School education in Nepal has been thrown into disarray due to several reasons, including COVID-19. However, this pandemic is not the case involving Nepal alone. It is also a global challenge impacting both the developed and the developing world. According to a UNESCO report, 1.6 billion children across 191 countries have been severely affected by the closure of the educational institutions due to COVID-19. In order to mitigate the impact, educational institutions have responded to the contagion-induced shutdown differently in different contexts. Several options for students to keep them engaged have been tried out depending on the material and human resources available at one's own disposal.
Most of the options adopted to respond to COVID-19 focus on using innovative digital and mobile technologies in order to provide at least some form of educational continuity. Nevertheless, the school shutdowns have negative impact on students’ knowledge, emotions, awareness and skills development. Educationists argue that going to school is the best public policy tool available to raise students' skills. While school time can be fun and can raise social skills and awareness from cognitive point of view, being in school is very important as it increases student's competence in different aspects.
In the context of Nepal, for the present COVID-19 is the major problem but the lingering policy confusions and delusion have also been responsible to paralyse school education. Take the current situation of indecision and ambivalence as to whether or not to allow schools open considering the decline in the number of the COVID-19 cases. The federal government has ducked its obligations to conduct overall assessment of the pandemic situation and take decision and enforce it accordingly. It has rather passed the buck on to the local governments to make decisions taking the local situation and reality into account.
Though the decentralised decision-making is very important as it can help study and handle locality specific challenges more objectively. The key policy decisions regarding the school management and teachers recruitment are taken at the central level in contravention to the constitutional provision but shifting responsibility to the local governments to act on such public health-related critical and sensitive issues whether or not to open schools amidst the fears of pandemic is not appropriate.
Critically speaking, school education in Nepal is passing through a kind of disruptive phase due hitherto existing centralised mindset which is further exacerbated and ruined by Covid-19 too. Of course, the constitution entrusts local government the roles and functions expressly related with school education. But the central government appears fully reluctant to transfer the cutting edge authority related with school education as the central apparatus is inclined to keep its power without being assailed from any quarters. According to constitutional provision, the central government has been required to disband the existing apparatuses like district education offices and transfer human resources and assets to the local governments.
But it has firmly retained at the centre by reincarnating these offices as district education coordination and development units. Local governments suffer from capacity deficits to look after and govern school education effectively. The central government monopolises key allocation and implementation roles on the capacity deficit pretext leaving the peripheral responsibilities to the local governments. But when it comes to challenging times like Covid-19, the federal government is reflexive and quick enough to transfer the delicate task to the local governments shunning one's own critical roles and responsibilities at the cost of public health sensitivity.
In fact the, rationale behind entrusting roles and mandates relating to school education to local government is that the schools operated through decentralised arrangement perform better and deliver education services effectively. An effective monitoring of teachers through community engagement is possible at the local level. The local governments can address the education related issues more effectively, and accountability of teachers can be better ensured to improve the learning outcomes. But the federal government has manipulated the situation to one's own favour on the ground that the local governments lack resources and capacity.
It needs to be mentioned that the school education up to primary level is almost free, and the students passing out from the public schools are given preference in their pursuit of higher education. By all standards, the salary structure and perks given to the teachers for the public schools is higher when compared against the remunerative provision at the private schools. School teachers at the public schools are treated more or less at par with the civil servants. When there has been a raise in the salary of the civil servants, a corresponding increase of the perks of the teachers is also announced simultaneously.
Despite this, that teachers' accountability to their job does not seem to have enhanced. It is time efforts be made that we make teachers accountable for effective learning outcomes. The constitutional provision to devolve the school education related function upon the local government constitutes undoubtedly a big leap forward for decentralised delivery of the education services and accountability of teachers. But for this local governments need to be made truly capable and responsible to govern the school education. Only then they can be equally capable to respond to the emergency situation like pandemic in an effective way as the central government wants them to do.
(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org)