Questions not asked Time to talk about barriers to structural reform in education

The two-day Bangladesh Development Forum hosted by the Economic Relations Division on January 17-18 was an occasion to showcase recent accomplishments and highlight the steps taken for Bangladesh to become a middle-income country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, inaugurating the conference, noted that Bangladesh is currently the 44th largest economy in the world based on GDP. She also pointed out that “by 2030 and 2050, Bangladesh will become the 28th and 23rd largest economy respectively, based on GDP and purchasing capacity.”

High-level international participants lauded the continued annual economic growth rate of over 6 percent for several years and the reduction of population rate below the poverty line. At the same time, several international and national speakers stressed the need for making the education system and young people “future-ready,” in the face of the rapid change in skills and capabilities to be needed in the future.

“What got us here will not take us there,” said Anir Chowdhury, adviser to the A2I information technology project at the Prime Minister’s Office, “because most jobs as we know them will disappear and the way knowledge, information and skills are disseminated is changing radically.”

In a special session on quality education, the keynote speaker, Sohorab Hossain, secretary of the Ministry of Education, noted the expansion in enrolment at the educational institutions thanks to, as he puts it, “the conducive political and policy environment for education reform.”

In the discussion, however, there was no mention of—or if at all, only oblique references to—some unique features of the Bangladesh education system that have proved to be a barrier to structural reform, standing in the way to make the system future-ready.

For example, unlike any other country, school education from pre-primary to 12th grade in Bangladesh is looked after by two separate ministries—up to grade 5 by one and grades 6-12 by another. A separate ministry was created in 2005 to give more attention to primary education. It has become an impediment now. The goal of universal education is for all stages of school education and it has to be planned and implemented in an integrated way looking at the continuity and sequence of curricula, teacher preparation and assessment of learning.

A casualty of the divided responsibility is the failure to extend universal and compulsory education to grade 8, envisaged about eight years ago in the Education Policy 2010. Looking at it as a matter of transferring grades 6-8 from one ministry to another, rather than as a matter of finding teaching-learning solutions, has put it in a limbo.

The education system of about 40 million students and some 200,000 institutions are uniquely managed, rather mismanaged, by an extremely centralised system. An Upazila in Bangladesh has an average of 100,000 students and 300-400 educational institutions of various kinds. Simple and complex decisions about all these institutions are taken by a plethora of agencies in the capital, often pushing the decisions to the minister’s or even the prime minister’s desk.

Central control applies to even those regarded as non-government institutions, because the government is involved in regulating curricula and teaching personnel, providing financial subsidies, and assessing learning for all these institutions.

Ironically, teachers and their institutions all want to be fully taken over by the central government. Teachers are literally on the street and even going on hunger strike to press their demands. They are not talking about greater accountability of schools and teachers to the parents and community or the best way of improving teaching and learning along with enhancement of their status and rewards. The system and mindset of a centralised management have encouraged this counterproductive culture.

Coming back to teachers, somewhat uniquely for Bangladesh, a primary or secondary teacher is required to have pedagogic training or acquire a pedagogy certificate only after the teacher is placed in a teaching job. Teaching, therefore, is the last occupational choice of university graduates, after they fail to get into any other public and private sector job.

This is in part a remuneration issue, but more a matter of low social esteem—perhaps due to limited opportunity for bribe and illegal earning in teaching, except for those joining the private coaching and tutoring business!

Teaching has to be looked at as a vocation that attracts talented people. It demands integrity and dedication so that a teacher is a role model for the young learners. Most countries try to make this happen by recruiting young people after secondary education and taking them through a four-year undergraduate general education along with pedagogy as an area of instruction. Thus, young people are prepared intellectually and emotionally for teaching as a lifetime mission. To achieve this result, it has to be ensured that the undergraduate colleges maintain essential quality and the future teachers are offered proper status and incentives as a teacher.

An approach in Bangladesh could be to create a national teaching service corps who could be placed and paid for by the government in both government and government-assisted institutions.

Finally, with two percent of the GDP spent for public sector education, it is one of the lowest allocations, and only half of the average spending by the developing countries, for education. Barely over a hundred dollars of public expenditure is spent per primary school child in a year. This is a quarter of average spending in South Asia.

Almost all children at the primary level, over 20 million, are reported to be enrolled in school. This feat is achieved at a high price in dropout and poor learning. One out of five drops out before grade 5. The national assessment of students under government auspices, as well as independent surveys by Education Watch, suggest that the majority of children cannot read or count at a functional level after completing primary education.

There is a lack of understanding, or more likely, a great reluctance among the policymakers at the technical and political levels to look beyond the immediate, or consider and make some hard and bold choices to deal with the structural issues in education. This is hardly a formula for creating future-ready young people and building an education system to produce those people.

Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at BRAC University.