Effective, equitable public education: The challenges ahead

A school or a hospital should not just be run on an exclusive profit maximisation model. They are social businesses where a profit is certainly admissible but within a clear social mission

Surprisingly enough, I recently came across news that local government bodies would be in charge of imparting education in the coming days of the pandemic.

The news was astonishing because local bodies have been, at least on paper, responsible for education at the local levels since the promulgation of the new constitution that turned the country into a federal system. It was even more baffling to read that representatives of local bodies were unhappy with the decision because they feel unequipped and unprepared for the challenge.

The announcement itself, after months of schooling interruption due to the prolonged lockdown, was quite astonishing because it proved that the last six months had gone to waste as it took so long to reach a decision, apparently taken quite unilaterally by the federal government, on how to run the school year that was supposed to start back in mid-April.

Perhaps, what is happening in the education sector warrants us to reflect deeper on the status of educational governance in Nepal, offering us an opportunity to reflect on the best ways to promote equitable, inclusive and affordable quality learning.

First of all, the relationships between the state and private schools must be addressed and solved once and for all. Recently there was news that the Social Development Ministry of Bagmati Province had proposed to turn private schools into trusts or cooperatives.

My personal bottom line is that a school, or a hospital, should not just be run on an exclusive profit maximisation model.

I see them as social businesses where a profit is certainly admissible but within a clear social mission.

Pursuing a profit does not justify maximising the revenue-making dimension of such institutions at the cost of sacrificing key tenants of any responsible, ethical social business, which has at the core of its actions, a concern for its stakeholders, the people they serve. These are the same that make their social business financially viable because they are clients paying what I believe should be well regulated and subsidized fees.

A partnership between the state at the federal, provincial and local levels with these private socially conscious entrepreneurs is a must, a collaboration that should ensure a level playing field based on the perspective of equity and accessibility. Second consideration: perhaps it was too daunting to imagine that local bodies would be able to run quality-based and inclusive education by themselves from day one.

As controversial as it might seem, the responsibility of running a school should have been thought out differently, based on evidence from other federal and semi federal models being implemented around the world.

Ideally a decision-making system that is closer to the people is the best as they have better, easier access to their elected representatives and, therefore, it is easier for them to express their voice. That’s why federalism as a governance model has been vaunted in better terms in relation to a centralised form of government.

Coming back to education, now local bodies are unable to follow the latest directives to start the school year. On paper, the federal government is ready to provide any necessary support to initiate the new academic year in the best way possible, but in reality, the entire onus is on the local bodies that perhaps are regretting taking over the massive responsibility of imparting learning locally.

For the long-term improvement of education in the country, the ministries of social development from each of the provinces together with their colleagues in the local municipalities must engage the Federal Ministry of Education in a trilateral national conference aimed at defining a better, stronger system of delivery education in the country.

Such a trilateral conference should re-assess and re-analyse the roles and responsibilities in such a way that the local bodies are really in a position to deliver learning locally. It might also envision modalities where the federal government plays a stronger role without such a move appearing as an encroachment of responsibilities.

On a more immediate aspect, ingenuity and creativity and a better spirit of collaboration should prevail amid different contrasting interests.

The directive issued by the federal government also includes the possibility to mobilise volunteers to support the schools in the challenging day ahead. Local youth, if properly trained and adequately supported, could indeed make a difference but won’t be a panacea.

Local bodies, while exerting maximum pressure on the Federal Government for the best possible support available, must ensure that national and international not-for-profit organisations are enabled to contribute as much as possible.

Finally, teachers must showcase their professionalism and love for their job to prove that investing in them is not a waste but the safest bet the country should make now.

The days ahead are not going to be easy for the education sector, but from such a crisis we might be able to turn the corner with a better system in place and a better understanding of the meaning of effective public education for those who need it most.

I am referring to all those citizens living with modest means of life, those humble and hard working parents who still dream of their children having a better future than theirs.

Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE, an NGO