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     Volume 8 Issue 76 | July 3, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Closing the Gaps

Ershad Kamol
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

“In spite of the fact that we are the inheritors of rich traditions and though education is recognised as a fundamental right in the constitution of the country, different governments with their warped mindsets approached the donors for assistance for the development of education system and adopted some of their precepts blindly. As a result, education has become an instrument of divisiveness in society and through a strange process of addition and subtraction it has become a peculiar montage." This is a rough translation of what a leading educationist and economist Professor Muzaffer Ahmed said at a Liberation War commemoration speech in Bangla titled Education System: Expectations and Achievements of the Liberation War. Satirising the initiatives taken by different governments to introduce a uniform science based education policy in the country, Professor Muzaffer further writes that the necessity of introducing a science based education system had been uttered in the 1920s, but has till date remained mere noble words.

The existing education system in the country is actually in a mess. The education system is becoming more and more out of the reach of the common people. As a result, the dropout rates are ever increasing. At present the drop out rate at the primary level is 42 percent and at the secondary level it is 47 percent. The price of education has high but the quality of education has become deteriorated. Only the privileged can send their children to expensive schools that claim to have standards of education. But aside from a handful of schools, many private schools do not provide the standard of teaching that they are expected to.

It is not as if successive governments in the last 38 years of the Independence have not given lip service to the idea of educational reform. They have formed several commissions to give reports for structural reforms that are expected to bring significant improvements in the education sector. None of the reports have been considered due to the common practice of governments to reject any plan initiated by their predecessors even if it is a good one.

Roughly there are three streams of education existing in side by side in Bangladesh: mainstream Bangla medium, English medium and Madrassa system. There are many sub-streams, especially at the primary level. A study says there are 11 existing education systems at the primary level: Government primary schools, registered and unregistered private primary schools, community schools, kindergartens, primary schools run by NGOs, Ibtedia and others. There is a huge gap between these streams in terms of expense, standard and approach.

"Ironically the English medium Kindergarten schools flourished in the country when English medium learning was restricted to the public schools in 1972", says Professor Muzaffer Ahmed, "That made the society divided. The privileged class could 'buy' better education than the masses could. But the then government was not concerned in this issue, neither had it any policy. Though a commission was formed in 1974 targeting a uniformity of the existing systems (which is known as Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission Report of 1974), still the country has no education policy, though it has been frequently uttered that education is the backbone of a nation."

Roughly there are three streams of education existing in side by side in Bangladesh: mainstream Bangla medium, English medium and Madrassa system.

Professor Ahmed further adds, "The target of education has been deviated due to evil politics and economic policies, which have made us consider education to be like any other buyable 'commodity'. In the current trend, the students buy certificates from the institutions, but don't acquire knowledge, which is the aim of education. Teachers are the part of this evil 'change', without much concern, the guardians have accepted it and the civil society members do not bother much about it. If the ongoing trend continues, it will never be possible to build a progressive society capable of competing in the era of globalisation."

According to Professor Ahmed the quality education should be open for all till the secondary level. An education policy must provide the required facilities to develop the skills core subjects (language teaching and mathematics), basic computer knowledge and to develop the capacity to interpret life scientifically and logically.

Things may be about to change. The current government has formed a 16-member National Educational Policy Formulation Committee headed by National Professor Kabir Chowdhury to formulate a draft of an education policy. The committee is expected to submit the draft within the next couple of months for further discussion from different stakeholders. Taking opinions, the new education policy is expected to be applied from the next academic year. It will be the first time that any education policy is executed in Bangladesh.

"We have started to work on the education policy at the initial stage so that we get sufficient time to implement the policy" says Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid, "It's more important to execute a policy rather than just spend time forming new policies. During the next four years the maximum part of the policy will be executed. So there won't be a scope to discontinue it."

Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, co-chairman of the committee, informs that the committee wants a massive institutional change in the education policy in terms of re-arranging the system, approach and outlook. The policy will give emphasis on developing values as well as skills on technical knowledge from the primary level. With a view to develop a more egalitarian and united society, at the primary level all students will have to read almost the same texts, although at the secondary level the text might differ. Emphasis will be given on computer education, language skill and vocational training in the secondary level. The draft will also focus on more research based tertiary level education. The draft will also mention the strategies on how to implement the policy in different phases.

