| April 23, 2018

Schools first

It was a day off for Sujita. She was working as a Science teacher at the Bhimsen Secondary School at Kharithok village in central Nepal. As a 'Teach for Nepal' fellow, she had arrived in Sindhupalchowk district last year to help raise the quality of teaching in the community school. But her youthful life as well as her vision was cut short when a powerful quake hit central Nepal at 11:56 am on April 25. Sujita Chaudhary died when the house she was living in collapsed. Many residents of the village as well as students at the school where she taught were killed.

The devastating quakes on April 25 and May 12 have already killed over 8,200 people and made tens of thousands of people homeless. Those killed included over 30 teachers including Sujita and dozens of school children. According to the Department of Education, 14,500 classrooms were destroyed in the April 25 earthquake alone. Many school buildings have been partially damaged and need urgent repairs. While officials are trying to restart classes by opening 'Temporary Learning Centers (TLCs)' in the affected areas, resuming the teaching/learning fully might take several months.
According to the Asian Development Bank, some 160 schools that were retrofitted survived the devastating quake. They also served as shelter for the affected communities in the aftermath of the quake. Now, making earthquake safe schools in the affected districts and retrofitting other schools across the country remains a major challenge—both financially as well as technically.

Rebuilding schools, however, should serve as a starting point to improve the overall quality of teaching and learning in the educational institutions. Less than 30 percent of the students from the community schools (that is, government funded schools) passed the SLC exams last year, while the pass rate was over 90 percent for students in the private schools.

Poor quality of teaching and learning remains one of the acute problems in Nepal's community schools. While the Nepal government pays salary to permanent teachers and admin staff, local community often bears costs for additional subject teachers. There is hardly any money left to conduct extra-curricular activities, buy computers or set up a decent library.

May be the new schools could adopt the READ Nepal model. The NGO has set up 59 centers across the country benefitting some two million people. While local communities provide land to set up libraries, READ Nepal helps construct the building that houses the library. It also encourages local communities to launch enterprises so as to sustain these libraries. READ Nepal centers are now running 87 sustaining enterprises including fisheries and vegetable farming. Every Center has a spare room that is used for community meetings. It is also rented out to NGOs and INGOs when they want to conduct training for local community.

So by building an extra room in the newly built schools, the government or donors would not only be helping to sustain the schools but also forging strong bond between them and local communities. It will also be a good idea to set up a seed fund in every school, which could be used to sustain it in the long run. The local community and donors should be encouraged to top up these funds from time to time.

These schools can also serve as focal points to reach out to local communities to improve awareness among on issues ranging from family planning, health, sanitation or women's empowerment. Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO), a non-governmental organization based in Kathmandu, has been partnering with nine schools in Surkhet district in mid-western Nepal to provide improved access to safe water and better sanitation for school children. Through these children, it is also reaching out to local communities and helping them in their efforts to better manage solid waste and waste water at the local level. During the World Water Forum in Daegu Korea last month, the ENPHO was awarded the fourth World Water Grand Prize for its innovative efforts. "The ENPHO is involved in grass-roots activities, which may serve as a model for others," the organizers said.

Late Indian mystic Osho said the problem with today's educational system is that they are far removed from the day to day lives of the children. Our high school graduates don't know how to take care of their cattle or buffalo when they fall ill, they don't know how to identify and treat crops like paddy if they catch any disease. Worse, many of them don't want to work in the fields or help their parents during the farming season. Little wonder then that most of our youths, who have barely passed eighth grade or have failed SLC exams are leaving Nepal for Gulf and other countries in huge numbers without proper skills.

Those who stay behind lack necessary reading and numeracy skills even after ten years of school education. One way to change such a scenario would be to encourage schools to display a placard somewhere in the school highlighting the SLC result of the last year. The placard could read something like "Only (blank) percent of our school students passed SLC last year. We are committed to increase it to at least (blank) percent over the next three years." Such a voluntary commitment by the school faculty, head teacher and students can certainly go a long way in improving the teaching and learning environment in the school. Since you can't improve the quality of SLC students overnight, the work must start from primary level students. It's a long and arduous job but it is something we must all strive for.

It may take years for the local villagers to rebuild their communities devastated by the recent earthquake. Local schools should serve as focal points in such reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, at the same time providing quality education to local children—that's what they are supposed to do.

It might also be a fitting tribute to students and teachers like Sujita Chaudhary, who lost their precious lives in the earthquake.

The author is a BBC journalist based in London

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