(This article was published in Republica daily of June 17, 2014 with the title "Flagrant Failure")
The Iron Gate has opened ajar. Only 43.9 percent students taking the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams made it through. As it happens every year, disappointing results come out, the education officials make a few apologetic remarks; the government promises yet another education plan with huge funding; public intellectuals berate private schools for their success and lament the inequality; people make consolatory remarks such as passing SLC is not everything; and after a week or two, the hue and cry dies and then it’s business as usual.
SLC may not tell much about the prospect of a student in life but it does tell a lot about the educational system. The pass percentage, despite relaxation of standards and cheatings allowed during exams, is embarrassingly low. If we segregate the SLC performance of public and private schools, a clear picture emerges which points out to the root of the problem. Ninety-three percent of students from private schools have passed the exams this year as compared to 28 percent from public schools. For the past four years, the pass rates for private educational institutions have been above 80 percent whereas the maximum pass rate for public schools was 46 percent in 2011.
The problem is not with the whole educational system but with the public schools and the way they are run. Private educational institutions are doing just fine and in fact are the saving grace of our educational system.
Why such a disparity? Most people, like the Ministry of Education spokesperson, would be quick to point out higher investment in private schools as the reason behind better results. But there are many private schools with less investment than government schools and are yet doing much better. Consider Samata Siksha Niketan, popularly known as Bamboo School, which charges Rs 100 a month and yet achieves 100 percent result; or Melamchi Ghyang Secondary School in Helambu which has achieved glorious results despite being in a remote place and without much investment. It is also interesting to note that one of the toppers of this year’s exam, Sanjog Karki, comes from Reliance Academy in Kapan, a school catering to middle or lower middle class, and not from an elite school.
Upon being asked about their secret to success, many schools attribute it to good management and dedicated teachers, which are precisely the things lacking in public schools. Government school teachers are paid ranging from Rs 14,000 to Rs 31,000 whereas private school teachers generally get paid between Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000. But these costs for government school teachers are just the tip of the iceberg.
Lifelong pension after retirement and additional benefits for rural assignments comprise another major chunk of overall cost. It is important to note here that millions of dollars received in aid through government and non-government channels are also spent on public schools. And yet, the excuse government comes up with is lack of investment as if more investment in the past has done any better. A full 331 community and government run schools across the country had zero results this year. There is just no justifying that.
Lack of a linkage between the performance of the school/teachers and the revenue they get is a more credible reason behind the poor performance of public schools. As news reports in the past have highlighted, teacher absenteeism is a major hurdle towards learning for pupils in public schools. We have had many news reports detailing how teachers of government schools are more interested in side jobs, political activities and protesting for permanency rather than teaching. Early at the start of the educational year, reports surfaced about millions of rupees allocated for textbooks being embezzled by school officials, and pupils were denied access to something as basic as textbooks.
Hence, the problem is neither with the overall educational system nor lack of investment in education but more with the incentive structure of the educational system. In fact, as much as a billion rupees is being spent on ‘fake’ schools, as reported in April 2014, using the same channel (the government) to invest more is completely ludicrous.
One of the major flaws with the government-run schools is that the guardians never have a say on the revenue generation or rewarding of the school or the teachers which encourages them to neglect their responsibilities. Since the schools and the teachers generate their income from government rather than the guardians, they have very little, if any, incentive to heed the wishes of the children or their guardians.
The first step towards reforming our educational system would be to change the incentive structure. The government should fund the students, not the schools. The government expenditure on education is for the sake of the children not for the sake of the schools or the teachers. Experimenting with the education voucher system being practiced in countries like India, Sweden and the US (as well as with charter schools) could be one way to restructure the incentive system. Similarly, encouraging and helping organizations like Teach for Nepal is important because they truly care for better education in the country.
There are dozens of measures the government could take to lift public schools’ performance and set them at par with the private schools. Pouring more money into the existing structure is not one of them.