have reforms faltered ?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Manzoor Ahmed is the Director of the Institute of Education
and Development, BRAC University.