, political parties and management organisations want their favoured candidates to get the teaching licence easily.
Many Nepali students do not have the habit of asking questions in the classroom. How can that be changed?
Teachers are responsible for this. Teachers should inspire students to think critically and this practice would eventually make them creative. Questions will arise when students start thinking critically.
How can the education sector be reformed?
The sector can only be reformed by teachers. The government and organisations working in this sector should understand this. Teachers should be classified as per their skills. For example, we can ask teachers to fill up a self-evaluation form to let the school management know about their knowledge level, skills, capabilities and attitude. Schools should then build proper mechanisms to support them. This work should be done in coordination with local governments and education experts so that they can provide proper feedback. Also, teachers’ unions should jump into action because it is not only the duty of the government to train the teachers.
Our education system only churns out products good enough to become salaried employees and not entrepreneurs. How can that change?
This is because of our culture. Our society is constructed in such a way it looks down upon some of the professions. So, many people are ashamed to give continuity to their family business. This is the result of caste division in society. Also, people do not want to work harder once they become affluent, while those who are less privileged cannot turn their ideas into businesses because they do not have enough capital. Perhaps, more people would be working in Nepal had they not inherited property from their families.
A version of this article appears in print on February 17, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.