This blog looks at the impact on, and role of, school leadership during conflict, using Nepal and the Maoist insurgency as a case study. It is taken from the findings of my recent paper and shows that more should be done to listen and respond to the needs of school leaders and teachers whose voice does not always feature in the debates about planning or rebuilding education in emergencies.
Schools were at the forefront of the Maoist insurgency: Nepal’s armed rebellion (1996-2006) was inspired by a ‘revolutionary’ ideology of Maoism. The goal, as argued by the Maoists, was to overthrow the monarchy, its political structure and establish a more inclusive and just society that would empower the historically suppressed social groups such as, Dalits, women, ethnic minorities and indigenous nationalities. Schools remained at the forefront of the Maoist insurgency in which rebels extensively mobilised young people to expand their political and military influence. Teachers and students were an integral part of the political campaign.
Historically, formal education in Nepal has been complicit in creating a conducive environment for conflict. The education system failed to promote equity in access, quality and outcomes across castes, gender and ethnic divisions. Even though public education has been available to all in the country since 1951, it has largely served the traditionally privileged social groups primarily, hill-based high caste males. In higher education, particularly, girls and children from subordinate castes and marginalised ethnic groups such as Dalits, Madheshi and indigenous nationalities are hugely underrepresented. Schools have been complicit in discriminating against children from marginalised communities. For children from such communities, the education system failed to nurture their academic potential and disregarded their continued underachievement and dropout from school.
During conflict, schools were used to the advantage of both conflicting parties. Schools offered a considerable mass of inquisitive young people, who could be persuaded more easily than adults and trained to take part in the rebellion. Gaining the support of school teachers helped them to exploit rural populations in favour of the rebellion and to expand their support base.
Education became a victim: The news of ‘disappearance’, ‘abduction’, ‘arrests’, ‘torture’ and ‘murder’ of school teachers and students often became the front page headlines on the national dailies. Teachers and pupils were often terrorised by the frequent clashes between Maoists and security forces or violent attacks on civilians in the surrounding communities. School premises were frequently used by rebels to hold mass meetings and for sanctuary. The military aerial attacks often made no discrimination between venues or people attending the programmes, which often resulted in civilian causalities. The psychological and emotional wellbeing of teachers was the hardest hit. Consequently, the mutually supportive relationship between school and community gradually deteriorated and educational quality and pupils’ aspirations became insignificant in a bid to cope and survive during the conflict.
School premises were strategic locations for both the warring parties. For Maoist rebels, schools were important locations for political education and expanding their support-base across young students and teachers. The state authority neither provided security to schools nor did it tolerate schools’ self-negotiated peace with rebels, which would allow them to continue teaching and learning. For teachers, maintaining equilibrium of relationship with the Maoists and security forces was painfully stressful.
Education was used to perpetrate violence: Some teachers were ideologically sympathetic to the cause of ‘revolution’ and therefore voluntarily joined or provided financial support to the movement. The rebellion represented liberation from oppressive social, political and economic structures for historically marginalised groups and therefore, a large educational constituency were sympathetic to the cause. This led to frequent attacks on schools from security forces.
At present, a major impact of the decade-long political violence on education is plummeting education quality in public schools and increasing politicisation of educational governance. The strength of affiliation to a political party has become a key determining factor in appointments of teachers, selection of school committee members and head teachers. More broadly, state affairs including educational governance are marred by corruption and rent-seeking. Party-based political activism by teachers has become the prominent feature of new post-war politics resulting in notable deterioration in effectiveness of school leadership and management of educational affairs. As a result, public education continues to lose its currency among parents, exacerbated by a significant growth of the private sector which is inaccessible to the majority of people who represent the rural and bottom quintile of the Nepalese population.
In conflict, the traditional approach to mass schooling needs to be revisited. Given the risks of physical attack on teachers and pupils during conflict, it is important to rethink about the notion of education in which children and teachers travel to schools to learn and teach. In conflict-affected contexts, the traditional approach to mass schooling needs to be revisited and innovative and contextually diverse models of educational provisions are required. The modern obsession about schools as the only places of learning requires rethinking.
When the entire education system suffers traumatically for over a decade and post-war transition undermines the need for addressing the impact of violence on education, it is senseless to expect improvement in educational standards without a comprehensive educational intervention. I would argue that the effects of conflict on education are often profound and, therefore, are hard to identify with a quick-fix development lens. This is an important message that politicians and educational planners need to be constantly reminded of. Unless there is an explicit response to address the educational causes and impact of conflict, education systems in post-conflict societies will continue to underserve the future of learners. The many dimensions of conflict as discussed above and implications for post-war educational reconstruction are not only relevant to Nepal but also in many of the conflict-affected settings across the world.