Prayog Bhattarai has difficulty recognising his classmates from his time in school. It hasn’t been long since he graduated from high school and yet, he still finds classmates that he never knew had studied at the same school and in the same grade. Given that his school had over 4,000 students at the same time, this is no wonder.
At Bhattarai’s school—Little Angels’ School in Hattiban—there are 4,500 secondary school students spread out across a number of sections for each grade. While the number of students varies according to class, Little Angels’ divides its classes into a minimum of four sections—comprised of 30 students each—for the primary wing and up to 13 sections of 45 students each in the secondary wing.
Bhattarai is currently pursuing his undergraduate degree, and he finds his new college experience completely antithetical to his school days.“I have 15-18 people in my classes now and I wasn’t prepared to participate regularly in discussions,” he says. “Large populations disincentivise meaningful discourse because there are simply too many ideas wanting to be heard and sometimes you just feel left out.
With an ever-increasing population of students in the Kathmandu Valley, schools too are expanding. Despite the mushrooming of new schools, older ones are renting ever wider properties and building new infrastructure in order to enrol more students. As the student-teacher ratio increases, many are concerned whether the quality of education is being affected.
But for the Little Angels’ school administration, this large population is not a problem. “At LA, every class is a smaller unit of the school,” says Mukunda Raj Sharma, principal of Little Angels’ School. “We have decentralised administrative power to in-charges, a set of teachers and supporting staff, and have allocated a separate building for each block. Altogether we have 25 department heads who look after their respective fields.”
Little Angels’ says that despite its large student population, it is abiding by the government mandated student-teacher ratio. LA employs 361 teachers for its 4,500 students, for a student-teacher ratio of 12:1. The government’s School Sector Development Programme (SSDP) mandates that the overall student-teacher ratio for a school in the mountain region should be 30:1, 35:1 in hilly region, and 40:1 in Tarai.
“We’ve exceeded the government’s student-teacher ratio,” says Sharma. “But even this is likely to be updated as per the requirement of the new session.”
Another school with a large number of students is Siddhartha Vanasthali Institute, with altogether 1,950 students and 200 teachers for a student-teacher ratio of 9:1. This small student-teacher ratio should translate into adequate attention for students, despite their large number. Classes at Siddhartha Vanasthali are divided into four sections in the primary wing and eight sections in the secondary wing. The school has altogether eight department in-charges.
“We make sure that each teacher has a maximum of five periods to teach every day,” says Rupak Rajbanshi, principal of Siddhartha Vanasthali. “We hire new teachers according to the subject and only when required.”
Students seem to agree that despite the large population, their school-going experience is pleasant and educational, for the most part. Prinam Joshi, 17, says her school days at Siddhartha Vanasthali were “fun” but “comparatively more crowded than other schools”. Still, she acknowledges that the school was well managed in terms of its distribution of facilities.
“Although we had few resources, our breaks were assigned accordingly to make sure each of us had a chance to use them,” she says.
At another large school—Graded English Medium School (GEMS)—the administration is actively attempting to reduce the number of students they have so they can provide more quality education, says Vice-principal Shelly Koirala.
“I once had to wait in the canteen for 20 minutes during our 30-minute lunch break,” says 15-year-old Suyash Bhatta, who recently sat for his ninth grade exams. “We hear a warning bell at 25 minutes, but the canteen was so overcrowded that I couldn’t even go back to class right away.”
The school currently has roughly 2,200 students with a student-teacher ratio of 24:1 for primary and 30:1 for the secondary level, according to the administration.
“We have enough teachers, who teach 4-5 classes on average,” says Koirala. “But ideally, we would like to reduce the number of students further. At one time, we had almost 3,500 students. We decided to reduce this number and we’re now at 2,200. Hopefully in the next three-four years, we can reach an ideal number.”
This ideal number, says Koirala, would be around 2,000 students. But for schools like GEMS, it is difficult to limit intake as parents pressure them to take in more and more students, she says.
However, external fears that schools with large student populations might be overcrowded, leading to a scarcity of resources and inadequate attention from teachers seem largely unfounded, based on what the teachers and students report.
At Little Angels’, out of eight periods a day, each teacher is assigned six periods, lasting 45 minutes each. Each teacher also gets assigned four to five sections at the beginning of a session to teach their respective subject. Although it can be difficult, teachers do not appear overworked or under pressure.
“I don’t consider my work as a load. Each individual child is my project and my goal is to cater to their educational needs,” says Tarakeshwari Shrestha, head of the English Department at Little Angels’ School. “Beyond the classroom, I’ve also created a group on Facebook Messenger to share online lessons and to make myself more approachable to students.”
Being in a large school is about more than just attending classes. If a student utilises their opportunities, the entire experience can be a lesson to help them develop themselves in a competitive environment.
“I became more competitive for scarce resources and it set the right mentality for life,” says Bhattarai. “It made me a more independent
learner because I never expected my teachers to have free time to help me personally.”
While the schools try to meet their needs, students also seem to have realised their effort. It seems like the school carefully hires a teacher to impart their academic necessities, says Bhatta. “I’m not much interactive during the classes; I just listen. But my teachers are very qualified and experienced.”
Although it can be daunting to run such a large organisational system, especially when it come to education, schools with large populations say they are making use of their resources to provide a quality education to all. “LA provides an education irrespective of a student’s background,” says Shrestha. “We’ve been able to welcome students generously because we’ve been fortunate with adequate resources. So, now we put in the effort to improve the quality even more.