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NEPAL: School Initiative Making the Grade

Damakant Jayshi*

KAVRE, Nepal, Nov 23 2010 (IPS) - Four years ago, Ramita Bhujel was a bit reluctant to go back her school after a year’s absence. This Grade 4 student of Shree Saraswati Secondary School here had been down with pneumonia, failed to clear her nursery exams and as a consequence stayed at home.

Grade 2 students of Shree Saraswati Secondary School praying at the start of the school day. Credit: Damakant Jayshi/IPS

Grade 2 students of Shree Saraswati Secondary School praying at the start of the school day. Credit: Damakant Jayshi/IPS

“I was wary of what the teachers would say due to my long absence,” the 10-year old student says.

Ramita remembers one senior student, Sharmila, visiting her and persuading her to go back to the school, located in Kavre in the east of this Himalayan country. “Sharmila didi (elder sister) came to my home after one of the teachers sent her to speak to me,” she recalls.

Ramita would have gone back to school anyway, since her mother was also for it.

But Bharat Kumar Yadav of Khariyani village of Dhanusha district in eastern Nepal would not have been as fortunate as Ramita had it not been for Welcome to School (WTS) initiative of the Nepal government, supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other donors.

According to a study conducted by Dhanusha District Education Office for UNICEF in July 2010, Bharat had to drop out of school in 2004 because his father wanted him to work in the farm.

Although primary education in Nepal is free, Nathuni Yadav asked his son to help in farm work since there were too many mouths to feed in the family. Bharat stayed out of school for two years until he was spotted by a ‘young champion’, a volunteer who promotes girls’ education in areas where girls’ enrolment rate is relatively lower. (Subsequently, young champions started the drive to enrol out-of-school boys as well.)

The trained young volunteers, selected by school management, carry out household surveys to identify out-of-school children, enrol them as part of WTS campaign and keep track of students who drop out.

After his initial refusal to let his son go back to school, the senior Yadav relented. Now Bharat is a fifth grader at Gyanjyoti National Primary School, bent on continuing his studies at least until the higher secondary level.

In 2004, the UNICEF introduced the WTS initiative in 14 districts in two phases. The first was an enrolment drive focusing on girls and disadvantaged groups and the second was a push to improve teaching and learning environments so that children would remain in and complete primary school.

The Nepal government then took over the WTS campaign and launched it in all the country’s 75 districts in the next year.

The WTS initiative has already started showing results in students’ enrolment at the primary level. Nepal’s primary school enrolment rose from the usual two percent annually to 11.7 percent annually by 2005, or an additional 473,000 children, of whom 270,000 were girls, government data show. The increase in Grade 1 enrolment was some 21 percent.

“Net enrolment (at primary level) has shown quite a jump from 70 percent in 1996 to 93.7 percent in 2010,” Sumon Tuladhar, education specialist at the UNICEF Kathmandu office, says.

The WTS campaign’s focus follows the communities’ needs. In some places, it is the enrolment of out-of-school children; in some, it is improving the quality of education; and in others, it is creating awareness among parents, community leaders and teachers about the need for education.

But the key focus remains getting out-of-school children in school, especially girls and those from disadvantaged community like Dalits or ethnic Janajatis.

It often remains difficult to convince parents from disadvantaged communities to send their children to school, says the headmaster of Shree Saraswati Secondary School in Kavre, Ramesh Kaji Shrestha. “They are aware they need to send their kids to school, but we still have a lot of ground to cover,” he explains.

The government has introduced a financial incentive programme to get parents to send their children, including girls, to school. This scheme provides scholarship money to all school-going children from these disadvantaged communities and 50 percent of the girls at the primary level of grades one to five.

But some schools, like the one Shrestha heads, have added their own touches to this programme. It gives uniforms to all the girl students in the primary level every year. “We could not see the disappointment of the girls who did not receive anything,” Shrestha tells IPS.

Despite the headway made by WTS, curbing the dropout of children from school remains a challenge. More than 20 percent of students drop out at the primary level, that is, between Grade 1 and 5, says the Nepal government report of 2009/2010.

UNICEF’s Tuladhar points to a mix reasons for the school dropout rate — lack of child-friendly atmosphere in schools, parents who are mainly interested in the scholarship incentives and less in sending their wards to school, and traditional teaching methods that do little to keep students interested.

Teachers admit that many vary little from the old ways of instruction, which include lecturing to setting questions and giving answers to meting out corporal punishment.

“Even a few years ago, we taught as we were taught during our days as students,” says Saraswati Sharma, a Grade 3 teacher at Shree Saraswati Secondary School. “Now I prepare lesson plans in a way so as to allow students more activity and creativity. They really enjoy their class work and homework these days.”

The use of a more child-centric approach by many government-run schools as well as new training programmes for teachers have also added spice to many a class.

Shrestha says this approach includes using new seating arrangements in class: students sit face to face around a table, unlike traditional settings where all face the blackboard with their teacher in front of it. “This promotes group learning,” the headmaster says. “Now a weak student in the group is helped by his or her peers.”

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

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