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Educating the hardest to reach: Lessons from non-formal education in Nepal

03 Mar 2020
Educating the hardest to reach: Lessons from non-formal education in Nepal

By Robert Jenkins, Priscilla Idele

A total of 835,401 children and adolescents were out of school in Nepal in 2017, equivalent to 11.3 per cent of the primary and secondary school aged population (UNESCO – UIS, 2020).[1] This rate varies across the country and population, as barriers related to poverty, social exclusion linked to caste and ethnicity, disability, social norms and gender biases, migration, child labor, mother tongue, and geographical location disproportionately keep children out of school (Nepal Ministry of Education School Sector Development Plan, 2016). Access to education, however, does not guarantee learning. Around 53 per cent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school (World Bank, 2019). In Nepal, one survey found that of the children assessed, over 50 per cent of third graders were unable to understand half of what they were reading, and most were reading only at a grade 1 level. The same study found that 19 per cent of grade 3 students and 37 per cent of grade 2 students could not read a single word (RTI, 2014, as cited in Ministry of Education, 2016).
barriers related to poverty, social exclusion, caste and ethnicity, disability, gender biases, migration, child labor, mother tongue, and geographical location disproportionately keep children out of school
In response to these challenges in education, UNICEF has been supporting the Government of Nepal to prepare and implement a Consolidated Equity Strategy for the School Education Sector. UNICEF is also working with local municipalities and civil society partners in deprived regions to implement two contextualized approaches to helping the most marginalized out-of-school children access education. The long-standing Girls Access to Education (GATE) programme focuses on helping out-of-school girls return or enroll in the formal education system, while Kheldai Sikne Kendra (KSK), which means ‘Center for Learning by Playing’ provides a more flexible learning model well-suited to reaching out-of-school boys and girls in urban areas. The GATE programme, which receives financial support from Let Us Learn[2], provides full-time non-formal education for a period of nine months, teaching disadvantaged girls the basic literacy, numeracy, and life skills they need to successfully transition into the formal school system. In partnership with 30 local governments, UNICEF supported 300 GATE classes reaching 7,394 girls in Nepal’s Province 2 during the 2018-2019 programme year. Approximately 89 per cent of participants successfully enrolled into formal school upon completion of the programme, exceeding the programme’s original target of 80 per cent. KSK is a newer non-formal education model in Nepal, first conceptualized with stakeholders in 2014, piloted in 2015, and progressively scaled up in partnership with the NGO Samunnat Nepal and local municipalities. There are currently 10 centres present in three provinces, and the programme’s learning modality has also been taken up by 47 alternative learning centers in the same region. KSK provides a child-friendly, flexible-time learning space to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged urban out-of-school boys and girls aged 10 to 19 who may have responsibilities and challenges that do not allow them to regularly attend school. KSK learning centres are open 250 days a year for 6 days a week. Utilizing a multi-grade, multi-level methodology, facilitators closely support and monitor each individual child or adolescent’s learning progress. Through linkages with formal schools, the programme has helped 65% of its 10-13-year-old participants enroll in formal schooling. Through GATE and KSK, UNICEF and its partners are providing an opportunity for groups that would otherwise not have had access to education. This includes ethnic minorities who often face discrimination, such as Dalit castes, which constituted 32 per cent of GATE participants and 40 per cent of KSK programme beneficiaries in 2018. A recent report on out of school children in Nepal found that, strikingly, more than half of children in the primary and lower secondary age school groups of Dom (58.4 per cent) and Mushahar (51.3 per cent) - both Dalit castes - were out of school (UNICEF, 2016). Children from migrant families coming from India, who face constraints in access to education, have also particularly benefited from the KSK programme. Both GATE and KSK are measuring child learning outcomes to understand progress in this area, as access and learning are key goals of non-formal education. In 2018, GATE participants improved their average score on a pre- and post- test by 53 percentage points from the start to the end of the nine-month programme. For KSK, meanwhile, a leveled assessment framework has been piloted to measure progress and map learner achievement to the grade levels of the formal education system.  In addition to learning, positive behavior change in participants – which includes social skills and hygiene and sanitation practices - has been documented as an important outcome of the KSK intervention.
