<%-- Page Title--%> Education <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 147 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 26, 2004

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Why have reforms faltered ?

Dr. Manzoor Ahmed

The educational system of Bangladesh can boast of a hundred thousand educational institutions, 30 million students and half a million teachers. These numbers do not include thousands of private proprietary educational and training institutions and some 40 thousand non-formal primary education centres run by NGOs, serving one and half million children from poor families. With about 15 percent of the government budget allocated to education in recent years, it is the single largest item of government spending. The total private spending of families, according to Education Watch studies, equals the government budget even at the primary level, which is supposed to be available at no cost to parents. How does the huge education enterprise serve the nation?

Bangladesh is the eighth largest country in the world in population and one of the most densely populated, but endowed with limited natural resources. It has to rely more than most countries on its human resources for progress and prosperity. Education is truly a matter of survival and security of the nation for Bangladesh, as President Hosni Mubarak once said about Egypt.

The pace of expansion of the education system has accelerated in the 1990s. Primary education enrollment has increased by 50 per cent since 1990. Secondary and tertiary level institutions and enrollment also have witnessed a similar upsurge. With the government decision to permit establishment of universities in the private sector, there has been a "mushroom" growth of these institutions. Few, however, will dispute the need for widening the door of education even further. In spite of the expansion, one out of five children still do not enter a primary school. Only around 40 per cent of the adolescent population are in high school. Under 5 per cent of the 18 to 24 year olds are in institutions of higher education. Whether we want it or plan for it or not, Bangladesh is a part of today's global "information society" and the emerging knowledge-based and globalised economy. There is no turning back -- the pace of expansion of education has to be even faster. But what is the price of expansion and how can the benefits of expansion be ensured?

One major accomplishment that Bangladesh can take pride in is that the growth in enrollment in primary and the lower level of secondary education has eliminated gender disparity in access at these levels. Other countries in the South Asian region, except Sri Lanka and the Maldives, continue to struggle with this affliction. As noted above, the nationwide network of primary education institutions has brought this essential service to the doorsteps of the vast majority of children. However, the price of this expansion has been the lack of progress - and perhaps a serious erosion - in the quality of teaching and learning. This failure has made the accomplishment in access almost pointless. Gender equality has become the opportunity for girls and boys to be equally deprived of education of acceptable quality.

Absence of performance standards for schools, teachers and children and their use in management of education is symbolic of the neglect of this critical aspect of the system. The public examinations at the end of the secondary stages (SSC and HSC) and in higher education as measures of performance are too late and inadequate to help better management and accountability in the system. In any event, the failing grades of the majority of the examinees, and the high proportions of "third class" (or equivalent grade points), make the system of education look like a mechanism designed to produce failure rather than success. The education system thus becomes a means of branding the large majority of our young people as failures. Note that the candidates for the public examinations themselves are a minority who have not dropped out from school over the years and have survived the screening for selecting the eligibles for taking the public examination.

Surveys and studies on primary education point to the disaster in quality at the foundation of the system on which the edifice of education must stand. A national sample survey of Education Watch, an independent education monitoring and research body, revealed that less than two percent of children completing primary education acquired the basic skills and knowledge prescribed in the national primary education curriculum called "terminal competencies" for primary education. Another Education Watch survey found, confirming the earlier finding, that one-third of the children completing five years of primary education remained illiterate. (Education Watch reports of 2001 and 2002 published by Campaign for Popular Education) Similar survey findings of learning achievement at the secondary level are not available. According to a study of efficiency of secondary education by the World Bank, of every 100 children entering class six, only six completed the secondary stage and passed the HSC examination.

While the neglect of quality must be addressed, we cannot be complacent about access to education either, because the pace of expansion still falls behind needs. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the non-participants (20 percent of the primary school-going age group) and drop-out (variously estimated between 25 and 40 percent of those entering class 1) add up to around half of the children still remaining deprived of primary education. Quality and quantity have to be looked at together, not as separate problems. Various national education reform efforts in the form of education policy formulation and policy reforms have attempted to deal with the questions of quality and quantity - unfortunately, not with a high degree of success.

The need for a comprehensive statement of the national education policy, as the guide to reform and change, has been felt and voiced repeatedly. The first such attempt since the emergence of Bangladesh was the Qudrat-e-Khuda Commission report of 1974. Political change through a military coup put on hold any action on this report. Various regimes that followed set up bodies to make recommendations on education policy reforms. The common features of some half a dozen of these initiatives in the last three decades are that few of the substantive recommendations were implemented. Some of the reports were not even made public.

The last national education policy statement which received endorsement from the Parliament was the National Education Policy of 2000 (NEP2000). With a change of government in 2001, this policy document also, true to tradition, was put in the archives. In 2003, a new Education Commission was appointed. The work of the new commission is yet to be completed.

The urge to establish a new education reform body and to have a new policy statement of its own by each regime - and the subsequent failure to implement the recommendations - are symptomatic of deeper problems. These relate to structural characteristics of society and the lack of capacity and political will to respond to these structural problems. The degree of success in educational development and policy implementation will depend on how these characteristics of society and polity are taken into account in the process of developing and implementing policy.

The signal structural characteristics, shared in varying degree by Bangladesh with other developing countries, include; (a) political and economic power structures dominated by an elite that impede honest effort to implement policy rhetoric championing the interest of the excluded and the disadvantaged, (b) inherent complexity and sensitivity of an education system burdened by a colonial and feudal history - illustrated by such fault lines as the elite and the common schools and the madrassas and the secular schools, (c) limitations of material and human resources in one of the U. N. designated least developed countries, and (d) extreme political fractiousness and immaturity of institutions that prevent consensus-building and continuity of policy and lead government action in education to take a partisan character.

NEP 2000, now in limbo, failed to offer radically new directions needed - and given its mandate and composition, and the political climate, could not do so - on such issues as accountability of schools and teachers to the community and parents, establishing and applying performance standards in terms of learning outcomes of students, real decentralisation to bring planning and decision-making to communities and institutions along with accountability, reversing high inequity in public spending in education, building and maintaining professionalism in educational planning and management from national to institutional levels, linking expansion with provisions for resources and management accountability to maintain acceptable quality, and above all, ridding educational policy and decision-making and their implementation of partisan politics that has destroyed the sanctity and the basic tenets of the academia.

Without impugning the sincerity of the commission members, it would be too much to expect that the latest education commission appointed by the current regime will deal with squarely, drawing on the best professional expertise and relevant international experience, the critical issues that have escaped past commissions. Even if the commission came up with sensible ideas, rather than inconsequential tinkering with the system, it is not likely that there will be the political will and the nonpartisan consensus needed to act on the recommendations, especially in an environment supercharged with confrontational partisanism.

A Task Force of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, in its brief on national issues before the 2001 general elections, had advised that the new government after the election would do well to forego the impulse to initiate another education policy formulation exercise and should concentrate quietly on implementing agreed policies and reforms. CPD had counselled " a pragmatic approach to solving problems based on experience and relevant international lessons, without the fanfare of a new policy, with ample dialogue and participation." ( CPD, Policy Brief on Education," August 2001). This, unfortunately, was not to be.

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




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