Basic education, covering primary and secondary education (for at least nine years), is provided for within international law without exception or exclusion. In Nepal, education up through tenth grade is enshrined as a fundamental right in the Interim Constitution and ‘school-aged’ children are defined as those aged 5–14 years.

There are 6.7 million children aged between five and 14 years in Nepal. Retaining children in school and providing quality education remain huge challenges, despite the fact that 91%of children are enrolled in first grade. Estimates indicated around 651,000 out-of-school school-aged children in 2008. Children without basic education have a high degree of vulnerability not only in the present, but also as they grow into adults. The children who drop out are often from socioeconomically weak families.

When children come to school, they often find the physical, social and emotional environment as well as learning materials and teacher behaviour extremely challenging. Learning activities and teaching practices are centred on reciting, rote-learning, chanting and copying, and not on individual learning. Many schools lack water, sanitation and health-related facilities; and what is available is not well maintained or weather-proof.

A good teacher is a prerequisite for quality education, but under-qualification of teachers and their absenteeism are common in Nepal. A large number of primary school teachers are not acquainted with the pedagogy of teaching young children. Teacher training by the Ministry of Education does not extend to community-recruited teachers, who comprise around 30% of primary school teachers.

High dropout rates are another major challenge. Many children drop out of school after grade one and every year thereafter, especially between ages 12 to 14. About 20% of all children drop out before completing five years primary education. Economic activities carried out by children at home and as child labourers preclude participation in school. Of children aged 5–14 years, 34% are estimated to be economically active. For many families in Nepal, children’s earnings are a vital component of income. Remoteness and lack of infrastructure are also reasons why children do not attend school, especially in the mountains.

The education sector holds a number of opportunities. The pool of trained and certified teachers is expanding. In May 2011, the government declared all schools to be ‘zones of peace’ in response to the forced closure of schools during strikes and other political activities. The poorest segments of society increasingly recognize that education can expand their family’s livelihood opportunities, helping to bring more children into school. A varied group of partners, including I/NGOs and civil society organizations, jointly appraised the School Sector Reform Plan 2010-2016 and through it support an integrated school system from Grade 1 to Grade 12. Basic education is to be upgraded from five to eight years, although this change is yet to be enacted. The School Sector Reform Plan relies on partnership with civil society and international organizations to reach vulnerable children with alternative schooling and literacy programmes. The Interim Constitution also guarantees the right of every citizen to free education up to secondary level, and that each community has the right to basic education in their mother tongue.

UN agencies, in particular, WFP, UNICEF and UNESCO, have a long-standing record of working on increasing access to and reducing dropout from basic education, and building capacities across the education sector to better serve Nepal’s varied populations.