Although public schools have been rapidly on the decline in Nepal, this paper traces the circumstances under which a school has emerged as a quality education provider in the region. Positive deviance (PD), which first gained prominence in the field of nutrition and public health, provides the theoretical grounding to understand why and how certain actors and/or institutions flourish in hostile environments.

Secondary schooling is a major component to the transition to becoming an ‘educated’ youth and while most analyses focus on the severe problems that public schools face, this PD approach helps find possibilities for change. However, the picture is not entirely rosy because even these graduates then face harsh realities where their success does not translate into meaningful higher education or employment. The category of ‘educated’ youth and their prospects within Nepal’s political economy thus come under scrutiny, raising questions not just about succeeding within the system, but the success of the system itself.

This paper is based on extensive fieldwork research carried out in and around an ethnically heterogeneous community (comprising Magars, Tamangs, Newars, and Chettris) in Dadagaun, a semi–peripheral village in Lalitpur in 2012. Although within spitting distance from the capital, the village is a world apart socio-economically.

The well-documented rapid rise of private schools has actively undermined the public school system in Nepal. Further, an overwhelming majority of public school students do not even pass the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams, the ‘iron gate’ for higher education and gainful employment.

However, Bhumi School, the local community secondary school, has bucked the trend and set the standard for education. For instance, Bhumi was one of only two public schools in the entire district to pass all students in the SLC this year. The school’s impressive track record has pushed enrolment, and 72 private school students moved to Bhumi last year alone.

Positive deviance identifies successful behaviour in adversity to then help develop a plan of action to promote their adoption. This theory has particular meaning in Bhumi, where teachers navigate the system successfully precisely by manipulating its rules, but to deliver accessible quality education. Examples include manipulating hiring and funding practices to free funds for poor students, emulating private school practices such as mandating uniforms and extra coaching classes, and engineering School Management Committee elections to keep political parties at bay. Bhumi has also assimilated one of the three public schools that collapsed in the region.

Bhumi’s case study shows that under unique circumstances, blurred boundaries in a failing system can open possibilities for action. The preoccupancy with structure often fails to recognise the power of agency for positive change. However, significant challenges remain. The specificity of the context makes replication of the model difficult, while a closer examination reveals the need to re-evaluate the definition of success under which these schools operate, the notion of ‘educated youth’, and their opportunities and constraints.