State and People: Inclusive Education – Teach How You Preach

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The word “inclusion” was not in the Nepali language’s vocabulary when I left my village of Sarkuwa in Baglung District, Nepal, some three decade ago. This time around, however, I found my village to be a different place. People are much more conscious of their rights compared to ever before, and inclusion has become a buzzword among the literates. Marginalized groups want to be included in the mainstream. Yet, as I tried to look beneath the surface, I feared that my villagers are not any nearer to an inclusive society today than they were three decades ago. In fact, all indicators seem to say that the New Nepal may very well be founded on the principles of the most profound of exclusions while inclusion buzzwords are ringing on the slogans of the political parties.

There was only one secondary school in the whole of southern belt of Baglung District when I was a young lad. Everyone had only one choice of school whether they were poor, rich, Sarki, Brahmin, or Magar. Although I do not remember any of my Dalit friends attending school beyond Grade 3, at least the founders of that school had no provisions for either excluding children of the poor households, or sending them off to an inferior school. There were other profound socio-economic barriers in front of poor and Dalit children but those exclusions were not the byproduct of the education system. And, I am talking of a time when there was no presence of central government in our village and the whole system was run by the local efforts of our villagers.

Throughout the 1980s Panchayat Raj tried to centrally control the education system and was able to fully entrench political partisanship in the schools. After the political uprising of 1990, our socialist and neo-liberal political friends were brought to power in a hope to fix the misdeeds of the old regime. But the political operatives turned to the advice of corporate consultants instead of reading a few pages of history to learn some lessons for fixing the problems of Nepal. Instead of reversing the wrongs, they rode on the Panchayati wave – further politicizing the schools, and entrenching a discriminatory system of education by bringing in a for-profit private education to compete with the public education. This policy ensured that rich and poor would no longer attend the same school. They had hoped that this newly introduced competition would fix all the ills of the public schools but the result proved to be just the opposite. As a result of this policy, children were thrown into the world of the “market” and public education was quickly deteriorated. The quality of private education delivered to children depended on the money that the parents could afford to pay.

Today, the public education in Nepal has been so thoroughly dismantled that those who send their children to public schools are looked down upon in society. Yet most parents of Nepal are unable to send their children to private schools. Even in Kathmandu Valley, which is the most prosperous place in all of Nepal, half the children cannot afford to attend private schools. The situation is such that anyone with small hint of common-sense should be able to figure out that it is against the principle of founding an equitable and prosperous society. But the system has been glorified by the ruling political parties of Nepal and superpower donors on the premise that it upholds the principles of the “free-market economy” and “international norms”. However, it amazes me that these same countries are playing the politics of “inclusion” and “democracy” while helping Nepal systematically dismantle its ability to fairly and equitably educate its children.

If the history of world civilizations means anything to us, we should note that the sustained progress of the Chinese empire for five centuries begun in the time of Kublai Khan (1215-94AD) with the organization of Chinese society in the units of about fifty households. With broad responsibilities and authority over their lives – farming, land, water and natural resource management, justice and education – these units (she) became the building blocks of the Chinese prosperity. For the first time in modern history of humankind, public schools were built for all citizens and compulsory universal education of all children was practiced. This policy broke the stranglehold over the education and power held by a few elites. This policy also eroded the support base of Sung dynasty, which was still ruling in many parts of China, and built new momentum for widespread progress and loyalty of ordinary people towards unification of China under Yuan dynasty [1]. China remained an undisputed superpower in the world for centuries to come. Five centuries later, governments in Europe picked up the responsibility for public education, while China went on dismantling its universal public education following the rise of Ming dynasty.

Scotland introduced a tax on landlords in 1633 to subsidize the education for the children of the general public but this tax was subsequently revoked. Scotish parliament re-instated the tax in 1696 only [2]. However, the general awakening brought by earlier efforts helped Scotland raise its literacy and build support for public education system. The land tax continued to subsidize the education for the poor until a compulsory and free public education was introduced for the children aged between 5 and 13 with the Education Act 1872 [2]. The lead of Scotland, and subsequent movement in the United Kingdom, for educating the children of general public made the British Empire the strongest in the world, eclipsing the old Chinese empire throughout the 18th and 19th century.

