21 September 2015

The Nepali Education System

In the last few weeks I've had something of a crash-course in the Nepali education system, and I'd like to share a bit of what I've learned in order to give some context for future posts about Surya Boarding School.

Firstly, public, government-run schools are (in theory) free, including the cost of textbooks in lower grades, and are available to students throughout the country, but attendance is not universally enforced. Most people place a high value on good education, but in rural areas some students are compelled to quit and work at home. These schools use the Nepali language as their teaching medium, except, of course, in English, which is a required subject for all students. The quality of these schools is generally thought to be inferior to that of private schools, and in my limited experience I have found this to be true.

The heavily earthquake-afflicted Himalaya Higher Secondary School
Private schools, on the other hand, are run by many different organizations, ranging from Cambridge University, to religious charities, to some person with extra money and a kind heart. They obviously vary in quality, but are regarded as being the preferred option for those who can afford them. At my school, which typically ranks second or third in this district by student exam scores, fees for first-time enrollment and one year's tuition for a kindergartner total less than $100, but unfortunately this is prohibitive for many families. Many/most private schools use English as a teaching medium. This is problematic, because students are limited in their ability to understand new materials by their level of English fluency. However, English-medium schools tend to yield better results than those of Nepali-medium schools.

A typical Nepali classroom
The division of levels within schools is a bit different than the American system. Grades 1-5 are Primary, 6-8 are Lower Secondary, 9-10 are Secondary, 11-12 are Higher Secondary (sometimes referred to as "+2"), and beyond this the same university levels apply. At the secondary level, the compulsory subjects are: Nepali language, English language, social studies, math, science, and "Health, Population, and the Environment." Optional additional subjects include economics, management/accounting, computer science, geography, history, and agriculture, but not all of these are widely offered.

Nepali textbooks
At the end of secondary school, students take the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exam, which is a lot like the SAT/ACT but covering every subject. The results of this test are of central importance for students who continue their education. Starting in higher secondary school, students take a concentration according in large part to their SLC scores.

Bachelor's and Master's programs are available in larger towns throughout the country, as is the case in the US. In Khandbari, which is the relatively small headquarter of Sankhuwasabha District, I know of two colleges. Unlike in the US, however, this presents a great obstacle to students from rural places. Given the condition of Nepal's roads (or, in so many places, lack of a condition), university students from rural areas are obliged to either rent a room in town or live there with relatives if they can, but, unfortunately, many can't make the financial cut. A decent price for a small rented room in town is $20 per month, while the common practice of renters taking two daily meals with some other family costs about $60 per month. I think it'd be difficult to spend less without having some help. That cost alone, not including tuition and other expenses, exceeds the per capita income in this district.

College-level classrooms at Himalaya Higher Secondary School
Definitely not James Watt

I've mostly been studying the materials for English and social studies classes, but in these two subjects, at least, I've been impressed by the rigor of the curricula. Although some textbooks have frequent and, occasionally, hilarious mistakes, the overall quality is not bad, considering that they were created entirely by non-native speakers. The courses are designed such that students cover more-or-less the same topics each year, but with increasing depth and complexity, like how we all learned math - first algebra, then trigonometry, then calculus, and so on. Eighth graders study all the major rules of English grammar and must answer straightforward questions, while tenth graders study the same rules in greater depth and must answer nasty trick questions like those we might find in the SAT. My only complaint about it all is that some discriminatory biases, which are addressed in the social studies curriculum, find their way into the books.

I'm not sure if this is a mistake...
...or just sexist
The toughest thing for me to see in the Nepali school system is how discipline is enforced. Students are held to a much higher standard of behavior than in American schools. Indeed, I think many American students couldn't handle it. They are expected to stand whenever they speak, to always show great respect toward teachers, and to be paying attention at all times in class. To a an extent I think this is really beneficial, but my problem is that if they are found to be misbehaving they are usually given either a threat or a beating. This last bit, I think, warrants more discussion at another time.

Unrelated clouds
That's all for now. Lately the days have been sunny and quite hot, and the nights have brought extremely heavy rain. The clouds are slowly receding though, and the long-awaited end of the monsoon will come in a few weeks. I think everyone is looking forward to it.

Silent in the dark
The old man sits, watching me
Spill half of my cup

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