Back to the Drawing Board
Abdus Sattar Molla proposes a new structure for Primary, Secondary and Tertiary education
Education in Bangladesh is beset with many problems such as divisiveness, high drop-out rates, deteriorating teaching standards, lack of opportunity for higher education, low pay for teachers, dependence on coaching centers, commercialization of educational institutions, politicisation of both students and faculty and so on. Some of these problems stem from our system of structuring, some from financial constraints while others are caused by political polarization and administrative inefficiency and neglect. While the Ministry of Education has undertaken the task of reforming the entire educational system, my focus is on a single problem the structural weaknesses in our education system.
For many years, we had been following a system wherein a student was exposed to 16 years of formal education comprising of (a) primary education(PE) -4/5 years; (b) secondary education(SE)-8/7 years and; (c) higher/tertiary education- 4 years comprising of either (i) 3(Bachelor Honors) +1(Masters) or (ii) 2(Bachelor Pass Course) +2(Masters). A decade back, the Bachelor portion (both Honors and Pass Course) was increased by one year resulting in a total education span of 17 years. PE, which was of 4 years duration up to 1952, was increased to 5 years the following year and has been so ever since.
-PE too short and unaccountable: In 1974, the “Qudrat-i-Khuda Education Commission Report”, in line with the UNESCO requirement of 14 years universal schooling, recommended that PE be extended up to the 8th grade. It is indeed unfortunate that, even after 35 years, we have not been able to even partially implement this recommendation. No public examination is conducted on completion of PE and thus there is no way of ensuring the accountability of the primary school teachers for the quality of education imparted during this stage. It is no wonder that teaching standards in primary schools are abysmally low and even middle-class families try to send their children to other types of schools, especially kindergartens. The onus of developing a solid foundation is, thus, shifted to the secondary school teachers who often have to start from scratch.
- Divisive education: The 12-year period (comprising of 5-year PE and 7-year SE) has three distinct streams: the first and largest follows the national curriculum leading to the SSC and HSC examinations and most of the schools in this stream employ Bangla as the medium of instruction; next are the Madrassas which emphasize more on Islamic religious education; and thirdly, we have the English medium schools which follow the British or American curriculum. Such segregation has not only divided our society but is also a violation of Article 17of our constitution which guarantees uniform education for all.
- Insufficient duration of unified (general) education: Many eminent educators of the country agree that the present 8-year duration of general education is not enough. Students need to learn something of everything for a few more years so that they can develop a more comprehensive base to cope with any field in future life. An attempt was made during 2004-2005 to integrate the three main groups (Science, Humanities and Commerce) up to the secondary stage but it failed.
- Close proximity of SSC & HSC examinations: The first public examination (SSC) is held on completion of 10 long years of study but the next (HSC) is scheduled after only two years of study. The SSC examinees get 2 full years (grades 9-10) of classroom exposure since the public examination is held after the expiry of the academic year.* Besides, for completing all the formalities of the SSC examination (having shifted to the next year in March or April), our system provides for six months (since academic year in HSC begins in July*. But the HSC students, immediately after enrollment in the 11th grade, are literally swamped by tests because, though their academic session is officially counted from July, the actual study usually begins in September. The problem is further compounded by the fact that classes end after one year since the students have to sit for their Pre-test examinations in September or October after which colleges seldom arrange any class for them. Thus, most of the students pursue a narrow exam-oriented course of study which mainly consists of compiling lists of probable questions and getting the answers prepared by tutors at home or in coaching centers. While we blame the coaching center culture, we do not realize that the problem is rooted in our education system which provides 10 full years of tutoring before the first public examination and slightly more than one year for the next one.
-Less scope for research: The importance of research, which allows students to hone their analytical skills and explore their latent abilities and capacity for innovation and independent thought, cannot be overstated. Students in our country get their first opportunity of doing some actual research during the Masters course and one year is hardly enough time for this. Education policy cannot depend on the “blessings” of session jam which, incidentally, helped me in completing my MSc thesis!
To solve the above systemic and related problems, I propose a new 18-year education structure comprising of: Primary stage (3+3); Secondary stage (3+3); and Tertiary (higher) stage (4+2). My proposal, which is based on my study of education systems of 182 countries and case studies on 23 Asian, 20 European and 16 African nations, is explained in detail below.
