Recently St. Xavier's School, a prestigious educational institution in the country, conducted the selection process for students for the new upcoming school year. It is a rigorous and transparent process that sees thousands of families hoping to get their children admitted to a sound environment focused on the "whole" development of the student.
Despite the strict selection criteria with tests and various requirements, the senior management of St.
Xavier's School was forced, given the high number of applications, to also include in the process, at least for some of the places available, a sortition procedure to finalise the names of admitted students. In order to assure the highest levels of integrity, in what is ultimately a lottery for those who had already met the eligibility criteria, the entire process was broadcast live on TV nationally.
While many well deserving students ended up with empty hands and a big disappointment for missing out a great chance, those selected and their respected families were jubilant for joining a world-class educational programme that puts a premium on the humanistic aspect of the learning process, a key pillar of the approach to education imparted by Jesuits around the world.
While I was always aware of the competitiveness to join an institution like St.
Xavier's School, I was surprised by the fact that a final sortition procedure had to be contemplated in order to deal with the high demand of applicants. In one way, I see this as a success story as the country can count on an increasing number of high quality schools that are able to offer the best possible education available: great teachers, great infrastructure and teaching philosophies that are centered on the students' needs.
At the same time, on the other hand, I think of it as a failure of the entire education system as such competition for the best schools could have been simply avoided if public schools, those now under the auspices of the local government, could enhance their standards and overall performances.
At the end of the day, there is still a big gulf between private and public community schools, with the latter mostly catering to the needs of the less affluent families and the former instead focusing on high quality education that, in most of the cases, is everything but affordable.
While it is true that many private schools like St. Xavier's School are run on not-for-profit basis and the fees are not aimed at maximising the bottom line, many others are run totally as business entities that certainly offer a great service to the nation but are focused only on those who can afford it. In between are many private schools that offer an average service but still too often are able to outpace the performances of many public, community schools.
Is it possible to imagine a more balanced scenario where a better level playing field and enhanced teaching standards are applicable for all the schools of the country regardless of their for-profit or not-for-profit nature? As recently written in this column by Hari Prasad Lamsal, the Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, a person who is deeply committed to improving the educational system of the country, Nepal soon will have a New School Education Plan (NSEP) that will extend the work of the School Sector Development Plan (SSDP).
We are talking about masterplans, if we can call them this way, that are aimed, thanks also to the generosity of many development partners, at overhauling the quality and inclusiveness of the national education system. In his piece Lamsal wrote about the need of "addressing the root causes (of the existing roadblock to a better and inclusive education) by providing incentive packages to needy households".
This means talking about inequities that oftentimes force children to drop out of school, a problem that must vigorously be addressed by the NSEP, especially in the light of the massive impact that the pandemic is having on many vulnerable families, whose children have been forced to abandon their already precarious study trajectory over the last year.
There is one relatively simple concept that could help solve this issue once and for all: scholarships. If the country wants to enhance the inclusion of the most vulnerable children, it is essential to invest in national scholarship programmes, whose access mechanisms and benefits are going to be properly communicated throughout the country. They should become the next "pride" national project governments at all levels should be focused on.
Indonesia, a country with its own struggles and challenges, can count of several national flagship scholarship and incentive programmes, all of them strategically leveraged to achieve SDG 4 focused on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education.
Certainly, scholarships alone won't overhaul the entire public system. We need to further professionalise the role of teachers with more benefits based on higher performances that ultimately will strengthen their recognition and status in the society.
Better infrastructure through a massive investment plan will be also indispensable.
To be fair, we see now a number of public, community run schools that have strengthened their overall performance being able to compete with local private schools over students' enrollment.
At the same time there are many promoters of private schools who are keen to play a stronger social mission.
That's why any new education plan should also envision not only better regulations of the private schools but also enable a framework where public education can be also imparted by profitable social enterprises.
One day, who knows, a public lottery system might also be applied to sort out the selection of students wishing to enroll in a local public, community school.
This should be the overarching aim of the any future national education plan.
If the country wants to enhance the inclusion of the most vulnerable children, it is essential to invest in national scholarship programmes, whose access mechanisms and benefits are going to be properly communicated throughout the country. They should become the next "pride" national project governments at all levels should be focused on
A version of this article appears in the print on July 13 2021, of The Himalayan Times.