SLC, ELT, and Our Place in the Big Picture

Shyam Sharma*

When School Leaving Certificate (SLC) results were published earlier this month, quite a few of my friends and family members posted happy messages such as the following on Facebook: “Congratulations to our nephew ___ for securing 8* percent!!!” But whenever I come across such messages, I am reminded how privileged these friends and families are (including my own family). I am reminded of one person in particular whose SLC-related story I can never forget.

I have told Ramlal Sunar’s story on this blog before (please see comment section) so I won’t repeat it, but to recap what it is about, this young man was one of the “jhamte” candidates for the SLC who sought my help because he and the other young men and women in a village in Gulmi had been failing in English, some of them for many years. I had only completed my IA at the time but for them my private school background made me look like a savior. But tragically, Ramlal and most of the other students failed again even after my three or so months of tutoring. I probably helped them improve their English a little, but that was not what they wanted.

Until that experience, I had always believed that everyone who “studies hard” (like I did) would be academically successful. But now I began to think what happens when a whole education system lacks grounding in the local reality of students’ life and society. I could see that the young people were not failing because they were stupid. They were failing because the SLC did NOT test the intelligence, skills, knowledge-bases, and value systems that constituted and had value in the students’ LOCAL social, economic, cultural, and occupational lives. And the students would fail SLC if they failed any course.

Nepalese educators, especially those in fields related to English studies or English language, are often good at talking about postcolonialism, hegemony, and so on. But few of them seem to realize the irony of how they are perhaps most actively (though it may not be consciously/deliberately) involved in the gradual destruction of what used to be at least a slightly more organic system of public education, one that was delivered in the local language, one that encouraged a more locally based curriculum and pedagogy. That is, when Nepalese intellectuals leave Ramlals behind in their villages, they also seem to leave their responsibility to think in terms of the nation as a whole, a nation where Ramals are much more representative of the broader reality than those whose names we see on Facebook.

When I met Ramlal many years later, he didn’t even want to talk to me very much, because by this time I was already in my master’s degree, teaching at a big private school, with all kinds of gaps ever widening between him and me.

But this year’s SLC results reminded me of Ramlal again because I thought again how  those of us who have the voice and venues for raising public awareness about the numbers are also not very interested in talking about the national challenge in the first place. Just give it a try even as the furies about SLC results are still flying high, and someone is likely to ask you, “So, what are you going to do about it?”

The pendulum of failed percentage wildly swung back into the 60s again this year, after a small relief since 2004. As the media highlighted the numbers for a short period of time, among the regulars 58.43% students failed; among the exempted, a shocking 93.24% failed. That was a total of 343230 (yes, 3.4 lakh!) regular students and 98911 (yes, one lakh!) reappearing students whose friends and family didn’t get to post happy Facebook updates—or whatever equivalent social networking they use. That was a total of almost four and a half lakh students’ careers being sacrificed in an absurd national drama that we call education.

For a few days, people talked, and then they forgot. In fact, even when the discussions were visible on the interwebs, few educators seemed to share any ideas, assessments, soul searching, and solutions to this national crisis. The community of educators that I am closest to, English teachers, seemed less bothered by the situation than others within and without the education sector.

I try to think about why many people aren’t even surprised. It’s possible that they are being more optimistic, looking at the full half of the glass while I focus on the empty half. However, a glass that is almost 60% and more than 93% empty is a little too empty. And because we are talking about people rather than water or wine, it is too painful to even talk about it. It is also painful because this involves a society—its teachers, its policy-makers, its city-dwellers who don’t have to send their children to where the majority of parents do—that seems to have inured itself to the tragedy of closing the doors to the majority of children, a society where those whose voices have most impact are mostly quiet and smug because it doesn’t affect them directly. There are exceptions, but those people are hard to find.

Where does it all go so wrong with our education? News reports post-SLC indicated that “government spending on education increased from 27 billion rupees in 2006-07 to 63.91 billion rupees in 2012-13.” There was actually a silver lining—if you call this a silver lining (I call it a sign of disaster for the nation at large)—that the pass percentage at private schools has been above 80 in the past decade. But students in public schools, from which between two thirds and four fifths of students take the SLC, the pass percentage has been in the 30s, often below that. According to Teach for Nepal,

[I]f 100 students enroll for grade one, by the end of grade ten only 15% will have remained in the school system. The future prospects for these children are severely diminished. . . . of the students who fail their SLC, 90% fail in the core subjects such as Mathematics, English and Science.

Hard data is difficult to find (I would appreciate if someone could please add in the comments section below), but the subject taught by most of us on this blog, English, is evidently the lock on the “iron gate” of academic and professional careers in Nepal.

