School of thought



KATHMANDU, JAN 30 - None of my history lessons in school stuck. I vaguely recall the oversized photos of Shah kings in my grade seven history book. I could also call to mind bits and pieces about the Anglo-Gorkhali war, the Sugauli treaty, Bhandarkhal and Kot massacres (festivals?) and, of course, the bravery of Gorkhali soldiers at Nalapani, endlessly eulogised in Mahendramala in my higher-secondary days.

I specifically remembered Balbhadra Kunwar and Nalapani for quite a while after leaving school, it now appears, for some of the same reasons that historian Pratyoush Onta does in his article collated in Education in Nepal: Problems, Reforms and Social Change. Edited by Pramod Bhatta, the book brings together nine scholarly articles on various issues in Nepali education system with the focus on primary education.

In his essay, Onta discusses how the Panchayat era textbooks tried to sculpt a monolithic version of Nepali national identity by valourising the bir Gorkhali soldiers like Balbhadra. This sanitised history, which Onta labels Rastriya Itihas (RI), conveniently brushed away the ambiguities — no, none mentioned that the bir Balbhadra died fighting for Sikhs in Punjab — to lend legitimacy to the Panchayati notion of nationhood built around a nation “united in diversity.”

Likewise, anthropologists Debra Skinner and Dorothy Holland explore the concept of an ‘educated person’ in Naudada, a pseudonymous village in Central Nepal, during the Panchayat days. The article offers an interesting take on how school students manage to construct unique identities for themselves despite the trope fed to them in the name of education by the Panchayati state.

Anna Robinson-Pant, rounding up the three articles in Part 3, the section that makes for by far the best read, distinguishes between ‘female literacy’ obtained in classroom with what women have learned form their experience. The setting is the village of Arutar in Western Nepal, where, even before they started with their donor-funded literary classes, many women could read the holy books like the Swasthani and do simple maths. What female literary classes imparted, in the view of the students, was ‘imposed’ but useful knowledge that provided them a voice in the society.

While Part 3 explores the concepts and interrelations between education, nationalism and social change, Part 1, as the title suggests, unearths the “Persisting Problems in School Education” in Nepal.

In the first of the three chapters in Part 1, health expert Sharon Stash and sociologist Emily Hannum analyse the impact of gender, caste and ethnicity on who actually goes to school in Nepal. They conclude that while access to primary education has improved for both the genders, girls continue to face discrimination in educational opportunities, which, the two authors say, is as true of rural areas as it is of big cities like Kathmandu. Another big marker of education, they point, is caste and ethnicity: those from ‘high castes’ get better educational opportunities.

In his chapter on “Disparities in SLC Performance”, development researcher Saurav Dev Bhatta tries to desegregate the disparities in student performance by subject, gender, region, and school type (public or private). Bhatta’s analysis of the 2004 SLC results lends further credence to the hypothesis that the disparities in the results of private and public schools largely owes to the difficulties public school students have passing three subjects: Mathematics, Science, and English. In another important find, Bhatta discovers that girls fare much worse than boys. He recommends “individual subject certification” instead of the current practice of “group certification” to allow students to pass difficult subjects one at a time.

In the third article under Part 1, educationist and sociologist Martha Caddell goes beyond the impact of Maoist insurgency on private schools at the time (the study was carried out in 2005-06) and highlights the undercurrents at play in designing the Nepali school system. It is characterised by a persistent anxiety among the parents — all striving to get their children the best education money can buy; played out in a climate of intense competition among schools to attract students and continuous political meddling in school policies.

Pramod Bhatta studies the impact of decentralisation in Nepal’s school system through an analysis of the World Bank funded Community School Support Project (CSSP), which was aimed at facilitating the transfer of school management to local communities. Bhatta concludes that the current model of decentralisation is unlike to succeed in improving teaching methods and enhancing the quality of education. In conjunction with the transfers, Bhatta calls for greater dialogue between communities, teachers unions, educational bureaucrats, and political parties.

Educationists Tirtha Khaniya and James Williams look into the impact of two other donor funded projects in primary education — Basic and Primary Education Project (BPEP) and Primary Education Development Project (PEDP) — on student learning. They pick apart the national assessment of grade three students carried out in 1997 and 2001 to arrive at the conclusion that the theories of education change fashionable at the time were probably capable of delivering what was ‘necessary’ but not necessarily what was  ‘sufficient’ for the improvement of primary education in Nepal.

Moving on, educationists Stephen Carney and Min Bista and geographer Jytte Agergaard in their essay question the state’s unclear aims on community schooling. But the concept of community schooling is here to stay, say the authors, with external aid agencies pouring in money to fund it.

Education in Nepal provides valuable insights into some of the pressing issues in Nepali education sector in the last two decades. One glaring drawback with the book is that going through it, one cannot help wonder the relevance of old data on the constantly changing education system of Nepal. For instance, how many of Saurav Dev Bhatta’s deductions and recommendations made on the basis of the analysis of 2004 SLC results (with a pass rate of just 46.1 percent) hold true for 2009 results (when nearly 70 percent of students cleared SLC)?

The inclusion of articles based on recent research would have added both to the book’s usefulness as well as the reading pleasure. It is for this reason that Part 3 (Education, Nationalism and Social Change) which deals with theoretical and more subjective aspects rather than the data-driven objective analysis appears most readable and relevant. For whatever is yet to emerge about Balbhadra Kunwar and what we already know — or thought we knew — it never gets dull with him.
The Kathmandu Post, 30 Jan 2010, p.7.

About the Author

More Blogs