Nepal’s class divide

Changing Stories Nepal Fellow Sangeeta Basnet teaching at Amar Secondary School in Urhari of Dang.

When I taught in a Nepali government school, the biggest problem I faced was not poor facilities. Motivated teachers don't need much beyond chalk and a blackboard. The biggest problem was that so many children studied below their grade level.

In Nepal, many Grade 6 students read at Grade 3 level. Many Grade 7 students cannot add or subtract, much less multiply or divide. Students lag behind by three or four years, and not just a few students, sometimes half the class may be behind. 

This is an enormous problem, made worse by Covid-19. Few schools recognise the issue, or have skills and resources to address it. Public school teachers are too busy dealing with daily challenges. Students are therefore missing the chance to learn.

Nepali students fall behind for many reasons. Some come unprepared for Grade 1 or 2, others get pulled out of school temporarily and never catch up. Some attend school irregularly, or struggle.

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While the problems children face at home are socio-economic, the barriers at school are many: uninspiring and irregular teaching, low teacher expectations, and poor school management.

Schools where students fall behind rarely have the skills or resources needed to help them catch up. Some schools give up on them, dismissing the students as not capable instead of investing more time in helping them out. Low expectations become self-fulfilling.

Many students lose confidence and drop out. They decide school is not worth the time, and join their parents in earning an income for their families. Or, they stay in school and move from grade to grade, year after year. Lacking a base to build upon, they lag farther and farther behind. 

In subjects like Math or English that scaffold skills one on top of another, the students often just go through the motions, copying things but not understanding, and not really learning anything.

Students either fail, or they cheat to move along. Cheating is widespread. That is how high school students, despite years of study, can barely read or write in English or Nepali. Many of the students are from diverse backgrounds who speak their mother tongue at home.

This is a tragedy, but also a social justice issue. Those who lag behind often come from poor families, often Dalit or ethnic minority communities. Many are girls. 

The solution would be to catch the problem when the children first fall behind in primary school. At that point they are only a few lessons behind their friends, not years and years, and there would still be time to build a solid base.  

"It's never the students’ fault," says Niharika Mainali of Changing Stories Nepal, which was founded in 2018 with an innovative approach that builds from the premise that all students can learn, and that we wrongly blame low performing students instead of admitting we are all responsible for their lack of opportunity.

Changing Stories first identifies struggling primary students. At its schools in Hetauda and Dang, it assesses literacy and numeracy to determine the 15 lowest-performing students in grades 3, 4 and 5. Then, for 90 days, the students are tutored with two hours of extra Nepali and Math, either  before or after school.

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The stress is on actual student learning, and the students are tested during and at the end of the program. Last year in Dang, the program had 20 groups of 15 students each.

The remedial classes are taught by ‘Fellows’ of the organisation, who are talented, motivated college students trained by Changing Stories. While giving a helping hand to others, the young adults learn skills and experience and develop a taste for community service. 

"I was teaching Grade 9 near Janakpur, and found that many didn't know the English alphabet. I realised they needed an intervention long before high school," explains Mainali. "I had a good job in Kathmandu. But I often thought I could be of more service working with public schools. The privileged students I was working with didn't need me." 

She says schools make quick decisions about who can learn and who cannot, labeling students as incapable from a very young age. "The problem is not with the students. The students can learn, but we like to blame students for everything," she adds.

In Dang at the start of the year, only 37% of students could read simple words, and only 18% could read a 4-sentence paragraph. At the program's end, 81% could read words, and 66% could read short sentences.

In baseline math tests, only 9% could do two-digit addition problems. After the program, 87% could. Fewer than 1% of students could solve a 2-digit carry-over subtraction problem, or multiply. Afterwards, about half could do both.

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Changing Stories recorded similar progress in Hetauda, and have just started another year in Dang. The program seems like a fantastic bargain: for 90 sessions of 2-hour classes, each Fellow earns Rs14,000.

Training costs and staff support add a little. But imagine the benefits, and compare them with the costs: students sitting in classrooms year after year not learning--a lifetime of underachievement.

On a visit to Dang last year, I saw for myself why Changing Stories gets results. In a carpeted classroom painted in cheerful colours with student work on display, a Changing Stories Fellow worked with students on subtraction problems.

She explained concepts with piles of सिन्का (small bamboo sticks) sitting on the floor next to her students. She smiled, but pushed when necessary. She believed in the children even though many others had abandoned hope.

A Grade 4 student told me: "I like this class. Miss teaches well. If I don't understand, she shows me." Another student said, "Before I knew only addition, now I know subtraction. Now it comes easily."  

I could see and hear the pride and self-confidence in these children.

Tom Robertson, PhD is a historian and creator of the मिठो लेखाइ videos on writing technique. He taught in Nepal’s government schools as a Peace Corps volunteer in Khotang from 1993-1995.

Tom Robertson

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