Ministry of Education gets an F


columnist recently described the state of education in the country as being characterised by the government's neglect of public schools and disdain for private schools.

This is nothing new. Those in power have always paid lip service to helping the poor, while doing everything in their power to ensure that the poor have no recourse. The added tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic is that this dangerous populist proclivity has exacerbated the education crisis, creating an even bigger chasm between private schools and government ones where 80% of students are enrolled.

The government has used the excuse of the ‘digital divide’ to discourage private schools from thinking out of the box on online classes. Vague and ambiguous policy decisions have not helped clear the confusion.

Now that it is clear that the pandemic here to stay, the Ministry of Education has finally finalised a plan to grant formal recognition to remote learning classes. However, if not planned properly, this will further widen the inequity in Nepal’s education system.

A recent survey showed that 95% of households said their children had stopped going to school, and 52% were not even studying at home. Only 29% had access to distance learning, but that only half were using it.

The attitude of the Ministry towards government schools which fall directly under its own purview is even more grievous. While the government school teachers, administrators and the entire education super-structure have remained fully salaried throughout the nearly six months of lockdown, they have nearly nothing to show in terms of remote teaching.

The government's inability and unwillingness to address the lack of education for nearly 6 million students that attend government schools is tantamount to criminal negligence. The ministry’s dynamism has long been eroded by the politicisation of the education sector, neglect by the education establishment from the federal minister downwards, and lack of accountability and institutional memory among  donors who have practically guided the Education Ministry with its 'basket fund' over the past decade.

Even today, the ministry seems to be mainly concerned with passing the buck when it comes to pandemic response. This is a ministry that has over the past few years made school exams so lenient in grading as to be meaningless. And today it has done nearly nothing to end the inertia of the lockdowns.

Better-off private schools have access to internet learning, but most government school children have neither computers nor connectivity. The  government’s response has been more fatalism and populist rhetoric about helping the poor.

The most underserved mountain districts have negligible Covid-19 spread, and schools there are so sparsely populated that attendance is possible with physical distancing in the classrooms. Yet, it has been five months and the Ministry of Education has not acted on the basis of this simple reality.

For government schools in urban clusters and the densely-populated Tarai, the federal government had enough time to implement an emergency plan to let local governments ensure wifi availability and remote radio/tv classes. Some of these online classes could have been centralised, while the individual schools that had the capacity should have been encouraged to start their own. The lassitude is unbelievable, yet sadly predictable.

Minister of Education Giriraj Mani Pokhrel deserves an ‘F’ for not using the Covid-19 crisis to improve government school education. But the buck stops with his boss, Prime Minister K P Oli. They should both re-read the Constitution, which relegates the responsibility for school-level education to municipalities. Local governments most likely would do a better job.

It is well known for decades that while Nepal’s enrollment rate rose, literacy went up, and we have numerically more schools, there was abject failure on the part of the government in raising the quality of instruction. We had hoped that handing over education to the local governments was a way to improve quality. But alas, like everything else, education is still tightly centralised.

The Covid-19 crisis could still be turned into an opportunity if the federal Ministry of Education were to wake up and support urban and rural municipalities to restart remote and in-person classes, and raise the standard of instruction in government schools where it is most needed.

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