It is not easy at all to assess the situation with public versus private education. As serious researchers have often pointed out, because families tend to focus just on their children, the public tends to overlook the very definition of education–that it is most importantly a matter of social good. Most people do know that the current educational situation is creating a new “caste” system where those who attend the more expensive private schools have an unfair advantage over those who did not from the get go. But in the rush toward giving own children better chances than their neighbors they don’t pause to think that even in the most economically advanced nations, public schooling is guaranteed and even the richest people send their children to public schools. Added to that are the dynamics of power and resources, which in matter of about two decades have turned education in Nepal largely into a commodity in the market. Needless to say, English has increased opportunities for a few already privileged communities to participate in the global march of personal progress, but “English education” has also played a much more significant role in having a functional education (albeit one that needed much improvement) replaced with a myth about both language learning and about education at large.

But public education did not weaken just due to the lack of social responsibility that it needs. Social forces are dangerously aligned in one direction. For instance, there are forces such as these: the self-fulfilling myth that cost equals quality, English equals the promise of successful careers, and  private schooling equals prestige in society. Consequently, more educated, more motivated, better paid, better travelled and experienced people mostly gravitate to the private side; even those who theoretically oppose the destruction of education as a social good send their own children to private schools, and parents who have to send their children to public schools are literally ashamed. In fact, even among the most informed and educated people in our society, there is the myth of “English” education. Most people don’t even pause to think that in reality, there is just good education, which can be provided by any school, including the likes of Samata School–where students who pay only a hundred rupees a month were more successful in SLC this year than those in most of the lakh-rupees-a-year schools (Samata’s quality education had nothing to do with the medium but everything to do with a reality-based vision for the learner, the community, and the society at large). For a more critical/careful comparison of private and public schools, see the section starting at page 30 in the dissertation by Amrit Thapa, a Nepali researcher at Columbia University.

As Amrit Thapa shows by citing Tooley and Dixon’s findings, “private schooling as a solution to failing public schools in developing countries is not as straightforward” (p. 83). It is not just that it is ludicrous to not think about the overwhelming majority of parents who cannot afford the cost of private schooling; the very foundation and culture of private schools as they are today makes it unlikely that this sector will rise above the business model and become an organic part of the social structure that serves the need of the ordinary families. Whether we like this reality or not, private schools are usually run by individuals or groups who do not involve parents and community in governance, who treat teachers and students autocratically (See Thapa, linked above, p. 31), and who have little or no interest in long term visions of education for social good. This is not to say that we should dislike private schools altogether. In fact, we should expect private schools to be focused on profit motives and to contribute to education as a social good while trying to make profit, not as a primary objective. But that is why we can’t expect this mechanism to address the overall need of the nation given the economic status of the majority. The society and its serious educators and policy makers must think about how to make the private sector better align with the broader goals of education for social good.

So, where does a better understanding of the complexities leave us as English teachers most of whom have made our careers, or are making it, in the private sector? What do “we” have to do with the public schools when most of us teach in private schools where 80% pass the SLC, which looks fine? (No, actually, even the failure of 20% is not fine, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). As colleagues in this forum have also tried to articulate (e.g., here’s a discussion on a post that I wrote back in 2009 when we had just started Choutari; other editors have written in this tenor since the beginning), we can be more than just English teachers; we can be citizens, scholars, human beings who think about the nation and world at large. We as members of a professional organization, and as scholars who have spread around the world but try to contribute to research, scholarship, and professional development at home, are not doing fine. Because the big picture is our picture as well, it is time that we start confronting the deplorable overall state of education in our country–at least in our discussions. Why?—-because we have greater opportunities to write, to conduct and publish research, to start public conversations. 

Shocking majorities of Ramlals are still failing across the country, and talking and writing is essentially what we do, right? Talk is how we start getting ourselves and other to think and act. Next time, when someone asks us what we are going to do about it by just talking about the tragedy, let us say, “Talk. Do you want to join?” 


* Dr. Shyam Sharma is an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at Stony Brook University, State University of New York. A former lecturer of the Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University, he teaches and studies writing in the disciplines, the intersection of culture with literacy and technology, multilingualism, and academic transition of students from different backgrounds.

8 thoughts on “SLC, ELT, and Our Place in the Big Picture

  1. Shyam sir,

    I read the dissertation paper and it left me confused about the writer’s stance on the private school vs public school debate. I could also sense some subtle biases of the writer towards private schools while giving the benefit of doubt to the public schools. But, I am not in any position to add any views on this on-going debate.

    For me, Samata School is an enigma. If this school can do it, every public school should be able to do it, without fail. When every public school starts accomplishing the unimaginable, the status of private schools will naturally go down the dumps. If I had the choice to get my children educated for Rs 100 a month, I wouldn’t even think about any private schools.

    We need to investigate… we must investigate and find out why Samata is a success. And, then, emulate it.

