Education in Public Schools- The great equalizer

The widening gap between public and private schools creates social stratification and undermines our cohesion.

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KEDAR BHAKTA MATHEMA
It’s been over a month since the last much talked about, much dreaded, SLC examination ended. As we know, this examination is held nationwide every year at the end of secondary education. Everyone who wishes to study 10+2 (Grade 11 and 12) and go on to university must pass this examination. This year, some 547,000 youngsters took SLC. If this year’s result, expected sometime in June, follows the trend set last year, only 47 percent of the candidates are going to pass this examination and almost 290,000 boys and girls (53 percent) are not going to make it.

Those who pass SLC are mostly from private schools – they pass thanks to their good schooling and their advantaged family background. In the past ten years, the success rate of students from private schools in SLC examination has been around 90 percent. Those who perform poorly are usually from public or government schools where the success rate in SLC has been between 30 to 50 percent.

This would not have been a great problem had it not been for the fact that over 80 percent of students in Nepal go to public schools. Those 80 percent mostly belong to socially and economically disadvantaged households. They live in shanty towns and small villages, and either belong to ethnic communities, or linguistic minorities, or both. Many of them are far superior and much smarter than children who go to private schools, but do not do as well because of number of reasons. Apart from the poor family background they come from, the primary reason for their failure in SLC is the schools they go to, which are impoverished, with government funding barely covering the salaries of the teachers. Teacher absenteeism is high, and courses are never completed on time. Homework is hardly checked, and remedial support for struggling students is nonexistent. The schools are not supervised, and teachers rarely receive any professional support.

In 1971, when the government decided to take over the management and financing of all erstwhile community supported schools, it did not foresee the magnitude of its financial commitment. With the population growth rate of 2.2 to 2.66 percent from 1970s to early 90s, student population increased by several folds, and with it, the number of schools. Government funding was being spread too thinly over many schools. The government with its weak machinery soon discovered that it was too difficult to supervise and manage all schools in the country.

Realizing that the education system had grown too unwieldy, the state started to handover the management of schools to communities. Through the Seventh Amendment to the Education Act 2001, the state also opened the door for private sector to operate for-profit schools. Since then, thousands of private schools have opened up. We now have over 6,000 private schools educating almost 20 percent of students. This compares very interestingly with figures from some developed countries.

According to 2009 Program for International Student Assessment Report by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 10 percent of students in the US, seven percent in Canada, 6 percent in UK, New Zealand, and Switzerland, 2 percent in Singapore, and 1 percent in Norway attend private schools.
In any case, private sector involvement helped ease the government’s financing problem to some extent. Private schools have also demonstrated that they deliver educational services better than public schools.

Encouraged by the government’s unwillingness to open new schools despite the rising demand, and perhaps enthused by the international neo-liberal agenda advocating a reduced role for the state, private schools proliferated. A 2005 study carried out for the Ministry of Education states “…there is hardly any teaching-learning in many rural secondary schools. It is not just about the lack of physical, instructional, and human resources. Even when resources were available, there was no teaching and learning.”

There is every indication that people are losing faith in public education system, and a mass exodus is taking place from public to private schools. Public schools have now become a refuge for the children of poor and disadvantaged families. It is exactly for this reason the failure of public schools is of very little concern to people like us.

Dissatisfied with public schools’ inability to prepare their children for higher education and subsequently for job in the globalized economy, the elites had quite some time ago started looking for other options, at home and abroad. The Seventh Amendment 2001 just paved the way for private providers to respond to such demands.
Schools in Nepal, for all practical purposes, now seem to operate under a dual system—one for the rich and the other for the poor. One breeds more success than failure, and the other, more failure than success. It is true that the courses of study for both types of schools are same, and students from both sit for the same SLC. The system thus has the semblance of two types of schools operating under one system. The reality, however, is different.

The widening gap between these two types of schools is frightening, since it is creating stratification in an already over stratified Nepali society and undermining our social cohesion. It categorizes students into “social classes” according to their socio-economic backgrounds and then provides them with unequal educational opportunities leading to very unequal benefits. I hope I am not off the mark when I say that education in new Nepal has failed to be “a great equalizer of the conditions of men” as American education reformer Horace Mann said as early as 1848. Our education system instead seems to live up to the claim made by cultural and economic reproduction theorists Prof Samuel Bowles and Prof Michael Apple that “education simply perpetuates the existing class structure and it never helps inter-class mobility.”

I am sure we all agree that education ought to be about lifting up, not weeding out. Without a good and strong public education system, those who are born without money and power will never have a chance to make their lives better by developing new knowledge and skills. Our public schools just need more resources and much more attention to help close the gap between children who have a head start and those who don’t.

But where do we start? Radicals of the Left, who hold private schools responsible for the deterioration in public education, believe we need to do away with all private schools so that public schools can receive the attention they deserve. This will also purportedly put an end to excessive commercialization of schools and commoditization of education.The widening gap between public and private schools creates social stratification and undermines our cohesion.

Radicals of the Right will want to promote more private involvement in education, and have the government arrange for voucher system which will allow even the poor to attend private schools. They argue that voucher plans will pressurize public schools to do better because if they do not, they will lose kids to private schools.There is a third view, to which I subscribe, which is neither excessively pessimistic about the state, nor excessively optimistic about the market. Proponents of this view believe there is no alternative to strengthening public education. They contend that state withdrawal from its commitment to public education is tantamount to, to use Prof Henry Giroux’s words “a retreat from democracy”. They believe public education serves as an apprenticeship for civic life and helps build a more cohesive society, something which a newly emerged democratic country like Nepal cannot ignore. They say “yea” to limited no-profit privatization, but “nay” to commercialization in education. Inspired by John Dewey’s idealistic assertion, they believe education should “take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation, not perpetuate them.”

Although I am far from happy with the present state of education in our country, I am far from pessimistic about its future. The famous Welsh academic, critic and novelist Raymond William was wise to say that hope is one of our most valuable resources. Our hope is our young people–those of whom have committed to dedicate two years of their life to serving rural schools. It is these people, and thousands others who will follow them, that will inspire us–parents, policymakers, politicians, and people in general, to act to sustain education as a public trust for future generations, and make it live up to the ideals propounded by reformer like Horace Mann and philosophers like John Dewey.

source: MATHEMA,KEDAR BHAKTA(2013),"The great equalizer", republica,25 april 2013

2013-04-25 | EducateNepal

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