While the UK was strengthening its public education in the 19th century, the United States was still having an education system accessible only to the wealthy and white population. But by 1918 all states in the USA passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school and 20th century belonged to the USA on account of its sustained focus on public education. From 1900 to 1996 the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school in USA increased from about 6 percent to about 85 percent [3]. Similarly college and university enrolment went up from 2 percent at the beginning of the 20th century to 60 percent near the end of the century among the age group of 18 to 24. Public education in the USA got a huge face-lift after World War II, and the post war USA surpassed every nation in educational indices. By 1960s it had removed all barriers to education to Blacks and other minorities.

Yet the 21st century may have been slipping away from the hand of the USA. Other countries are marching ahead in educational indices and in research and development. Countries like Switzerland, Finland, Japan, Sweden, and Germany have already surpassed USA in the categories of per-capita inventions and many other countries have produced better educational indices. An OECD report on education published in 2005 came to conclude that “The most effective economies are those with the largest production of information and knowledge and in which they are easily accessible to the greatest number of individuals and enterprises” [4]. The same report said that every extra year of education increases the productivity of a person by 3-6%. Therefore, education is found to be the largest contributing factor in the productivity growth of a country.

Despite a volume of research and statistics available on their fingertip, Nepalese political pundits seem to be conveniently ignoring public education, which is a necessary ingredient for building a prosperous nation. They rather seem to be listening to those foreign powers and international corporate interests that would wine and dine them. Parties like Nepali Congress are busy convincing the people of Nepal that for-profit education has been great for Nepal. Because they were the one who imported this dreadful and shortsighted system to Nepal, they are keen on proving the greatness of the system by the fact that more students from the English boarding schools pass SLC exams compared to those from the public schools. Similarly, the parties like CPN (UML), who happily embraced the system, are busy introducing a three tier education comprising for-profit, co-operative and pubic systems to replace today’s two-tier education system. As the Maoists have entered into the coalition, there is a danger that they might also support this unjust education system on the name of appeasing the foreign donors.

However, every successful country in the history of humanity has heavily emphasized on public education during its rising phase and has strived to dismantle the public education during its dying phase. Common sense should, therefore, tell that for Nepal to rise in the path of inclusion, unity and prosperity, a fair public education system is necessary. And, there is no other tool to conquer the old ills of exclusion than a single tier and mandatory public education for all children.

Although public education is a much admired goal, the current practice of centrally controlling the public education system is in contrary to the principles of good management. Public schools will not deliver quality education using the current model of management. All the schools of Nepal must once again be turned into the ownership of the local communities and all children of a community must be required to go to the same school despite the wealth of the parents. The role of the ministry should be in standardization, curriculum development, program development, licensing of qualified teachers, and so on. Government must not hire, fire, and transfer individual teachers. Only local school boards shall have the authority to do such things. There is no other magic to building large systems that are incorruptible.

When Kublai Khan came to power in China, his country was not unified. Moreover, educated elites shared one set of system and high culture while the common people belonged to a distinctly different and inferior system – the same scenario as in today’s Nepal. How Kublai Khan captured the sentiment of the Chinese intelligentsia was that he planted a hope of realizing the previously unfulfilled dream of building a united country with all people under a single government1. His problem of building a single cohesive political entity out of a large number of disparate people was more daunting than what we are facing today in Nepal. He could not have done it if he wanted to establish the supremacy of his culture (Mongol) over those of his people. He could not have done it if he had stayed among the Chinese upper class. He repaired the damage of war by restoring the public buildings, temples, shrines, and places of deep symbolic value. He built an entirely new and planned capital in Beijing to disassociate with the past. He brought people of skills and knowledge from around the world to build trade. He bestowed management of local affairs to local communities. And, most of all he brought the light of education to ordinary people by removing barriers that separated the rich and the poor for the time immemorial. Unless Nepalese rulers can gather a will to do this, the prospect of building an inclusive society in Nepal will always remain a myth!

[1] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Three River Press, New York, pp. 196-217.

[2] Education in Scotland, http://www.answers.com/topic/education-in-scotland

[3] Deeptha Thattai, A History of Public Education in the United States, http://www.servintfree.net/~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.htm

[4] Straight A’s: Public Education Policy and Progress, Vol 5, No. 18, Oct 3, 2005, http://www.all4ed.org/publications/StraightAs/Volume5No18.html

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