The primary stage
Of the 182 countries studied, the highest number (87), has PE up to the 6th grade. In 28(mostly European) countries the duration of PE is 8 years, followed by 5 years in 19, 9 years in 16, 7 years in 15, 4 years in 11 and 10 years in 3. In all the developed countries of Asia such as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Israel, PE is up to the 6th grade. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iran are still content with limiting PE up to the 5th grade. Surprisingly, in developed countries such as USA, UK, Australia, Germany and Japan( mentioned earlier) which have the most advanced education systems of the world, PE is usually up to the 6th grade. However, in USA, in a very small number of states, PE ranges from 4 to 7 years.
In view of the above findings, I suggest that, instead of aspiring to the 8-year period recommended by the Qudrat-i-Khuda Commission, it would pragmatic to settle for a 6-year PE in place of the present 5. The expression (3+3) above means that the primary stage would be divided into two sub-stages [“lower primary” (LP) and “upper primary” (UP)] of equal size. The present 5-year PE is professedly homogenous but, in reality, clear differences in curricula and class duration exist between the lower (1-2) and higher (3-5) grades. Students in grades 1-2 are taught only languages (Bengali and English) and mathematics while those in grades 3-5 also study natural and social sciences and religion. Classes for grades 1-2 usually last for two hours in the first shift, while those for grades 3-5 last for four hours in the second shift. Most government primary schools have three classrooms each. All the rooms are used during the second shift, but one room remains unused during the first shift.
Since the proposed structure will have 3 grades in LP, all the three classrooms will be used during the first shift thus ensuring optimum utilization of available infrastructure. School hours for LP should be increased from two to three and the curriculum should be expanded to include religion and an introductory course on environment “Poribesh porichiti” (which will also include courses in natural and social sciences) in addition to the existing language and math courses. All the above subjects (Bengali, English, Mathematics, Religion and Poribesh Porichiti) will have one paper each. In UP, Math and Religion will continue to have one paper each but Bangla, English and Environmental Studies will have two papers each (with Natural and Social science having a separate paper under Environmental Studies) thus increasing the number of papers to eight from five in LP. School hours also need to be increased to five.
In line with the new school durations, primary teachers need to teach eight hours (instead of the present six) daily and, therefore, their salary should be increased to grade 11/12/13 from the present 16/17 of the National Pay Scale which is very similar to the fourth class employees' salary scale. Apart from adding a grade to primary education and enhancing teachers' salaries, a Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLC) awarding examination should be held on completion of grade-6. To avoid unnecessary hassle, the students can take the tests in their own schools with the proviso that teachers from other schools be brought in to invigilate. This practice is followed in Singapore. Such arrangement of public examination on completion of the PE will serve at least three purposes: (1) primary teachers will be made accountable systemically; (2) students who usually drop out after primary school would benefit from an additional year of schooling; and (3) passing the PSLC examination can be made a prerequisite for admission into vocational centers (as in China and Bhutan) which could be set up at union level.
The secondary stage
Let us examine the patterns prevailing in the secondary education systems of the 59 countries whose case studies have been reviewed. In 13 of the 20 European systems studied, duration of SE is 5 to 8 years. In 11 of these 13 countries, SE is divided into two sub-stages (lower and upper) and only Spain and UK have three sub-stages. Of the 23 Asian countries, 20
countries have SE of two sub-stages [lower (usually grades 7-9) and higher (usually grades 10-12)] and in only 3 countries (Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia), SE is divided into three sub-stages. The two sub-stage SE is the norm in all the 16 African countries studied and the 3 +3 structure is followed by 10 of them including Egypt which is considered to be the torch-bearer in the field of education amongst the African countries. Such a structure also prevails in the USA, Canada and Australia. So the 3+3 structure is the most prevalent pattern of SE worldwide.
The lower secondary curriculum is mostly unified in nearly all the countries but students do have the choice of taking some elective or optional subjects which, however, does not affect the homogeneity of the curriculum. But the upper secondary curriculum is divided into some groups or cluster of subjects with certain “core” subjects which are common to all groups. In Japan, Malaysia and Spain, where the curriculum is divided into a number of specified groups, the division is more distinct whereas it is more nebulous in India, UK and USA where, though there are no specified groups, certain polarizations could still occur as a result of the students' subject choices.
