A district education officer in rural Nepal sets a course for school reforms (and becomes a national celebrity along the way!)
Nepal’s first Integrity Idol Awards were given in January 2014 to shine a spotlight on honest and industrious civil servants in a country where government officials are often associated with corruption and incompetence. Gyan Mani Nepal was chosen among five finalists from over 300 nominees. Their profiles were aired on national TV and posted on social media for people to vote via text message and over the internet.
I walked two hours to study in primary school in the remote district of Dailekh in mid-western Nepal. I went barefoot on wet, muddy, and frosty roads in just a cotton shirt and short trousers. And even though I was part of a large middle class family, we didn’t have even a lamp to study at night.
It was a different time back in the 1970s. Parents used to appreciate teachers who beat their students to make them study.
I remember once in the 3rd grade that our teacher required us to bring butter and salt to school, as extra “payment” for services. Our exam results were supposed to be out few days after that. I was neck and neck for first place in the class with my friend Amrit, but I didn’t bring the butter and salt as ordered. Amrit did. I knew what would happen, and felt the injustice, even as a young boy.
The teacher announced it proudly that I had come in second in the class, but unfortunately Amrit’s family couldn’t get the funds together to have him continue his studies. The 3rd grade was his final year in school.
When I came to Kathmandu to study in the 7th grade, I would survive on a small glass of beaten rice for several days to stretch my funds. It was a terrible hardship. Five of my friends gave up and went back to the village. I was ready to die, but not to return back home.
Despite such obstacles, education has always been my driving force in my life, and I have always wanted others to know the opportunities that an education can offer. I soon got my degree in Kathmandu, returned home, and taught in a public school for seven years.
Schools in chaos
I then joined government service in 1996 through the Public Service Commission. Over the years, I have served in several districts in different capacities, from acting as a school inspector, to working in the Curriculum Development Centre, to reporting to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Since January 2013, I have served as the District Education Officer in Panchthar, a district in the far eastern side of Nepal, an area very much affected by Nepal’s civil war. When I arrived, I soon learned that teachers’ rates of absenteeism were unacceptable. Teachers did not come to class, or when they did, they would not stay in the classroom for the full time. Out of 220 school days, schools were open just for 79 days. Students used to pass their days at school just playing in the schoolyard.
Teachers’ drunkenness at school was a widespread problem too, as well as their active recruitment of students for political activities. There was a trend of a teachers actively involved in politics shutting down schools to get their demands addressed. On top it off, most public school teachers sent their kids to private schools.
I also found that books and supplies were largely unavailable, school infrastructures built with government funds weren’t constructed according to standards, and parents were not engaged in their children’s learning. I found 10th grade students who could not even do addition and subtraction, and 6th graders who couldn’t even recognize the letters.
Similarly, the Education Office I was to head up was itself not efficient, nor effective. Our service was dismal and financial transparency wasn’t there. In such a scenario, I didn’t know where to begin to improve the situation.
My first step in 2013 was to call a meeting of teachers unions, political parties, and other government stakeholders to collect feedback. Some groups assured me of their help to come, whereas others didn’t.
Reforms from the inside
I found real support for improvements when I went to the citizens themselves. With parents’ involvement, I upped the standards and was strict on implementation. Once I had the people’s wider support, political parties were compelled as well. So how did I do it?
I started with District Education Office itself first. I made the government budget transparent through bulletins, and media, and any other possible means.
I started punishing absent teachers and those who used to get drunk in school, and took administrative action against teachers in violation of employment or conduct rules. I created an environment that was set to reward or punish teachers based on their performance.
I personally visited almost every single school in the district, often in disguise. I directly entered into the classrooms, chatted with students, and took videos.
I prepared a log book, or a daily timesheet system, through students themselves could monitor which teachers came to their class, at which time, and how long they taught the class. I made an arrangement for school principles to review and approve that log book and send it to my office. I then established a reward and punishment system to honor achievers and punish teachers who neglect their duties. Compared to other prizes, this financial reward is the largest provided to teachers in Nepal until now.
I put my personal phone number on the blackboard of each class and asked students to report if a teacher is absent.
I gave my phone number to parents and members of school management committees, and requested them to report if they found any irregularities in their children’s schools or wanted to file complaints.
I went to every village to raise awareness, organized signature campaigns, and collected written commitments to declare schools as “Zone of Peace.”
And to make sure that my 18 resource persons stationed around Panchthar district did the same, I arranged one laptop and a camera for each.
I am proud to say that this campaign has brought remarkable changes in the schools of Panchthar district since 2013.
After I initiated this campaign, 100 teachers who previously used to get drunk in school, resigned from their posts. About two hundred teachers have received disciplinary warnings. Teacher attendance in the district is now over 90%.
Because of the log books, teachers are providing regular classes and following the academic calendar. Students and parents directly report to my office through phone or text messages if any teachers don’t turn up at school, or have done an irresponsible job, and we take actions accordingly.
Quality school structures are being built, and in the past seven months, none of the political parties have been able to shut down any schools. Parents previously sending their kids to private schools are now sending their kids to public schools.
I joined the civil service to make a difference in the community. It’s important for me to show results. Most importantly to me, there have been improvements in student achievement. I believe that the pass rate in the district will rise from 14% to over 60% within this year and I am most hopeful that my campaign will lead the literacy rate to rise to 100% by this year.
We will get there because citizens are beginning to trust in schools once again, and children in Panchthar district are finally getting that same opportunity to learn that I and my friend Amrit wanted so many years ago.
Join Gyan Mani Nepal on Wednesday, March 25th in Washington, DC to discuss the #FutureOfAid. He will be a featured guest at CQ Roll Call’s policy breakfast briefing, Building Self-Reliance: The Future of Foreign Aid, sponsored by Oxfam.
You can also join Gyan Mani Nepal at the OpenGovHub in DC on Thursday, March 26th for a casual meet and greet event sponsored by Accountability Lab to hear about his work to transform education in Nepal through accountability and transparency, and learn how Integrity Idol can spread to more countries!
This interview is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local leaders who are standing up for accountability, making demands of their government, and getting results in the fight against injustice. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.