According to the draft policy primary level will be till class VIII, at present it is till class V. Secondary level will be from class IX to class XII. "At the end of primary level the students will have to sit for a public examination and again they will have to give another public examination after completion of secondary level", informs Dr. Ahmad.

Shelves of many bookshops are full of banned notebooks and guidebooks.

"Whatever system they follow-- mainstream Bangla, English Medium or Madrassa-- the students must read six National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) provided textbooks on six subjects--Bangla, Science, Mathematics, Environment, Bangladesh Studies and Values. They will read a text on English from class III, but if any school wants to include English from an earlier class can always select their books," continues Dr. Ahmad, " Our intention is that the students read the same texts at least at the primary level so that they may develop a common outlook, which is very important for the unity of the nation. Besides these textbooks the schools can select other textbooks. But we will instruct them to avoid any type of discrimitary word in the textbooks."

This is for the first time that ethnic minorities of the country will get a chance to read and learn in their own language. "We will introduce another text titled Matribhasha where all of the ethnic groups including the Bangalee majority read about their culture and biographies of the legendary figures in their respective languages, which is very essential for a pluralistic country like Bangladesh.”

The committee formed the draft based on the premise that every citizen in the country will complete primary education. The reality of high drop out rates has also been considered. "To check the high drop out rates free tiffin will be provided to attract students in the poverty ridden areas", says Dr. Ahmad. "Moreover, we are designing the curricula of the primary level in 'terminal and continuing process'. The syllabus will be designed in such a way that if a student quits education after the primary level, though it will be highly discouraged, she or he learns something from the schools to be a part of the development process. From class VI a course will be introduced on vocational training," Dr. Ahmad adds, "In this course they will be taught on a selected subject depending on the area where they live. The students will be offered courses on farming, small trades and small industries. Interested students after passing the primary school will get a chance to acquire practical knowledge on these subjects at the vocational training institutions."

Those who want to enroll with international system courses such as O levels and A levels will have to take government permission. At the same time the government will ask all the Quami Madrassas to be registered. "In fact all of the running educational institutes will come under monitoring and regulation. Taking permission from the government to sit for O and A level examinations will be considered a kind of regulation. On the other hand, the Quami Madrassa students will have to read the NCTB texts besides their specialised books on theology", Dr. Ahmad adds.

Whatever system they follow the students must study National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) provided textbooks on six subjects.

Dr. Ahmad further informs that local experts will write the texts considering the cultural contexts of the country. A massive teachers' training programme will be recommended to improve the skills of the teachers of all the educational institutions of the country. Moreover, Upazila-based monitoring committees including concerned citizens from the locality will be formed to monitor the standard of the schools. "Since our aim is to provide equivalent standard and facilities gradually to all the institutions, we don't want to rely only on the government machineries. We want the local people to ensure the standards of the schools", he adds.

Following foreign syllabi an estimated five hundred English medium schools are operating in the country under private sponsorships. A few thousands kindergartens also follow English medium curricula. On the other hand, thousands of unregistered Quami Madrassas and registered Aliya Madrassas are operating in the country. The products of such divergent school systems create differences in outlook, values and culture thus making national unity a difficult goal to achieve.

"Students of the English Medium schools have little knowledge of our culture and history. On the other hand the Madrassa students are left out of the national development. We must minimise the gaps between the students of different streams. It may be a little bit challenging initially, however, we have to implement it for the greater interest of the nation", says Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad.

Representatives of English medium schools claim that already Bangla textbooks are mandatory in these schools and they have classes on music and dance reflecting Bangladeshi culture. "Pahela Baishakh and Ekushey February are celebrated with due respect in the schools. We certainly welcome the government's move to introduce more Bangla culture in these schools and we are also confident that the government is aware of those schools which consider Bangla culture as alien and do not respect it", the Principal of South Breeze school.

In case of government registered Aliya Madrassas, the government will easily be able to introduce the new syllabus, however, it might be difficult to introduce it in the unregistered Quami Madrassas, which are operating under a separate system known as Befaqul Madrarisin Arabia. The students of these Madrassas learn basically religious teaching and work as Imams and Muajjins at private mosques.

"Already we teach our students basic Bangla, English and Mathematics," says Secretary General of Befaqul Madrarisin Arabia board Moulana Abdul Jabbar, "After getting the government instructions we will take further decision on implementing more subjects in our syllabus."

