Primary education’s moment of truth

June 28, 2008

Amidst the furore of protests and denials, Tahmina Shafique unravels the confusions that characterise a perceptible shift in the country’s primary education policy


For nine-year-old Hamid, the primary school that he goes to in old Dhaka is only associated with horror and repulsion. Not the regular horror and repulsion that all children feel towards schooling, this is worse and justified too. Despite the orders of their apparently omnipotent parents, many children in the neighbourhood are refusing to go to school. ‘And why wouldn’t they?’ asks a mother of two primary school students, in Lalbagh. ‘The state of primary schools is depressing – not only do they fail to offer an encouraging environment for children but they also provide unskilled and crude teachers, who seem to find it very difficult to understand children.’

For this teacher, who has completed her HSC examination two years ago, teaching itself is a rigour and she follows the same Victorian system, the conventional way of having children learn a prescribed syllabus by rote. ‘Sometimes I just lose my nerve trying to make sure that we get done with the syllabus and have them memorise everything- after all, if they don’t then they don’t learn,’ she explains confidently.

‘But the job itself is frustrating. I stay here for long hours and in return get almost nothing for a salary. Where is my motivation to do better?’ While teachers themselves understand the need for quality, they say there is little scope for further on the job training.

Parents meanwhile are continually struggling to make sure that their children are getting a quality education even though they attend school. ‘I do not even know what my daughter should learn by the time she passes primary education- she continues to memorise the given tasks and there seems to be nothing beyond that. Add to that, most often she does not seem to enjoy school because of the teacher’s behaviour and the environment,’ says Selina Begum, a mother of three, living in Kakrail.

As one can imagine, the frustration is mutual for students, parents and teachers. ‘I left school when I was 11,’ says thirteen-year-old Maliha, referring to a Bogra based primary school. ‘All we did at school was memorise lines that never made sense to me, and if I could not do so, the teacher would mistreat me and often hit me. At the end, I just stopped going to school.’

‘Those who complete primary education do not end up receiving basic competencies and more often than not, the achievement from it is nil,’ admits a government primary school head teacher, based in Dhaka’s Paltan. ‘So even though we see high enrolment, the quality of education has not improved. The whole idea of delivering these children certain skills is not achieved at the end.’

Primary education strategists, researchers and experts suggest that success is achieved only when students are engaged as real participants in the learning process. But instead, the primary education system has been evolved in a way where the students, instead of being partners and active participants, very soon after their entry into schools, turn into passive participants, subordinates and lose all initiatives and interest in studies and ultimately turn into dropouts. This dropout rate, no doubt compounded by factors such as poverty, has translated into 47 percent this year, a total of 15 per cent increase in two years.

According to recent reports, Bangladesh has about 16.5 million children attending 80,395 official primary schools where more than 320,000 teachers are employed, with many secondary level schools having primary facilities. In addition to that, there are more than 20,000 informal primary schools run by NGOs and the private sector where children are taught up to the third grade.

More than 65 per cent of primary schools are under direct government management, with the rest registered as non-governmental schools, receiving assistance, support and being subsidised by the government. It is also undeniable that primary education has expanded significantly, in the past decade.

While it is noted that some primary schools have improved significantly, and the country has made considerable progress towards achieving the millennium development goal of universal primary education, the state of primary schools in general, across the country, specifically remote districts is of dubious quality.

Add to that, this past month, the country saw protests from organisations of primary school teachers and associations protesting against the government’s recent decision to hand over the responsibility of supervision of primary schools in 20 Upazilas across the country. While state-run primary education is crumbling due to sheer failure in management and operation, some see the move to involve non-government actors in training teachers as a pre-cursor to a shift towards privatising primary education – an allegation that BRAC has denied squarely.

‘We will be dealing with only the quality of education and work on reducing the drop out rate,’ explains Anwarul Haque, director of Public affairs and Communications at BRAC. ‘We are not dealing with any form of administrative intervention or taking over primary schools. Our aim is to purely work on quality that needs major attention. The protests have come as a result of the inherent perception that people seem to have about NGOs and their fear of privatization of the primary education system.’

Despite these explanations, experts feel the move was undefined and unclear. ‘This was not discussed earlier and even though BRAC claims that they are not looking at the administrative issue and do not have much control, documents and notices clearly suggest that BRAC is being given a major responsibility of managing the primary schools in 20 Upazilas,’ says Zafar Iqbal, writer and educationist.

‘While this is understandable that there is a need for improvement, the larger issue here is the fact that BRAC specialises in non-formal primary education program rather than a formal system as this and these 20 upazilas consist of a huge number of schools. Therefore, the matter needed to be sorted more carefully,’ Iqbal says.

Experts also continue to point out, that primary education should remain under the government and private sector control can prove to be damaging.

According to the Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, primary education shall be the responsibility of the State. To bear this responsibility primary education in Bangladesh underwent a great deal of changes and development during the last few years, but the issue of quality and structure remain to be a matter of great magnitude and national concern.

‘Bangladesh does have one of the largest universal primary education systems in the world,’ says Salma Akhter, professor, Institute of Education and Research (IER), University of Dhaka. ‘It is noted that education system has expanded and reached out greater number of students. But the larger question remains that how much have we achieved in terms of quality? And how much has been actually the learning achievement?’