In line with the global pattern, I propose that secondary education in Bangladesh should consist of 6 years divided into two equal parts: (1) lower secondary (grades 7-9) and (2) higher secondary (grades 10-12) and a public examination (Lower Secondary Certificate) be held on completion of the 9th grade. SE will retain the three existing streams of education: (a) general; (b) Madrassa and; (c) vocational/technical. An “Ordinary Vocational Education” course (alternative to lower secondary) should be arranged for PSLC holders (who choose not to continue general education) in vocational schools or mono-technical institutions to be established first at Upazila and then at union levels. Polytechnic education (as an alternative to general higher secondary) can be made accessible to LSC holders who wish to pursue a technical career and, for this, polytechnic institutes should be established first at district and then at Upazila levels.
The lower secondary curriculum will be largely homogenous without any distinct groups like science, arts or business studies. Grade-7 will have a total of 8 papers in the following subjects: Bangla (2 papers), English (2 papers) with one paper each in mathematics, natural science (comprising of courses in physical science, biological science and physical geography), social science (comprising of courses in history, civics, economics and regional geography) and “Ethics”, a new subject(comprising of courses in major religions, human rights and some basic laws) which will replace conventional religious studies which has, so far, failed to elevate our moral standards. Since the above courses will be basically an orientation to the second stage (grades 8-9), these should be excluded from the syllabus of the LSC examination.
A combined 2-year course of study will be followed through grades 8-9. There will be 10 mandatory papers in the following subjects: Bangla (2 papers), English (2 papers), math (Paper-1: arithmetic & algebra; Paper-2: geometry & trigonometry), natural science (Paper-1: physical science comprising of physics, chemistry and physical geography; Paper-2: biological science comprising of botany, zoology and psychology), social science (1 paper) and Ethics (1 paper). There could an 11th optional paper to be chosen from business studies (comprising of accounting, management etc.), computer science, agriculture or home economics.
The higher secondary curriculum should be clearly diversified and divided into three main groups such as natural science, social science and business studies. Along with Bangla and English as “core” subjects, each of the three groups should have three elective subjects having three papers each (as in Malaysia). The HSC Examination may be divided into 3 yearly parts with students taking one paper of each subject every year. One additional subject (computer science, agriculture or home economics) may also be studied.
The above restructuring of SE into lower and higher sub-stages and the holding of public examinations after grade-9 and grade-12 should solve the problems of insufficient period for unified education and an extremely short classroom exposure for HSC students. Unification of SE up to grade-9 would provide a broader and more comprehensive base and the 3-year higher secondary sub-stage will provide sufficient time for developing specialized group-based knowledge to better prepare students for higher education.
To contain divisiveness in the primary and the lower secondary stages, instead of trying to accomplish the impossible task of integrating the three major streams (General, Madrassa and English medium), we need to develop a “core curriculum” consisting of some essential subjects including our national language (Bangla), second language (English), mathematics, social science and natural science and ensure that all the streams follow this curriculum. The “core curriculum” for the HSC level will contain only the languages (Bangla and English).
As a step towards fulfillment of the UNESCO requirement of 14/15 years of schooling and to enhance the level of education throughout the country, primary and lower secondary education together can be declared as “Basic” and, gradually, be made compulsory; however, the success of this scheme will depend on the realization by the general populace of the importance of education and the government's ability to provide sufficient subsidy..
Both lower and higher secondary general education can be accommodated in the present “high schools”. Those schools which, because of inadequacies in infrastructure or faculty, fail to open grades 11-12, will abolish grade-10 and, instead, include some upper primary grades to keep all their teachers engaged. The present HSC level colleges must start with grade-10, thus expanding their sphere of work one grade backwards. The colleges that now provide both HSC and Degree level education can opt for backward extension to include grade-10 or abolish the HSC sub-stage altogether and go for higher education only. Those colleges availing the second option would be able to accommodate more students at the higher/ tertiary level which would go a long way towards solving the problem of congestion.
The higher (tertiary) stage
The current higher education (apart from MPhil and PhD) in Bangladesh consists of Bachelor and Masters Courses. The Bachelor courses are of two types: Honors, which is a four year course and Pass which is of three years duration. This structure is working quite well and only the teaching standards and management needs to be improved. But the duration of the Masters Course is too short (only 1-year) and needs to be increased to two years to give the students enough time for research and submit a thesis to complete the course. Even if the students have no scope for further advanced study (which is still accessible only to a fortunate few), they would be able to use the knowledge and expertise gained from such research in practical life.
Abdus Sattar Molla is a PhD candidate, NIE (under NTU), Singapore.