Moulana Abdul Jabbar is also in favour of registration. He says, "We introduced government textbooks at the primary level to get registration, however, the last four party alliance government did not take the Quami Madrassas under registration. At present these Madrassas are running under trade licenses."

Improvement of the standard of university education will be a major challenge for the government. Over the years the standard of the tertiary level education has been declining drastically. The main problem with these institutions is that the private universities have not included any research work in the curricula, even the public universities do not get required funds to run researches, which is the aim of university education. There are also common complain against public universities such as faulty admission tests and lack of transparency regarding recruitment. Moreover, the teachers these days instead of taking classes, are busy with teaching in the private universities or in consultancies.

Professor Muzaffer Ahmed
Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad

"It's very urgent to improve the management of the public universities to ensure the standard. The appointment of teachers should be contractual. It can be renewable considering the evaluation of the students. We introduced the system at Institute of Business Administration (IBA) of University of Dhaka, which was very effective" continues Professor Muzaffer, "These days junior teachers by rotation become the chairman of a department, who cannot take any disciplinary action against the irregularities of the senior teachers, many of whom these days are not so sincere."

Professor Muzaffer Ahmed believes that the teacher recruitment is the most critical aspect of any educational reform. "Those who look for a job just for earning should not come into the teaching profession since teaching is more than a job. It is a kind of commitment to society. And the teachers must have two basic qualities: communication skills and creativity. The education system will never improve unless the good teachers are recruited."

"Research work and journals published in international publications should be given priority in the case of promotion. And emphasis should be given on basic subjects instead of the current trends of producing clerks at the university education system," he adds.

Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad also says that they will also encourage research works and skill development in the education policy. "Researches and journals will be considered as the key factors for promotion. At the same time, teachers must participate in regular training programmes like they do in summer schools in other countries", he adds.

Thousands of unregistered Quami Madrassas are operating in the country following a separate board system.

The education policy will also give strategies to improve the standard of private universities. A section of these universities have allegedly been involved in malpractice such as sales of certificates cashing in on loopholes of the existing act. University Grants Commission (UGC) is struggling to implement a new Private University Act.

"Incorporating the recommendations of the UGC, the draft will give a policy for the university level education including the private universities. Since it has not yet been fixed, I'm reluctant to disclose it at this stage", says Dr. Ahmad.

For such an ambitious overhaul of the education system, getting the finances to implement all the plans will be a major challenge for the government. The education sector enjoys only about 2.3 percent of GDP and around 13 percent of the total government expenditure. But this is far from being adequate for a densely populated country like Bangladesh. And to carry out the proposed policy the budget will be a key factor.

The National Educational Policy Formulation Committee in the draft of the policy suggests providing equivalent facilities and standards in all schools, which requires a massive infrastructure development. Moreover, in the draft the division of primary and secondary level has been re-arranged. Thus all existing primary schools will need more teachers capable of teaching quality education to the students till class VIII. Similarly, Higher Secondary institutions need teachers to teach students of class IX and X. Dr. Ahmad assures that to meet the demand, a huge number of teachers will be recruited divisionally through a separate recruitment authority like the Public Service Commission.

"We are also concerned about the salary and status of the teachers. Due to poor salary and lack of social status meritorious students these days do not want to come to this profession. We will try to attract them", says Dr. Ahmad.

According to Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad budget allocation, sincerity and commitment will be the key factors for implementing the proposed education policy properly. He believes that as the signatory of the Dukker Conference, Bangladesh has agreed to allocate six percent of GDP in education system. "Personally I believe that the government should increase the GDP in the education sector gradually to take it up to six percent, which is at present only 2.3 percent. If the government takes a political decision to improve the sector, which I believe the current government has, it will not be a big problem to increase the budget allocation," he adds.

The teachers must have two basic qualities: communication skills and creativity.

It is true that Bangladesh has made some significant progress, especially as regards to increasing access and gender equity, both at the primary and secondary levels of education. Gross primary enrollment rates have risen from 90 percent in the late 1990s to 98 percent in 2003, while a corresponding increase in enrollment rates at the secondary level rise to 44 percent. But a qualitative change in the overall education system has become more crucial than ever. If it is a more equitable, modern and patriotic society that we are striving for, the anomalies in the education system must be removed through sincere efforts from the government and the citizens of the country.



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