Since 1951, the country established an education system with free primary education to all children. In 2000, while the education was not compulsory throughout Nepal, the country was committed to providing free universal education from grades 1-10. Under the Ninth Five-Year Plan, compulsory primary education was implemented in five districts of Chitwan, Ilam, Surkhet, Syangja, and Kanchanpur with the policy of extending free compulsory primary education all over the country gradually.
Despite these strong commitments, in 2000, various estimates of literacy in Nepal placed the rates between 23 and 41 percent of the adult population with a large gap between male and female rates. The Central Bureau of Statistics has been collecting literacy statistics since the first census in 1952-1954. For the censuses in 1952-1954, 1961, and 1971, literacy was defined as the ability to read and write in any language. For the census in 1981, the definition was expanded as the ability to read and write in any language with understanding. For the census in 1991, the definition was further expanded to add performance of simple arithmetic calculations. However, no functional testing was done in collecting the data that is estimated to be inflated by 10 to 25 percent. In 1996, the literacy rates in the eastern development region were 54.20 percent for males and 29.57 percent for females; in the central region, 50.19 percent for males and 20.75 percent for females; in the western region, 58.24 percent for males and 32.82 percent for females; in the mid-west region, 46.94 percent for males and 17.60 percent for females; and in the far west region, 48.98 percent for males and 14.85 percent for females. These statistics point at the dismal situation of female literacy rates in Nepal, which are among the lowest in the world. The literacy rates also vary according to ethnic grouping. The economically advantaged high caste ethnic groups like Marwari, Kayastha, Brahmin, Thakali, and Newari have literacy rates between 60 and 95 percent. While lower castes such as Dhobhi, Dusadh, and Chamar have rates below 25 percent.
Primary education (grades one to five) typically begins at the age of 6 years and lasts until the age of 10 years. The second official level of education is the lower secondary level, which comprises grades 6-8 (three years). The secondary level is comprised of grades 9 and 10 (two years). The School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations are held nationally at the end of grade 10. Since 1992, the higher secondary level of grades 11 and 12 has also been initiated primarily through private schools. The academic year typically starts in Srawan (July-August) when the government's financial year starts. The Nepali calendar year is based on Bikrami Samwat (BS), which is different from the English calendar. For example the year 2001 A.D. was 2057 BS until March 2001 and then changed to 2058 BS in mid March. There is some pressure to start the school year in Baisakh (April-May) to allow the tenth grade students to have one complete year before their SLC examinations. Education in grades 1-10 is free in Nepal and available to all. In 1996, the school system in Nepal had an overall enrollment of over 4 million students of which 77 percent were primary students, 17 percent were lower secondary students, and 6 percent were secondary students. The language of instruction in public schools is in Nepali, which is the mother tongue of slightly over one-half of the population.
Nepal has a dualistic system of schools with both public and private schools. Education in private schools is expensive and typically affordable only by the elite. Most private schools have English as the language of instruction, and many also utilize computers in the curricula. In 1995, there were 3,077 private primary schools, 2,417 private lower secondary schools, 1,370 private secondary schools, 332 private higher secondary schools, and 132 private tertiary schools. At the lower secondary and secondary levels the numbers were proportional to the public schools.
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