Are private schools doing more harm than good?

Speaking at the fifth annual conference of Higher Secondary School Association Nepal (HISSAN) recently, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai had said the education system introduced by private schools has led the society to nowhere and commercialisation of education has benefited only a handful of people.

Education is one of Nepal’s most pressing challenges; opinions in terms of education in Nepal are varied and often divided. Advocates of private education argue that private schools extend the choice families have and that they provide better and competitive education. Opponents say that private schools detract from the goal of a common school for all children and youth regardless of family background, and that private education generally exacerbates the divide between the ‘advantaged’ and the ‘disadvantaged’.

Arguments for and against private schooling are part of the larger debate about the consequences of encouraging wide choice of schools for families and students. Some countries have a longer record of school choice policies, either choice among public schools, or by additional measures that establish a ‘level playing field’ in terms of capitation grants from government to both public and private provisions. In either case, schools receive grants which is tantamount to a voucher system whereby resources ‘follow the student’.

In New Zealand, for example, all schools (private or public) are given a grant with extra resources for schools depending on their proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minorities. Schools need state approval for their admission criteria.

Chile is another example of introducing choice of school combined with financing vouchers. Pinochet’s government in 1980s decentralized public schools and implemented a flat per-pupil voucher system. Municipalities and private schools that did not charge tuition began receiving per-pupil vouchers for their students, while elite private schools continued to operate without public funding. Democratic governments over the past two decades have kept the basic structure of Chile’s voucher system, but have sought to direct more aid to needy students. Private schools are, in this case, also allowed to compete ‘on a level playing field’ with public schools for students.

Likewise, private schools in Norway are hardly a preserve of socio- economic privilege. Since 1971 there has been a legislative basis for subsidizing private schools so generously that one could impose upon these schools a distinctly low ceiling for the tuition fees they are allowed to charge. To ensure that private schools would not become a preserve of well to do families, the schools were given a capitation grant equivalent to 85 per cent of the estimated per pupil expenditure in public schools. As a precondition for government subsidies, private schools are allowed to charge a very low ceiling of fees. This policy seems to have been successful in preventing income-biased recruitment of pupils to private schools.

Now the recurring question is: should government of Nepal encourage or discourage private education? It is a contentious issue in the politics of education in Nepal, as in many other countries. So far, politicians and specially their student wings, which seem to believe in lynch mob culture, street justice and vandalism, have been spitting out real venom against private education system in Nepal. However, the successive governments of the last twenty years have done nothing beyond expressing occasional customary dissatisfactions against the private schools. They have not even thought about the alternative as to how the system should work.  Private school are often criticised for the level of the fee they have charged. No one has raised question about the quality and alternative pedagogy they have offered.  If the state wants to make private schools free from a preserve of socio- economic privilege, capitation grant to private school and setting very low ceilings for the level of fees which private schools are allowed to charge should be imposed. The reality is, neither all private schools are rich nor they have charged excessive fees. Is it not the responsibility of government to differentiate those few elite private schools with the vast number of budget schools and treat them differently? Do we not need to be clear about our national policy regarding private education provision? Just a blemish culture and “do nothing” policy lead the country nowhere.

If we look back to the history, in the 1970s, the government of Nepal nationalized private schools, severely restricting the growth of this sector and its potential in educating young Nepalese. In the last twenty years, mainly after the restoration of democracy in 1990, private sector initiatives in the area of education have re-emerged all over the country. This hasn’t happened in a vacuum though. Rather, private schools are more in demand than ever before at a time when Nepal’s public school system is facing massive problems. Some of the major problems public schools face includes limited financial resources, poor quality of content and a greater demand for education amongst parents of school-aged children. Nepal’s public schools are overcrowded and/or underfunded. These are just some of the realities of Nepalese public schools, especially in rural areas.

How about quality? Are we doing any good?  In a recent survey about school effectiveness, Richard Thompson, a British educationist, has highlighted that a “large numbers of Nepali pupils do not know Nepali alphabets even when they have reached grade four”. The survey further reveals “an even higher number of fourth graders, at least 25 per cent, cannot recognize double-digit figures.”  These figures reveal a shocking waste of talent in many schools across the country. All too often, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t given the same opportunities as their peers. Nepal cannot afford this rate of failure and it is not acceptable either. It is clear that our so called trained and experienced teachers are not up to the job. Where are we heading in terms of quality then? Is it not the right time to think about change? Let’s not run after this or that isms. We need to be practical and do something about our education system which serves our national interest.

No doubt, provision of education and healthcare are the state’s fundamental responsibility and there should not be two tier of education system. If people lose faith on public school system, they have every right to seek its alternative. At least for the present, the emergence of private schools is the need of time and they are simply providing better education where the state failed. When and if the state can present better alternative, most of the private schools of today will gradually disappear for the good.

(Bartaula is a PhD Candidate in Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK. He can be reached at:

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