Challenges of Primary School Education in Nepal

On September 30, 2013:

Nepal’s successful education reforms date back to the Panchayat regime, namely a stupendous primary school enrollment increase from 10 percent in 1960 to 80 percent in 1990 (Glewwe and Kremer, 2005). However, as Nepal advances the transitional phase of seeking political consensus and the incipient free market economy, it necessitates the evaluation of current educational snapshot at the primary level (grades 1 – 5) for two important reasons. First, high educational quality at the secondary level (grades 6 -12) cannot be attained unless learning achievement at the primary level is completely mastered. Second, higher payoffs are associated with public sector interventions conducted at the early stages of learning than those done at the later stages (Heckman and Carneiro, 2003). While I acknowledge the merits of rich educational data (Flash 1 Report 2067/2010-11) that Department of Education (DOE) has made public, I would like to highlight the limitations of current educational research at the primary level from policy perspective in the light of School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) and make the following recommendations:

1. Shift from input-based policy to performance-based policy

Like any typical country, Nepal spends 4.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) on education. While the focus of primary education policy in Nepal has largely centered on expanding budget and increasing the resource base (includes promoting input-based programs), it is high time that we give up the traditional approach and emphasize on incentive based mechanism. This shift in emphasis is necessary because several rigorous studies have concluded low correlations between school spending and student learning outcomes (Hanushek, 2006). I believe that expanding budget is not a complete solution, but a portion of a broader solution. Therefore, we need to think of better ways of spending our money in such a way that we experiment with incorporating accountability for performance (for instance, teacher performance pay) in the existing education production function and improve learning levels of children.

2. Shift from student enrollment figures to attainment profiles

Though program implementation manual (PIM) initially may appear like a panacea because it intends to enhance enrollment growth and lower drop-out rates of girls attending government schools, the fact remains that a child merely attending schools does not guarantee his/her mastery of needed skills and competencies. Sadly, policy makers in Nepal have solely concentrated on student enrollment since the last 40 years as a proxy for child’s educational progress. While Nepal enjoys a healthy net intake rate (NIR) in grade one of 89%, net enrollment rate (NER) of 94.5% and gross enrollment rate (GER) of 139.5% in 2010-11, one cannot ignore the fact that enrollment data mask (a) the difference between gaps in attainment that are due to never enrollment versus drop-out and (b) the actual learning achievement attained by the child. Moreover, enrollment data cannot provide evidence on attainment differentials by the socio-economic characteristics of the households. This is crucial because, say, the gap in attainment between richer and poorer household is substantial, one would want to design policy in such a way that it addresses both higher drop-out rates apart and low enrollment of poor children. Because attending schools does not completely translate into effective learning levels, one needs to observe learning trajectory of school-going children over time. This is beyond the scope of existing educational statistics that the Flash Report aspires to provide us with.

3. Shift from interpreting student performance at a national level to that at a global scale

While national level average score for grade five in core subjects (53%) is an available proxy for learning achievement and a key SSR indicator during the base year 2009-10, it is not a meaningful measure to study variation in learning levels of children within Nepal and across countries in the world. Performance on internationally comparable assessments of learning achievement in math, reading and science shows that average developing country student ranks very low in a typical Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country distribution and that even the best students rank only at about the average OECD student (Pritchett, 2004). Consequently, it is necessary to evaluate the learning levels of our children on a global scale to find out whether our children are as equipped with the range of competencies (includes both cognitive and non-cognitive skills) required to lead productive lives as children from the rest of the world. In other words, we need to incorporate item response theory (IRT) model (response of an examinee in each item of the test as a function of one’s ability) rather than classical test theory framework (percentage correct in the entire test as a measure of ability) to evaluate the performance of students on a global distribution.

In conclusion, although Flash 1 Report generated by the MOE is a step taken in the right direction, we need to undertake more substantial and rigorous research to better understand the current status of children attending primary schools. It behooves the government, policy makers and researchers to seriously consider making the aforementioned shifts so that we come up with a more objective picture of primary school going children.


Carneiro, P., and J. Heckman (2003):“Human Capital Policy”, National Bureau of Economic Research,Working Paper 9495.

Glewwe, P., and M. Kremmer (2006):“Schools, Teachers, and Education Outcomes in Developing Countries,” in Handbook of the Economics of Education (Vol 2), ed. by E. Hanushek, and F. Welch: North-Holland.

Hanushek, E. (2006): "School Resources," in Handbook of the Economics of Education (Vol 2), ed. by E. Hanushek, and F. Welch: North-Holland.

Pritchett, L. (2004): “Towards a new consensus for addressing the global challenge of the lack of education”, Copenhagen Consensus Challenge Paper