if children are not provided with the flexibility to learn on their own terms, they often will not participate in educational opportunities, particularly when their families’ livelihoods depend on their work.
KSK’s flexibility has allowed children who work to support their families to visit the centres for learning when their schedule allows them to do so. Children and adolescents often feel a strong responsibility towards their families and may be the designated income earners of their households. In 2018, 62 per cent of KSK participants reported they were engaged in household chores: 63 per cent of all boys reported engaging in household chores while the corresponding figure for girls was 60 per cent.  The remaining 38 per cent of KSK participants reported that they worked in various forms of labor outside of the home to help their family. Labor outside the home was mostly performed by boys; girls were only engaged as street vendors. In contrast, boys were found to work in restaurants, transportation, shops and as factory workers. In a recent site visit to a KSK center in Chitwan, one adolescent participant mentioned that his mother and siblings were in India and that he was working in Nepal to support them. While aiming to return or enroll children and adolescents into formal schooling, the KSK model acknowledges this dilemma: if children are not provided with the flexibility to learn on their own terms, they often will not participate in educational opportunities, particularly when their families’ livelihoods depend on their work. In recent site visits, children from both programmes showed great enthusiasm about their learning experiences and all spoke of their career aspirations. They enjoyed learning and were particularly aware of the benefits of learning English. “If we speak English, we can have a job,” one KSK female student shared. A large share of KSK beneficiaries at one center wanted to be policemen[3]; others wanted to be teachers. Many former and current GATE participants (all girls) also shared that they wanted to be teachers; one girl mentioned that she would grow up to be a rail engineer, defying stereotypes in what is still a society with entrenched gender norms. Despite the accomplishments of these non-formal education programmes, important challenges remain for the achievement of inclusive education in Nepal. According to local government leaders, most children complete up to grade 5, but they start to drop out later. Some GATE graduates interviewed mentioned that, while the non-formal education programmes are free of cost, once enrolled into formal school, they face important financial constraints. For example, while formal education is nominally free, they are still required to pay examination fees (between 50 and 500 NPR, roughly between 0.44 and 4.41 USD) or bear the cost of school supplies and uniforms. In addition, according to World Education, GATE graduates are often discriminated against when they attend formal schools. Due to social biases related to ethnicity or caste, GATE graduates are thought to ‘bring down’ the level of public schools, although a recent internal assessment by World Education revealed that they actually outperformed their formal school student counterparts (World Education, unpublished). When speaking with local leaders about common causes for drop out, important challenges, such as child marriage and parents not caring for their children continuing their studies were raised. For girls, menstruation was cited as leading to missing 3 to 5 days of school every month, leading them eventually to drop out of school. Lastly, the high unemployment rate amongst young people in Nepal makes parents question whether the investment of time and resources yields returns. Indeed, a recent UNICEF report found that lack of parents’ interest (26.1 per cent) was the major reason cited amongst children who had never attended school (Ministry of Education, UNICEF and UNESCO, 2016). GATE and KSK provide strong examples of contextualized approaches to expanding access to education and learning to marginalized out-of-school children in Nepal.  Going forward questions remain as to the replicability and scalability of these programmes in different contexts within the country, which further evidence generation will attempt to help answer. In the meantime, local government leadership in implementing, scaling, and providing financial support to both programmes suggest they currently have a lot to contribute on the pathway towards SDG 4, ensuring that every child in Nepal has access to quality learning.
[1] 770 thousand children were not attending school, equivalent to 14.3% of primary and lower secondary school aged children in the country according to the 2011 census (Ministry of Education, UNICEF and UNESCO, 2106). MICS 2014 data places this figure slightly higher - around 16.1 per cent of children were out of school in 2014.
[2] Dedicated to bringing the most marginalized children in five countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, Madagascar and Nepal - back into school.
[3] This is largely attributed to the local implementing partner supporting that particular KSK center being founded by ex-police.
  Robert Jenkins is the Associate Director of the Education Section in the Programme Division at UNICEF Headquarters, New York, USA. Priscilla Idele is Deputy Director of the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti in Florence, Italy.