A lesson in failure

Disparity between private and public schools in the SLC can be attributed to risks and rewards for teachers.

Of the 394,933 students who sat for the nationwide School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exam in March, only 44 percent passed. If these students were sitting for the exam in developed countries, the contention is that almost all of them would have succeeded. The failure of 56 percent occurred despite the fact that the passing grade is only about 30 percent and Nepali youth have a strong zeal to succeed. Even more depressing is the case that the failing rate for public schools, which still contributes three-quarters of students appearing in the SLC, was 72 percent compared to seven percent for private schools.

Who is responsible for this failure and why are policymakers not correcting this perennial problem? The political parties, the bureaucracy, the teachers (most of whom are card-holding party members) and the local elites are responsible for this mishap. There is no urgency for policy correction as the cost of failure is endured almost entirely by those who are economically vulnerable and politically weak. This situation is further surprising considering that Nepal’s political parties consider themselves a champion of the poor, either as communists or as socialists.

Horrifying inefficiency

This failure in the SLC exam is only the tip of the iceberg; the inefficiency in education sector runs even deeper. Students who were enrolled in grade 1 in 2004 (1.36 million) were the ones who would have been sitting for this exam. However, the number of students who appeared in SLC constituted only 29 percent of that initial enrolment and those who passed were only 13 percent. Yet, this is not the complete measure of loss, as these latter numbers also include students who started grade 1 prior to 2004 (repeaters).

To measure inefficiency fully, we need to isolate repeaters by using the promotion rate (PR) — the percentage of students that passed their grades without repetition — for each grade in the last 10 years. We need to use grade 1 PR for 2004 and grade 2 PR for 2005, all the way to the SLC in 2014. Based on these rates, given in the Consolidated Report 2011 and Flash Report 2012/13 from the Department of Education, of the 1.36 million students that started grade 1 in 2004, only 10 percent of them appeared in the SLC and only 4.4 percent (60,000) completed the SLC. Therefore, almost two-thirds of examinees were repeaters.

So, 95.6 percent of students either dropped or failed at least once in the course of 10 years (grades).

This is a colossal waste of both human and physical capital. Imagine the time loss of students who dropped or failed, the psychological trauma that they go through, and the loss of public resources in repetition. This inefficiency is a huge drain on the economy; it not only reduces present production but also the future potential of the country.

No equality of opportunity

A prerequisite for a prosperous society is to have equality of opportunity — broadly, a condition that a child from the poorest section of the population has equal chances as everyone else of ending up in the highest income bracket in adulthood. This enhances economic mobility across generations — the ability of the children of poor parents to move to higher income brackets — creating a healthy process for both democracy and prosperity. In the developed world, equality of opportunity is regarded as the single-most important provision to build an equitable, prosperous and vibrant economy.

Education is the most — almost the only — effective instrument for achieving equality of opportunity. That is why school education in the developed world is publicly funded so that everybody, irrespective of their parents’ status, has equal chance to be educated. A child’s future is not determined by family education and wealth. In contrast, Nepal’s education system turns equality of opportunity on its head by increasing inequality, locking economic mobility and perpetuating intergenerational poverty. This has happened mainly due to the sheer neglect of public education.

Nepal’s public education system is a farce, riddled with massive dropouts and failures. Moreover, the quality of education is dreadful. Only nine percent of students that appear in the SLC from public schools obtain either First Division or Distinction, whereas this percentage in private schools is 73. As passing the SLC in second or third divisions is akin to failure, both in terms of getting admission in science, engineering and medical fields or in advancing careers in other jobs, regrettably, 91 percent of students who appear in SLC from public schools have no promising future.

All parents that send their children to private schools are not rich. Most are in merciless foreign lands doing dangerous work to earn tuition fees for private schools. Their migration is caused, in part, by the failure of public schools. Still, the poorest are in public schools, receiving a kind of education that barely prepares them for the competitive job markets and remaining poor; this vicious cycle perpetuates across generations. Unfortunately, a child’s future is determined by family status, and nothing else.

Lifting all boats

The outcome difference between public and private schools is incredible and worth repeating: 72 percent of students fail in the SLC in one but seven percent in the other. Among the successful, only nine percent score first division and above in one but 73 percent in other. This has happened despite the fact that the public schools have more trained teachers. Per student expenses (after netting out profit for private investors) between private and public schools are not very different and these two kinds of schools can be found located on two sides of the same street.

So what makes the difference? There are a few reasons but the main one is simple: risk and reward for teachers. Teachers in private schools have to deliver better student results whereas teachers in public schools do not have any such obligation. More importantly, as most public school teachers are members of political parties, their future is tied with political and not academic performance. For political parties, the public schools are there not for education (as their children attend nearby private schools) but for implementing their agenda.

But privatisation is not a solution for schooling education on both efficiency and equity grounds. It is reasonable to argue that as every rupee has an alternative use in competing needs and resources are always in short supply, higher education should be left to private markets with the government only as a regulator. But when it comes to schooling education, it is essential that Nepal follows the path of successful nations by first building a decent public education system.

If anything could be a game changer for Nepal, it is top-notch, scientific, publicly funded education to all up till the 12th grade. The provision of such education has the potential to lift the boats for all.

To move towards that direction, the changes required are urgent and the outcomes needed are clear. Public schools, which are rightfully taken as traps locking in the children of poor parents, have to be acclaimed as centres of excellence in learning. The massive advantage of attending private schools over public schools that exists today has to be eliminated, if not reversed. Public distrust towards public schools (and the boycott that goes with it) should be replaced by public pride in having them.

So far, the role of political parties has been shameful. They have been the main architect of performance difference between private and the public schools. If they are still not convinced to change the course and deal with the travesty they have created, they will soon hear some chants being rehearsed — there is a limit to injustice’.

This article was originally published in The Kathmandu Post on Monday, 23 June 2014 and can be accessed at
http://www.ekantipur.com/2014/06/23/oped/a-lesson-in-failure/391208.html