If the government can provide free school education, everybody will clap in support. Particularly in Nepal, without free schooling combined with some sort of incentive, many poor parents will not want to send their wards to school, because they see no immediate gains. After all, education is a long-term investment. Many villagers appear concerned about the engagement elsewhere of their helping hands, because they think this hampers work at home, in the fields, or on the pastures. Some projects, funded by foreigners and operated in limited areas, have shown that incentive besides free education gives parents a stimulus to send their children to school, like the prize of a certain quantity of cooking oil per month. But on the other hand, it is highly important that the government, before committing anything, should be reasonably confident of making good on its word. Broken promises lead to public disenchantment and erosion in the government’s credibility.
But, as in many other sectors, the past governments’ commitments on free secondary education have not been faithfully implemented. The government schools, now increasingly community schools, have been raising charges under one or the other head. Primary education was free when the 1990 pro-democracy movement was launched (later on, free textbooks were also made available), and the first (Congress) government elected after Jana Andolan I announced free secondary education. But it was easier said than done as ingenious ways were devised later on of making up for the loss arising from fee waiver, in particular, by way of a hefty annual admission charge. This kind of government behaviour amounts to deception played on the people. This approach has also led to further deterioration in the standard of government schools. Of late, the State has come a full circle. Backed up with substantial donor money, it continues to hand over the schools back to the communities, from which it had taken over nearly three and a half decades ago in the euphoria of the then New Education Plan.
Under the current scheme, the government is to divide school education into two levels, instead of the existing four. Accordingly, schooling up to Class 8 comes under basic education; and from that point up to Class 12 it is to be called secondary education. In whichever way the levels may be defined, the most important question is whether the government can deliver. Very soon, the government is to start providing free education up to Class 8. And it has the policy of gradually making so up to Class 12. At the basic level, the government can and should provide free schooling, though that alone will amount to a huge expenditure. Before the government can extend this free service to higher classes, it will be well advised to make sure that all children of school-going age receive free basic education with reasonably good quality. The challenge of reducing the dropout rate will be even greater as three more classes are being added. The programme should continue without deterioration even after foreigners go away. The problem with Nepali planners and policymakers has often been that they do not plan for sustainability, and that they do not seem to learn fully from past mistakes.