Sunday, April 3, 2011

Can we transform public schools?


Education has been affected both directly and indirectly by the changes in the global economy. The direct impact is seen in the case of those least developed nations whose education system has been shaped by the lending policies of the World Bank and the demands of structural adjustments. The indirect effects have been in the cases of advanced countries striving to cope with the aggregated effects of the decline of the Keynesian welfare-state settlement to the point where public funding of services like education seems no longer feasible at previous levels.

One of the commonest problems education systems around the world are facing as a consequence of globalization is the shift away from state control to privatization and decentralization. Coming back to Nepal, one of the world’s least developed countries, more parents are sending their children to private schools than ever before. Nepal is not the only country in this fray. The effects of globalization, marketization and privatization have transcended all the national borders. Since 1995, the number of students enrolled in higher education in Brazil has grown more than 70 percent, with most of this increasing accruing in private colleges and universities, which now account for 71 percent of higher education enrolment. In China, which is even more rigid a state, 500 new institutions of higher education were established between 1995 and 19992. In Australia, nearly one student in three is now enrolled privately. Poland alone has 195 private educational institutes which educate more than 377,000 students. Private business schools unheard of in Europe, are also thriving today, complementing and challenging traditional institutions.

Today, parents pay for schooling rather than the governments signifying that the state is withdrawing away from its role of providing education to the masses. This is happening because private schools give more wide range of choices and the parents make their choice based on their preference and the state-run enterprises tend to be more bureaucratic, with high level of inefficiency, corruption, slow to change and full of red-tape. They cannot meet all the demands of the modern-fast changing world, including the use of new technology without an up-to-date knowledge. In his book, The State & the Governance of Education: An analysis of the Restructuring of the State-Education Relationship, Roger Dale writes: “There is a fast restructuring of the state-education relationship in Western societies.” This is further articulated by other Western researchers who view that in certain policy areas, the state capacity to act is severely limited in the present social and economic climate.

Thus, privatization has become an undeniable reality. The basic reason behind the sudden increase in privatization of education in Nepal is due to increasing pressure of finances on the state to respond to changing needs of education and training in today’s highly competitive world.

Nature of privatization of education differs from country to country. For instance, in The Netherlands, a majority of schools are privately run but the government regulation of these schools is very strict. Also in Denmark, the state specifies the curriculum and use of materials. Undoubtedly privatization of education has opened up the massification process in Nepal enabling more children to go to schools. But at the same time, it has threatening connotations: it conjures up ideas of cost-cutting, making profits from children and the breakdown of the social ethos of education. One of the dangers of unbridled privatization of education in a country like Nepal lies in the social inequality it creates among the masses. The perceived large gap in quality between the private schools, catering to the rich and public schools catering to the poor section, suggests that there is a virtual segregation of education along wealth status. As a consequence of privatization of education, there are already huge disparities in gains of literacy in terms of region, ethnic and linguistic minorities and population groups in Nepal.

The social assessment study conducted by CERID in 1997 had identified 24 educationally disadvantaged groups, which constitute 45 percent of the total population in Nepal. These linguistic and ethnic minority groups tend to have lower school completion rates than the socially dominant groups as they have little or no access to schooling owing to financial pressures. Study on SLC conducted by Kedar Bhakta Mathema & Min Bista in 2006 shows that Yadav, Tamang, Tharu, Muslim, Magar and Rai, among others, are not achieving comparable levels of academic success when compared with socially dominant groups such as Brahmin, Chhetri and Newar.

This is because the lower income groups cannot afford the cost of education –neither tuition fee nor opportunistic costs – as higher income groups can do. In most remote and hard-to-reach districts in Nepal, the situation is much worse. The education levels of people differ widely according to their income level: Higher the income greater the opportunity and access to education and vice-versa. Thus, there is a direct relationship between education and income, social structure and student achievement.

Improving equity, which is at the core of the government policy and donors’ agenda in Nepal, means that every citizen gets a fair chance to complete an education regardless of income. But how can this be achieved when the English-style private schools are catering to the rich and the poor are left to attend the schools neglected by the state? This will further increase the persistent social inequality in Nepal among cultural, linguistic, ethnic and regional populations. Therefore, to ensure greater equality in access to learning opportunities, especially among traditionally excluded groups, a serious rethinking is required to reform and restructure the state education system.

To begin with, what is needed at the outset is localization or empowering local teachers and communities to create a sense of empowerment among teachers and local stakeholders to have a strong motivational influence on improving the traditionally structured management of public schools. Empirical researches and studies in many Western democratic nations and developing countries show that a new look is necessary as to the role of communities and parents in the educational management and ownership of schools in the light of state failing to take control of all the public enterprises in the 21st century.

There are ample evidences of how community or parental involvement can compliment state in effective management and operation of public enterprises. In Nepal, for instance, community forestry and community-owned primary education are two successful examples of community intervention. The assumption that parental influence and home environment also plays an important role in cognitive development and educational achievement is supported by recent theories and research findings. Empirical research on Puerto Rico in the 1990s conducted by Harris and Chrispeels showed parental involvement in schools had interesting outcomes. Parents had previously been involved in a range of practical activities as well, such as painting of schools, gardening and improving buildings in Puerto Rican schools.

The teachers reviewed this relationship of parents and considered how parents could also be involved in schools and bring them to observe classes. The parents were taught computing in schools. They observed that it had significant effect on schooling outcomes. It shows that a small local intervention also solves the problems of a complicated nature, including changing the thinking of teachers by involving them in groups and projects.

In an increasing number of countries, the school reform is aimed at the involvement of parents in the management of the school, by means of school boards and where the upbringing of child has become a common responsibility of all, and not only of the state.

Participation of parents and local communities in school affairs means that school principals, managers, teachers and parents collaborate in attempting to give shape to the modernization of education on the basis of a common responsibility for the upbringing of the children.

Given the profound changes in Nepal brought by the recent democratic movement, parents and civil society can no longer be viewed as merely passive spectators but should be accepted as active partners of the state.

Though community schools concept is different from one context to another, there are certain common features of this term in literature. Probably the most widely used term for community management of schools is decentralized school management or school-based management. It is also called site-based management in the US, delegated or devolved management, school autonomy or, in England it is called local management of schools. To conclude, let me quote noted educational researcher Michael Fullan: “Strategies to involve parents represent one of the most powerful and underutilized instruments for educational reform.”

source: republica, 2 april 2011