Coping with high primary dropout rates

Vishnu Karki:

Primary education in Nepal is perceived as a basic human right of all children and as a means of social and economic development. Primary school dropout and grade repetition is hence considered to be a staggering loss for the students, their families, and the country as most do not achieve basic literacy before dropping out and school re-entry is rare in most cases.

According to School Level Educational Statistics of Nepal, 2002 released by the Department of Education, over 15 per cent of the total enrolments in grade one drop out each year. About 42 per cent in grade one and over 10 per cent in the remaining primary grades students repeat classes. These have been common in Nepal’s primary schools for the past two decades. A large portion of Nepal’s meagre government budget is invested each year in education. But, according to an estimate, over two billion rupees a year is being wasted thus in primary education alone.

This not only wastes educational resources but also is thought to lead to a host of social and economic consequences. The people and the government cannot afford avoidable waste in the education system. Finding ways to reduce dropout without jeopardising the subsistence level of many Nepali families is challenging.

A study conducted in Kapilvastu district put the most commonly observed phenomenon of school dropout under two broad classifications: family background and student characteristics. Household chores and poverty together account for about 40 per cent of all reported antecedents of school dropout. While poverty can indirectly contribute to dropout through the need for childcare so that both parents can work, it also contributes directly to dropout because some parents cannot afford to buy books and school supplies or to pay the fees despite the fact that Nepal’s policy documents specify free tuition and free textbooks.

As for the student characteristics, late entry into school, irregular school attendance, poor health condition, and adverse peer group influences are cited as main reasons for dropouts.

The mean age of dropouts was found to be 10.5 years, whereas the mean age of the primary school child is supposed to be eight years. Poor school conditions are also to be blamed. Fresh students are abruptly exposed to uncomfortable school conditions and to formal instruction and examinations.

Several antecedents explored in this study are probably more complex than they appear. For example, “irregularity in school” could be a function of child’s dislike of school, a mild physical or mental disability and so forth. It could also be due to failure in school that leads to frustration and humiliation and results in irregularity. Failure in school on the other hand could also be caused by irregular attendance that in turn might be caused by various other things. Thus there appears to be a complex construct of several intertwined factors.

The study has suggested that dropout is primarily due to poor families’ need to put all hands to work as soon as they can be productive. It is clear that a good portion of the dropout is due to economic pressures, but it is also clear that a good portion of it is not. Both the reported antecedents of dropout and the activities of recent dropouts suggest that many leave school because of anxiety over examinations, the humiliation of academic failure and boredom. This is a hugely unnecessary waste in Nepal’s struggle to develop its human resources and its economy — a waste that could be reduced with appropriate policy responses.