Nepal has shut down more than 300 ghost schools since 2014, of which 250 were in the capital, Kathmandu.
In June, a report said that a school in the rural Bajura district had shut because the teachers were missing; the year before it was open for just two months. The district education officer said the terrain was too hostile to send inspectors.
Hari Prasad Lamsal, an education ministry official, said there will be a serious effect on the next generation of workforce. “If we can tap the potential that the young represent, we will be able to make the most of our position between the rising economies of India and China,” he said, adding, “This is an opportunity we should not squander.”
Education is important for all developing nations but for Nepal, the stakes are especially high. The country sits on a demographic asset that will soon become a liability: one in two Nepalis is under 25.
“Fixing the education gap would have significant benefits for society as a whole, given how dependent Nepal is on migrant remittance,” Lamsel added.
About 20% of the population are migrant labourers in Gulf countries, sending home remittances that account for almost 30% of the country’s gross domestic product. Workers with more skills could find jobs that pay better.
Tackling fake schools and truant teachers is doubly difficult. Corruption is endemic: authorities to which an issue is reported are often in league with the culprits. Investigations by the anti-corruption body in 2015 found that everyone from the district education officer down to head teachers were involved in truancy and embezzlement.
The government has tried to encourage students and parents to report truant teachers but in small communities it is hard to persuade villagers to implicate each other.
Traditional tools to tackle corruption have failed, but new technologies, coupled with insights from the behavioural sciences, could offer a solution.
Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal) is a network of 145 professors from 49 universities seeking to shape development policy via scientific evidence. They have been working on a tamper-proof camera with which teachers take time-stamped photos to prove they were at work.
Teachers’ salaries could then be linked to attendance. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that the camera reduced teacher
absenteeism by half.
Another idea is to link student scholarships to exam results. This encourages pupils to learn - and engaged pupils motivate teachers. “Many of the teachers I have met are driven by a love for teaching. Incentivising them properly will require carrots as well as sticks,” a retired teacher said.
Students use their sandals to paddle across the Trishuli river on a float to reach school each day in Dhading district.