    1. Umes, I agree about Amrit Thapa’s dissertation. He doesn’t cover the issue of private versus public schools in Nepal very extensively, and when he does he doesn’t give it breadth by trying to find local/relevant literature (he acknowledges it was difficult to find data and scholarship– I felt the same way when writing the blog entry, but he was doing a dissertation!); nor does he give the issue depth by exploring it from his own and/or multiple perspectives (I think he hesitated to take a position, though it’s easy to see that, as you say, he has sympathy for the public side– I will admit I tend to “root for the underdog” as well, and then think that they’re actually lazydogs as well!).
      I agree with you that we need to better understand the dynamics of success at Samata. From the little information that I could find through limited research, I thought that this is a rare case where an extremely dedicated person strived for a long time, until people started deeply appreciating his work and providing support (like I came across a UK-based organization’s website which said that this summer’s “educational tourism package” for going to Kathmandu to help Samata School with teaching, admin work, community engagement, etc was “overbooked”! It listed a hefty sum to be paid not “received” by the travelers, and I thought ye hai na kaida 🙂 ) So, the guy who started it stuck there, sacrificed, and worked hard until he was perceived like another Dil Shova (I think).
      That said, while the development of the image started building the financial support/sustainability mechanism (I don’t think one can actually run a school with 100/month fee alone), the more important aspect has to be the quality of education itself. I don’t know how much of that quality comes from people’s philanthropic to go there and commitment to stay there (I do believe that the “maile kamaako sampatti, jati sukau kamau, je sukai garau” mentality is the antithesis of what has to largely sustain Samata; but as you suggest, there must be more).
      I think public schools’ plight has to do with the sense of entitlement, lack of responsibility, etc among its teachers, administrators, and most people in that sector all the way up to the education ministry–more than it has to with lack of resource, incentive, etc. There’s no way we can defend the current culture/professionalism among those in the public school system; but that doesn’t mean that private schools are an alternative for the society at large (because only a small fraction of people can afford it, and in fact, even if most people could “buy” private education, the many other problems on the private side remain as well). So, the public versus private comparison is like trying to compare two potentially great things that have great problems in very different ways. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. You summed it best.. “So, the public versus private comparison is like trying to compare two potentially great things that have great problems in very different ways.”

    The public schools (and everyone related to it from the school peon to the minister of education) don’t leave any options for parents seeking better learning environment (not just the exam results) for their children. rin garera bhaye pani private school kina pathauchan ta. But at the same time, many private schools saw this opportunity to cash in on the government’s inability.

    The way I see it, there’s no point in blaming private or public schools because it’s never going to get better by pointing fingers.

    Excluding all the other factors and only judging from the teacher’s point of view – as a teacher, I don’t slack off from my responsibilities and I don’t want teachers in the public schools to slack off either. You are either cut out to be a ‘good’ teacher or not. You need to give your best. Being an average is not enough. Quit the job. Find something else to do, like politics.

    And I’m guessing, one of the reasons for such stellar result must be that the teachers in Samata do not slack off.

    1. I have a feeling that the teachers at Samata are more like you and me than the public school teacher I described here some time ago. I am not joking or boasting because the first time I entered a primary school classroom, I said to myself that I will not do what I saw that public school teacher doing, I will not cut corners because I can, I will teach and help my students as if I’m getting a huge favor in the very opportunity to do so…. Even today, I start teaching each class by proudly declaring to students that teaching is my hobby for which I happen to be paid and that’s why I seem so passionate/crazy about teaching (and I measure that statement against the anonymous feedback students leave when I finish teaching them, or from how many students from ten or fifteen years ago are friends with me on Facebook 🙂 ). I can tell that you are passionate about teaching as well.
      If half the teachers in public schools realized that their job is a good deal in our country, the system would be tremendously more successful, but I’m afraid that more than half of them (it’s our culture) just think they’ve already “secured” the job by getting their degree and then the sewa ayog; there may be all kinds of incentives for teaching better, for greater dedication, but without the attitude/culture, everything else will remain ineffective.
      I know it sounds a little odd to write it like this, but I was as crazy about my very humble first teaching job–choudha saya rupiya mahinamari jagir at a private school in Butwal in 1994 (lived in a tin saya pachas ko kotha that was exposed to the elements on top of a big building that belonged to two public school teachers!!), a job that involved teaching seven periods a day (and then I would volunteer to engage students in a crazy number of different ways)–as I am today.
      So, yes, that sense of responsibility, excitement, gratitude about the idea of educating the next generation of people is what I think is missing more than anything in the public sector. Unfortunately, as I was trying to articulate in the post, the private sector is rarely interested in the broader social goal (and I don’t think that a society can realistically expect that from the “market”; the private sector can do a lot of things well but it doesn’t do a few things well, like security and legal systems, education, transportation–except maybe to support/enhance parts of the public system and in some cases to pressure the public system to work better), as well as being too expensive and impractical to the majority of students/parents in the country. In sum, as a nation, we’re between a rock and a hard place right now in terms of education’s big/national picture.

      1. Just read your blog post on Gokuls. True to the bone. That’s why I have have a mild hatred towards many public service system. Many colleagues of mine from KU appeared for sikshw sewa aayog examination last month and they were clear about their objective. ‘life secure huncha ni ta’. What can I say !

        1. Thank you for reading that piece as well, Umes (please use first name hai?). I’ve really enjoyed the conversation with you while I was preparing to teach a relative challenging course overnight (it’s 5am and need to get some sleep!). We should talk about these things more in the future. Thanks again.

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