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Nepal’s school-merging programme goes against the right to education by Nilima Rai

Nepal’s government is increasingly merging schools due to shrinking population numbers in its rural areas, arguing that this will improve the quality of education. However, as Nilima Rai points out, reducing the number of schools actually has an adverse impact on children in remote areas. Hence, the government policies interfer with the children’s right to education.

The Prime Minister of Nepal and his government has named the quality of education in public schools as the topmost priority, with a promise of developing Nepal as an international educational hub. Accordingly, the Nepal Government is aspiring to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, with a proposed target of an enrolment rate of almost 100% by 2030.

So, the governmental authorities believe that merging schools will help to improve the quality of education in public schools. However, it is necessary to understand whether the existing education policies and infrastructures of public schools, particularly in remote areas of Nepal, are inspiring children’s enrolment, or whether it has an adverse impact on them. This article is based on the informal conversations with people I met during my visit to Annapurna Base Camp and a governmental official of Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) Nepal, reflections of different field visits (other research purposes), and policy reviews and grey literatures relevant to Nepal’s education system and children’s rights.

Context of the Study

I met a girl, three or four years old, in a small teahouse. Like any kid, she was happily playing outside her house. I asked her mother, the teahouse owner, if she went to school. Her reply evoked introspection: “Yes, she does, but she just came home a few days ago for the Dashain vacation.” Wasn’t she too young to leave her mother to travel far just to join school?

Later, I discovered that the little girl was staying with her elder siblings in Pokhara (17 miles away) to study, since the neighbourhood primary school had merged with another school and was now located some distance away. Her story is not a new phenomenon, particularly in the remote villages of Nepal where school-merging policies and programmes are being implemented.

Implications of School Merging Policies on Children’s Education

Consequently, the implications of the existing education policies in sparsely populated areas of Nepal are evident. A large corpus of literature on migration and remittances suggest that remittances have improved the living standards of remittance-recipient households and led to internal migration, mostly for the children’s education, because student numbers in remote areas have dropped. To address the decreasing number of students in public schools, the government introduced the School Merging Implementation Directives 2014, but the long-term impacts of school-merging policies on children were not considered prior to its design and implementation.

The Directives followed the scheme to restructure the education system from classes 1 to 12 by creating uniformity as per the School Sector Reform Plan 2009-15. According to the Directives, schools located within 30 minutes’ walking distance from home and serving a small population, that are unable to meet the minimum criteria of a full-fledged foundation, primary or upper primary school, can be merged together and run as a full-fledged school. According to the Status Report 2014-15 of the Department of Education, out of the 35,223 schools in the country, 443 schools were merged with neighbouring schools, 627 were closed, and 43 were downsized. This number might have increased since then.

The provision of merging schools located within 30 minutes’ walking distance from home overlooks the grim realities of a difficult topography and the absence of transportation in remote areas. The addition of 15-20 minutes to the commute time has exacerbated the children’s problems and increased the chance of dropouts. Taking into account the widespread poverty in Nepal and the country’s dependency on intensive agriculture, the Government of Nepal (Ministry of Health and Population and Ministry of Education) in support of different UN agencies and INGOs introduced the mid-day meal programme to support families in need and encourage children who have to walk long distances to school simply in search of enrolment. Due to irregularities and the insufficiency of such programmes, cases of children not getting the mid-day meal exist.

Children’s Rights and School Merging Policy

It is said that the practice of merging schools is intended to enhance the quality of education by centralising scattered resources, but it is very crucial to assess the feasibility for each and every child before merging schools. When schools are merged, children have no alternative but to quit school, endure the hardship of commuting over longer distances, or leave their parents and live in another place.

Hence, my study finds that the school-merging programme goes completely against the children’s right to education. When seen from the lens of child rights and the perspective of local communities, it has actually aggravated the children’s problems and driven them away from school. Therefore, it is imperative to analyse the long-term consequences of such policies on children’s education and exercise to find a better and comprehensive solution.

This post is a summarised version of the author’s article in the Kathmandu Post.

Image Credit: Simona Cerrato on Flickr.

nilima.jpgAbout the author:

Nilima Rai is an ISS alumni. She is currently working for CESLAM on various research studies, and previously worked for several National and International NGOs. Her primary research interests are issues of International/National migration and labour, forced migration, ethnic relations, and gender issues