Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a national average per capita income of approximately $447 US. Another indication of the country’s relative poverty: the British School, one of the top schools in Kathmandu, if not the top school, draws its student body from the better off citizens of the city, which consists mainly of the sons and daughters of diplomats and aid workers from the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations. Although it is one of the most expensive schools in the city, they pride themselves on keeping their feet on the ground, economically speaking, and tend to be dubious of one or two of the International Schools that charge higher fees, and provide perks for their staff such as accommodation. The students at the English School prepare their students for A-level examinations which sent back to the UK to be marked; the students’ performance is among the best not just of schools outside the UK, but also inside the UK. Ms. Sandj Wilderspin, who has been the Head of School for fourteen years, is proud of her work. She is going to stay on another year or two, until their new school is built, not far from the current facilities, which are leased.
Instruction is in English. Historically there is a good relationship between Nepal and the UK, owing in great measure to longstanding official friendships between the Nepalese ruling monarchy , and the historic presence of the Ghurka regiments and soldiery in the British Army. Every spring the British Army holds its recruitment sessions in different parts of the country, mainly in the foothills of the Himalayas hundreds of kilometres west of Kathmandu. Teenage boys come down from the mountain villages to demonstrate their physical prowess and endurance, which has to be truly exceptional, before they are accepted into the British Army training facility just on the edge of Pokhara, the small city that serves as the gateway to the Annapurna region of the Himalayas, where Joan and I did a four-day trek. The Ghurkas have a reputation for bravery and loyalty that is unparalleled.
Against this background, the English School has a bit of pride of place among the private schools in Kathmandu. Occasionally, the Head of the English School, will try to break the ice among schools whose orientation is French, or Dutch, or American, but the pecking order is subtly and fiercely contested, and these friendly overtures are not easy to effect.
The admissions process has its hoops and priorities: it goes something like this. The school exists explicitly for the children of British expatriates, but once these places are given, the procedure becomes complex. First to be accepted are children of British parents; for a native Nepali it helps immensely to have a British grandparent. Next to be accepted are Commonwealth parents, then English speaking parents of other countries, and so on, till they arrive at other families, Nepali or foreign, whose children have an adequate level of English. This insistence on a reasonable facility in English is necessary really if the students hope to achieve good results in their A-Levels eventually.
A few computers exist in the school, especially in the Senior School, which has its own relatively new building, the envy of the rest of the school. To an outsider’s eye, however, this building lacks the character and charm and atmosphere of the rest of the school, which was converted from the large mansion and grounds of a former General in the Nepalese army. Pupils in the elementary years do feel quite an attachment to classrooms that were once the bedroom of the General, or his son, or the dining room, for instance.
Almost all of the teachers are from the United Kingdom, and serve a three-year term. A very few serve two three-year terms; this creates a certain lack of institutional memory in the school, which is sustained more by the Head of School, and by a significant handful of teaching assistants, most of whom are Nepali and many of whom have been at the school ten, fifteen or twenty years.
The visit lasted much longer than we had planned. We stood inside the gate in our little group, saying good-bye to the Head of the School and Director of Senior School, and handed our visitors’ passes back to the uniformed guards who had signed us, like all visitors, in and out. It is a time of subsiding political unrest in Nepal, which is working itself out rather melodramatically in the press. Things are much calmer than they were two or three years ago. The school families – diplomats and aid workers – are rather calm about the political unrest, although the country’s struggles with democracy continue, with alliances formed and broken monthly as Nepal tries to forge an inclusive government. Our host was pessimistic about a worthwhile solution in the near future: “Even the Maoists [the largest single party in the government, who were unable to sustain a successful coalition] are Brahmins, simply want to be in power. They don’t want to put the country first.” Amid the tawdry and dusty strife of Kathmandu, the English School does stand as a bit of a sceptered isle, calm and green.