There are two things that everyone with an interest in public education in Nepal can agree on. First, public schools are failing. Second, most of the attempts to improve public schools are failing too. Here are eight steps to rapidly and radically improve the quality of public (government or community) schools in Nepal:
- Open and competitive teacher recruitment
Whenever there is a teaching vacancy at a public school, it should be filled through open and competitive recruitment. That seems obvious, but currently teaching posts are created and filled by bureaucrats, politicians and trade unions, with no regard to the suitability or skills of the teacher. If a school needs a new teacher, it is simply sent one and is expected to accept whoever turns up. Teachers therefore have no incentive to excel because their chance of getting and keeping a job has little to do with their performance. Schools should be free to choose the teachers they want, and teachers should be free to apply to join the school they want, through competitive recruitment. All teaching posts should be advertised (perhaps on a central government website), and open to anyone with the required qualifications. This would immediately inject incentives into the system. Teachers would realise their job prospects now depend on their performance. And schools would have the power to hire the best teachers (and fire, or at least reject, the worst). The government would still manage the overall number of teachers and set the minimum qualifications to become a teacher. The idea would be to give everyone the opportunity of a job, not the job itself.
- Greater school accountability
Giving schools the power to recruit their own teachers, would need to be introduced alongside much greater school accountability. Currently there is no effective monitoring of public schools and there are almost no consequences for failure. There is no publicly and easily available data on school performance. It would be simple to collect and publish Secondary Education Exam results, student attendance and student enrolment rates. This would shine a harsh spotlight on many schools and force school principals, management committees and local education officials to take necessary actions.
- Overhaul initial teacher training
These reforms would not guarantee better teaching unless the quality of teachers entering the profession improved. At the moment, it is possible for someone to gain a permanent government teaching post without ever having taught a good lesson. You do not need to teach to get a teaching licence, nor is their any practical component to the Teacher Service Commission exam. It’s the equivalent of getting a pilot’s licence without having to fly a plane.
As a result, most new teachers simply teach in the way that they were taught. The only way to break this cycle is to introduce a new professional teaching qualification, with at least half the course taught through teaching practice in a number of schools, including good private schools.
- Improve the quality of government textbooks
For teachers who have already been in the profession for a few years, training is often ineffective. Their teaching habits are so ingrained, it’s very difficult to change them.
But there is another way to improve teaching quality. Most government teachers simply open the textbook and follow it line by line. They are very good followers. So one solution is to give them something better to follow. The easiest way to do this is to improve the quality of textbooks.
The textbooks should be arranged in a lesson-by-lesson basis. Each lesson should have a clear aim, teacher activity, student activity and assessment activity. Detailed teacher instructions should be integrated into the textbooks.
- Give school principals the training, salary and recognition they deserve
Being a school principal is a challenging job anywhere in the world, but at least in most countries it is well paid. In Nepal, a public school principal receives a monthly stipend of just 500 rupees.
Many principals simply do not know what to do. Those who have a plan, often lack the authority to implement it. And so they spend their time attending meetings and trying to improve school infrastructure, when their primary job is to improve the quality of teaching.
All school principal posts should be filled through open competition. Regulations that say a permanent secondary teacher should be appointed ahead of any other teacher, should be removed. ‘Experience’ and ‘rank’ are not good determinants of performance. Appointments should be made on merit alone. School principals should complete a compulsory course in school leadership, and be partnered with a successful principal who will mentor them in their first years as a principal. They should receive a monthly allowance that reflects the challenges and responsibilities of the role, and in return be held to account for their school’s performance.
- Equalise the salaries and qualifications of primary and secondary teachers
Secondary teachers are paid significantly more than primary teachers. The current pay scales incentivise primary teachers to leave as soon as possible in the hope of getting a secondary post. It also gives the message that primary teachers (who are almost all women) and primary teaching are less important. It is even worse for Early Childhood Development teachers, who receive just 6000 rupees a month [this has recently been increased to 9000 rupees; a small but significant improvement]. Equalising the salaries of primary and secondary teachers, would reverse these incentives and encourage good primary teachers to continue teaching at primary level. Requiring new primary teachers to also have a bachelor’s degree would justify equal salary and bring status to the role, potentially raising the quality of new primary teachers.
- Increase teaching time
According to the law, public schools should be open for 190 teaching days a year. The reality is very different. Schools close for unscheduled public holidays, bandas, exam holidays, elections, and in the winter many close early for months. It is likely that most public schools are only open for 150 teaching days a year. The solution is to fix a compulsory minimum number of teaching days. Schools can choose how they meet this minimum, but it must be met. So if they stay closed for a banda or give teachers a day of leave before and after exams, the lost time must be made up by cutting holidays from other parts of the year.
- Schools full of love
Love sounds like a questionable basis for school improvement, let alone policy-making, but all good schools are full of love. In a school full of love, teachers know all the names of their students, they visit their homes when they are absent, they stay behind after school to provide free coaching for weak students, they donate part of their salary to a student who cannot afford the uniform. Schools full of love put children first and base all decision-making on what is best for the child. Love is tough, demanding and time-consuming, and Nepal’s public schools desperately need more of it.
This article was first published in The Record.