Lessons not learnt, homework not done

Nepal’s identity is reflected not by the names of schools, but by the quality of instruction in them.


Early spring sees half a million 10th graders across Nepal line up for the ongoing Secondary Education Examination (SEE). It is not without reason the test is called ‘The Iron Gate’ since it can keep so many out who do not pass.

The Nepal Education Board restructured the school system in 2016, and replaced the previous School Leaving Certificate (SLC) with the SEE. The curricula and grading systems were changed so that practical and interactive teaching would replace rote textbook-based learning.

Alas, memorising and regurgitating answers in the test paper is still the dominant method of teaching. Cheating with ‘chits’ is rife. Test questions reflect irrelevant and problematic textbook content. 

This week, a young man was caught sitting for the SEE math exam on behalf of his brother-in-law. Mobile phones and smartwatches were confiscated at other test centres. Invigilators and supervisors were themselves found leaking test questions or giving hints to selected test-takers. Chits are smuggled inside pencil cases, and hidden in restrooms.  

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Nepal has been manufacturing a nation of cheaters who over the generations occupy seats of power. It not only proves just how rotten the country’s education system is, but it is also at the root of governance failure and the epidemic of corruption. Cheating  extends to higher levels of government, and has even permeated the Public Service Examinations that civil servants are required to take. 

Nepal’s problem with education does not begin and end at Grade 10. Studies have shown that students have below-average learning achievement even at upper primary levels because of faulty textbooks and mediocre teachers. 

Despite numerous attempts at reforms and rewriting, the curriculum is rife with errors, there are embarrassing mistakes and misleading information. The content is not gender inclusive, and does not reflect Nepal’s socio-cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. 

The official language of instruction for compulsory subjects excluding Nepali and Social Studies is English. However, public schools lack instructors in English, while private schools prioritise English, with students penalised for speaking Nepali or their mother tongue in class.

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As a result, Nepal has been producing generations of mediocre students with little command of their native or second language and with little knowledge of their country.

Every time governments tried to improve the quality of instruction, they made it worse. Educators have raised valid concerns about provisions of the controversial new education bill. They say it takes away the autonomy of local units and benefits private schools.

Not that local governments have done any better when given the authority. They make populist, cosmetic changes like mandating teaching local languages even if the students and guardians do not want it, or changing the English names of schools. 

Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah has issued an ultimatum for private schools to change their names to reflect Nepali identity within a month. He is not the first to do so, and probably will not  be the last.  

He wants the city’s schools to be named after deities, shrines, natural resources or historical figures that reflect 'Nepali-ness’. 

More unreasonable is the directive that schools with the word ‘Public’ must have been providing full scholarships to at least one-third of students. Schools with ‘National’ in their names must have students from at least 25 districts, and ‘International’ schools must have 33% foreign students. But (wait for this) names of all schools must end with ‘Bidyalaya’ or ‘Pathshala’.

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All well and good. But how is this going to improve the quality of instruction?

Then, the new Education Minister Sumana Shrestha sent out a circular directing all government schools to stop charging fees. Parents cheered, but government schools which get only enough budget to pay staff salaries, nothing for development and upkeep, are in a quandary. We thought the new crop of young politicians were smarter and would not make half-baked decisions. Only 11% of Nepal’s annual budget goes into education, and most of it for teacher’s salaries. 

Better paid, motivated and trained teachers would be a quick, surefire way to improve quality. Tests like the SEE can be done away with and replaced with a more representative grading system. Outdated curricula and gaffe-filled textbooks must be peer reviewed.   

Nepal’s identity is reflected not by the name of its schools, but by the quality instruction in them.

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Shristi Karki