Not catching them young

If you pick the right spot in Lalu village and look east, you can see five schools dotted across these rugged and scenic mountains of mid-western Nepal.
Clearly, Kalikot does not lag behind in education because of the lack of schools. It is poor teaching at pre-primary and primary levels that sets back a new generation of school-goers from the start, affecting their current and future performance.
There is much research to prove that early grade reading competency is crucial to success in future grades. A 2014 nationwide survey showed that more than one-third of Grade 2 and 19% of Grade 3 children cannot read even a word of Nepali. The figures for Kalikot are much worse.
Even in Nursery, classes are handled in lecture fashion. Instead of prioritising activities, games or student engagement, the focus is already on rote learning. Five year olds chant the alphabet and the numbers table in class, and at home memorise books and prepare for exams.

The school playground from where five other government schools are visible in Kalikot. On the far ridge is the Kotbada airfield, which was finally completed after being under construction for 32 years. But there are no flights yet, and the remote district is now connected by a highway to Surkhet.

There is no change in teaching style or method between primary school and upper grades: it is assumed the same style works for everyone. If this fails, as it does for most, it is assumed to be the child’s fault for ‘not studying hard enough’. Opportunities to play outdoors are actively discouraged, and even before the children have learnt to read or write, they have learnt to hate school.

The government curriculum advises that the main focus for language teaching should be on listening and speaking. However, exams are entirely written, even in kindergarten. Many children are therefore held back at the pre-primary level, and Nursery classrooms still have eight- and nine-year-olds. There are even teenagers in primary school, contributing to the high dropout rate. This large age disparity within a class also makes the teacher’s job harder.

Since children are not being tested for correct skills, they cannot be evaluated to the full extent of their capabilities.
Without an emphasis on developing language abilities and support for reading, those who manage to pass early exams go through primary school with fundamental reading deficits that get worse as they grow older. At one school here, Grade 3 students, including some teenagers, were unable to summarise the contents of simple picture books.

The Nepal Government curriculum for primary education focuses on basic learning objectives: activity-based teaching, and continuous and age-appropriate evaluation. It states that exams are not to be used when upgrading students. It shifts from marks-based evaluation to grades, and abolishes any ‘fail’ grade at this level. But here in Kalikot, teachers either do not know about this or ignore it since it takes too much effort to adopt a new style of teaching.

Kalikot is ranked 73rd among Nepal’s 75 districts on the Human Development Index, unchanged in 10 years largely because of the lack of progress in early childhood education. It is remote even compared to other remote districts in western Nepal. It has a new airfield but no flights, the road to Surkhet is crumbling just two years after it was blacktopped.

There are some private, non-profit schools using ‘English-medium’ as a draw for parents even though studies have shown that children who learn to read in a language they know well develop better reading skills overall — including in any additional languages they learn. Instead of learning better English, therefore, students at these ‘boarding’ schools often learn it worse, taught by teachers who are themselves often poor speakers. Students also lose what little Nepali reading and writing skills they would have gained in a government system.

Removing the class barrier

There is one school in Kalikot that is trying to change the way teaching is done. Modern Model Residential School is a non-profit private institution in Lalu village, across the valley from the Karnali. It never used to have enough money for good teachers, but with new support it has become a catalyst for change in other schools in the area. The idea is to depart from traditional rote learning to allow children to be creative and knowledgeable about their surroundings through play and outdoor activities.

A partnership with Leo Clubs in Nepal has brought qualified and motivated teachers to the school under a ‘Rural Teaching Fellowship’. The school also runs a hostel for orphaned and needy students, and manages a goat farm and vegetable greenhouse to generate revenue for the school’s sustainable upkeep.

Prajeet Bajpai is a Dartmouth College alum from India working in Kalikot to upgrade education.