Vol. 5 Num 23 Sat. June 19, 2004  

Teachers, primary education and the budget

We have witnessed recently the disgraceful spectacle of demonstrating teachers of non-govt. primary schools being clubbed and injured by police, and teachers on hunger strike lying on the street. Primary school teachers, far away from their classrooms, agitating and demonstrating for better salaries and working conditions have become a regular sight. They now promise to continue to press their demands through various means of protest, staying away from their students, because the new 2004-5 budget, in their view, has not made provisions to meet their demands.

That low remuneration of primary school teachers is a problem is well-recognised. A teacher's salary even in the government primary school is less than of a driver in a government office. It is even lower in the registered non-government primary schools, where also the government is the paymaster. The teachers in these schools are technically not government employees, but they are paid by the government through a mechanism of enlisting them in what is called the monthly pay order (MPO).The present and periodic agitation of the non-government primary school teachers is on the issue of bringing up the MPO payment to the level of the regular government teachers.

About a third of over 300 thousand primary school teachers in the country teach roughly a quarter of the 17 million primary school children in the registered non-government schools. For almost two decades the number of government primary schools has remained the same at around 38,000. The de facto government policy is not to increase the number of government schools, but to meet increased demands for primary education through schools established by communities, and assisted by the government ( with salary subvention, grants for building, and supervision). The argument in favour of this policy is that it is essential to have community involvement in the management and maintenance of quality in the primary school, which does not happen in a government school staffed by government employees. The village school should be an institution of the community, answerable to the parents and the local people, rather than an entity managed by a remote bureaucracy, it has been argued. Supplementing public resources with community contribution in cash and kind for primary education is also an important consideration.

Populism and politicisation by all major political parties have clouded the issue of teachers' remuneration. The main political parties have seen the primary school teachers -- who are organised through their unions, spread all over the country, and are opinion-leaders as educated persons in rural communities -- as useful political allies. The political parties, especially when they are in the opposition, have been very liberal in making promises to raise teachers' salaries, "nationalise" all primary schools and make all primary teachers government employees. How or if these measures improve children's education have not been the concern. Nor the teachers, in pressing their demands, have shown any sign of worry about quality of education in their schools.

There are evidences galore about the very poor value for money from primary schools. One-third of children after five years of primary schooling remain illiterate, according to Education Watch, an independent research group. At least a third of the students who enroll in primary schools drop out before completing the level of education. One out of five children do not even enroll. There is no substantial difference in respect of these outcomes between government primary schools and the registered non-government ones.

Clearly, raising the salary of "MPO" teachers to the level of the government teachers, enlisting more teachers into the MPO, or "nationalising" all primary schools per se will make little difference for children's education. This is not an argument against higher remuneration for primary school teachers. All who are concerned about the quality of education support better rewards and recognition for teachers. All, perhaps even the Finance Minister, would agree that the government should spend more money on teachers' salary as well as other essential inputs for quality improvement in education. The question is how increased salaries and other expenditures can be linked to better learning results. The original arguments for community-established and government-assisted schools remain valid, if only because the "nationalised" schools have not done much better in spite of the higher salaries and other costs in these schools.

Populism and expedient promises by political parties are not helpful. Some increase in subvention and allowances for the non-government teachers may mollify them for now. They will come back with demands to become full government staff, but that will not necessarily serve children's interest. The policy makers in the government need to find a rational approach to satisfying teacher's legitimate demands and serve children's educational needs at the same time.

The new six-year mega project for primary education development (PEDP II), about to be launched soon, proposes a re-consideration of and increase in teachers' remuneration. It is essential that a way is found to link salary increase with performance and accountability of teachers and schools. A rational approach in this regard should include the following elements:

- A system of assessing and certifying primary school teachers by an independent authority established for this purpose should be introduced. This is the practice in most developed countries and is under consideration for the secondary schools in Bangladesh. Teachers who qualify should become eligible for a national salary scale, even if they teach in a registered non-government school.

- Additional tiers for teaching positions, such as senior teacher and master teacher, can be introduced in primary school in order to reward better performance. Promotion to these positions should be based on performance criteria and tests conducted by the assessing and certifying authority. Positions of headmaster ( and assistant headmaster in larger schools) should be created to recognise and reward the leadership function in the primary school.

- Schools should receive per student grants, based on average student attendance, for books, learning materials, maintenance and similar essential operating expenses.

- Schools should be awarded bonuses based on a few well-defined performance criteria ( such as, class five tests conducted externally, scholarship examination results, reduction in dropout and absenteeism of students, etc.). A part of the bonus can be distributed among teachers and the rest used for school's improvement as determined by the managing committee.

Clearly, total budgets for education including primary education, one of the lowest even among developing countries as a share of GNP and the government budget, should be increased in a major way. At the same time, use of present fund allocations should be examined critically. The funds allocated at present for stipends for primary school students, two thirds of all government development expenditure for primary education, can pay for the measures suggested above. Many experts have argued that this would be a better use of the stipend expenditure and would do more to attract students to school and keep them there.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmed is Director, Institute of Education and Development, BRAC University.