According to professor Maniruzzaman Miah, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University and chairman of National Education Council, ‘The standard is much less than desirable but the problem is in the teachers’ quality, management and monitoring system. Primary education must not be only text book based; it should propagate knowledge.’

Yet, over the years any form of increase in budgetary allocation for development of the education sector has not been translated into cost-effective spending, and sometimes, a large part of the annual development budget remains unspent, say experts and academics.

The existing institutional structure needs enhanced capacity to utilise more and more resources to develop the sector,’ points out professor Anisuzzaman, University of Dhaka. ‘Not only is there a dire need for capacity building but also proper and effective planning in the overall sector.’

‘Improving the standard of teaching is crucial. Teachers are poorly trained and paid. Teaching methods and materials are generally sub-standard, especially in government schools. Schools are in poor condition and detrimental to learning. Moreover, the entire system and structure needs to be provided,’ points out Miah.

Primary education has evolved through various challenges and taken decades to shape. Around 1973, after independence, primary schools were nationalised as part of a larger policy framework. These nationalised primary schools began to cater a major portion of primary population. Subsequently, teachers and headmasters became employees of the central government with their ties and their accountability to the local communities that they serve almost severed.

Presently, these schools are directly run by the government which pays 100 per cent of staff costs and grants for school infrastructure and free textbooks for all their students. Along with this financial assistance, the responsibility over the year, has been extended to non-government organizations too. ‘But, these private organizations, extended only support to some of the larger activities by the government,’ says Siddiqur Rahman, professor, Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka, and heading the Primary Education Development Program(PEDP).

PEDP II represents a major operational part of the government’s Education for All (EFA) and poverty reduction agenda, which are linked with the Millennium Development Goals. ‘We have been looking over the overall primary education program and planning to ensure better development and training programs are served for the teachers. We are constantly working to better the services,’ adds Rahman.

‘While we do recognise the many improvements within the primary system lack of proper monitoring and transparency in the operation of the system has been a major issue of concern,’ adds Salma Akhter. ‘Moreover, even though you have greater enrolment, at the same time the drop out rate has been increased to 47%- almost half the group, which is alarming.’

Inclusion of BRAC

On May 23, this year, the government approved the pilot primary education project under which BRAC would work to improve overall education and classroom environment in the 20 upazilas by training teachers and making school management committees (SMC) more effective.

According to primary teachers, experts and academics, this move comes as a shock and a major shift in the policies so far. According to them, this move would not improve the standard of primary education; rather shift primary education control to private sector control.

‘I feel this step has not been a good idea,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘BRAC is covering a major portion and that is undesirable, specifically because, they have no experience in delivering formal primary education as such. Moreover, the whole process of getting BRAC involved and their role has been highly non-transparent and confusing.’

‘The pilot programme of Brac will assist the government’s second phase of Prmary Education Development Programme (PEDP). Monitoring of the government programme on primary education has not been given to Brac or any other NGO,’ said Khondaker M Asaduzzaman, director general of directorate of primary education in response to this past week’s outrage by the primary school groups.

‘We know from the notices and documents, that this is the first time that a private body is working along side government, instead of providing support,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘This goes against the principle of keeping the primary education out of private hands.’

‘It could be presented differently with more strategic thinking and preparatory groundwork involving key stakeholders. NGOs (not just BRAC) working with primary education could be supported by PEDP to fill in the educational/school gaps (through establishing schools in remote areas, promotion of pre-primary centers, inclusive education for ethnic minorities, disabled, street/working children and similar others and inclusion of life/ occupational skills) as appropriate,’ suggests Anish Borua, an expert who has worked extensively with BRAC education program in the 80s and later at the Dhaka-based ngo CAMPE.

Brac has no intention of privatising or commercialising primary schools in the country and its pilot project, funded solely by Brac, said Brac chairperson Fazle Hasan Abed told reporters last week.

‘Since Brac is funding the pilot project, it will not use public funds allotted for Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP-II) of the government. We have no plan to take any fund of the PEDP-II or any fund from foreign donor agencies,’ added Abed.

‘There are 500 Upazilas in the country, so the 20 that BRAC is in charge of is insignificant,’ says Rahman. When asked about BRAC’s role, the PEDP officials refused to speak about the issue.

According to primary and mass education adviser, Rasheda K Choudhury, ‘We need supports from all stakeholders including NGOs for improving the quality of education in primary level. With this end in view we gave an NGO the responsibility of monitoring all the primary schools in twenty Upazilas across the country. It is an experimental programme, not a permanent one.’ She further said that the education ministry and directorate of Primary Education will monitor the pilot project and make a report after completion of mid-term and final supervision evaluating the performance of the NGO. ‘The ministry will cancel the pilot project if the NGO fails to reach the target.’

Be it experimental or a long term process, the steps that have been taken recently needed to be discussed in a more accountable way and it is evident that the process was not a transparent one or clear to the major experts, academics, primary school organizations and associations, let alone the general public- who are, lest all the other actors forget, the masters of the state. Therefore, primary education system being as crucial as it is to any country across the world needs to stand on a stronger platform and steps need to be taken to clarify the confusions.

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