Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Iron Grave

It seems that schools have turned into sporting clubs, and instead of students, we have athletes competing for scores, trying to prove they are indomitable.

Last Friday was no ordinary day for my son, my wife and me, as it must have been for many parents and students across the country. We were anxious on hearing rumors and some news heads up that the results of School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams were to be announced later in the day.

Consider me, if you like, yet another SLC hypochondriac releasing his apprehensions. We had one mammoth query in our mind: Will our son get through the Iron Gate? Everyone is familiar with that shibboleth. The annual day of agony was here for hundreds of thousands. For the accustomed and the many SLC alumni, it was just another dreaded day in the 80-year-long history of our school inquisitions.

Amid the unease, we became cyberactive and even began texting to 1400 only to receive: Result is not available. Repeated reloads of the website of the Office of the Controller of Examinations (OCE) yielded nothing. Curiously, OCE seemed to be in a total control of the one thing we so desperately were looking for. The angst and restlessness disrupted our normal schedule, and we even missed some important appointments, and later in the evening, a wedding party.

It was only after many efforts that a congratulatory note popped up on the Nepal Telecom (NT) website. That made our day.

We had our reason for our angst. Our son would most probably fail in Nepali. He transferred from abroad without any knowledge of the language and started learning kakhara only a few years back. I even heard the school principal had announced that they would felicitate the Nepali teacher if his efforts helped my son pass the subject!

In the past year he had studied nothing much save Nepali, with additional coaching at school and private tuition at home. It was hard on him because there are no mechanisms to address special-needs arising from learning difficulties.

But we most certainly were not worried that our son might not secure distinction or flying marks. He scored just enough to pass in Nepali, and that was a huge relief. And the division he secured was beyond his expectation.

Both my wife and I passed our SLC exams over 30 years ago. In those days, it used to take several days for a copy of Gorkhapatra with the results to arrive at our village public school. At least three days of anguish before we could know we had made it to the passing list. Now we know SLC marks do not mean much in the real world and they certainly are not the benchmark of our son’s future success. The numbers do not necessarily reflect the extent of one’s knowledge, skills, and especially gifts or interests. Years after higher education, school certificates do not even find a place in most resumes or curriculum vitae.

Yet, sadly, SLC lords it over many young people and vexes many families. And in its grandstanding, it is all about numbers, numbers and numbers: 43.92 percent passed; 56 percent failed; highest score is 94.12 percent; 93.12 percent pass from private schools; 28.19 percent pass from public schools; 331 schools with nil results, etc. The race, with a huge splash of theatrics, is indeed intense.

It seems that schools have turned into sporting clubs, and instead of students, we have athletes competing for scores, trying to prove they are indomitable. Publishing and media industries conspire with schools, hyping up the tests as if they were a game, perhaps a School Leaving Cup (SLC). The victors take all. We hardly find the time to see why so many lost, and if they should have lost at all and what can be done about it.

Education should have been an equalizing enterprise—no one fails although someone could perform rather poorly. Otherwise, what is the incentive for the slogan Education for All? Our gains haven’t been consistent and steady. We slide time and time again. That’s not a reliable indicator of progress. This year’s rate of failure, 56 percent, is high even for a developing country. We have one of the lowest pass rates in the region. And it is a national disgrace that only 28.19 percent passed from public schools although they comprised 78 percent of all examinees. But our public servants quietly release the results, and see no reason to explain the numbers or apologize for the poor performance. Can we expect our education minister to appear on TV, announce the results and take some questions?

Every year, the efforts, aspirations and dreams of the majority of SLC examinees and their families are crushed. The pressure to succeed and the social stigma of failure are so strong that sometimes they lead to extreme stress, depression and even suicides. Take the case of the three girls from Baglung and Rukum, who, unable to bear the pain of failing SLC this year, killed themselves.

The SLC bogeyman is scaring many kids and their parents, and it’s also taking lives. The fear psychosis is widespread. Profiteering in private school businesses, utter neglect of public schools, the pressure on students to push their limits, and above all, government inefficiency in school sector reforms, altogether, paint a grim picture.

Of course, there has been a remarkable quantitative growth in schools over the past few decades. We have so many schools, including in the private sector, and enrolments at the basic level have crossed 90 percent. The government spends robustly in education—over 15 percent of the national budget (Rs 80.85 billion). And around 70 percent of the education budget goes in basic education, with the goal of laying a good foundation for the secondary level.

Policymakers have their task cut out. The School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) 2009-2015 lists many challenges in our schools, including social exclusion and inequalities in enrolments. The rich-poor, private-public school divides are also stark. Discrimination and social stigmas, lack of public trust and confidence in public schools, their inadequate governance capacity, lack of trained and motivated teachers who are responsive to diverse needs of students, and resource constrains are other challenges. The document spells out comprehensive measures to reform the structure, quality, and governance/management of schools.

SSRP envisions a student-focused approach long overdue in our schools. What I found noteworthy are the provisions for safe learning environment, special needs education, remedial programs for students performing below expectation, teacher training, and a continuous assessment system. The lack of these quality measures often accounts for the bulk of SLC failures. Many students pass all but one or two subjects in which they require extra support but never find it.

The hard part is implementing the SSRP. The plan targeted to raise SLC pass rate to 71 percent for 2013/14. And here we are with less than 44 percent!

It has been years since the government announced that school leaving final exams will be moved to the end of 12th grade. No such luck for my son. Any words of relief for the tenth graders though?

Published in Republica, 18 June, 2014