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National education: in breadth and width, but hardly in depth

WHEN we took the Secondary School Certificate Examinations, the first public examinations that the students had to take that time, in 1986, the pass rate was 66.39, with 366,381 students taking the examinations under four boards of education and 241,134 coming out successful. Bangladesh had a population of 96 million that time. This comes down to 0.38 per cent of the total population taking the examinations and 0.25 per cent coming out successful.

In the 2020 Secondary School Examinations, the third public examinations that the students now need to take in primary–higher secondary education, the pass rate was 82.81, with 2,040,028 students taking the examinations under 11 boards of education and 1,690,523 coming out successful. Bangladesh had a population of 165 million that time. This comes down to 1.24 per cent of the total population taking the examinations and 1.03 per cent coming out successful.

The figures suggest a growth of 226.31 percentage points in the number of students taking the examinations and a growth of 312 percentage points in the number of students coming out successful in the period. But the population registered a growth of 70.83 per cent in the span. This essentially suggests a wide spread of national education in breadth and width. If we could consider the figures of 1972–1973, the growth would look more impressive. But has national education left its mark in depth which, in effect, matters? National education spread out in width and breadth but not in depth could be classified as a growth-centred advancement and not competence- or efficiency-centred.

National education has lowered its reach by adding two to three classes, known as pre-primary, before the formal counting of primary years begin. And this can easily be construed as a means of keeping children busy when the parents and guardians do other chores in this competitive age. National education has burdened students with two more public examinations — four in all before higher or tertiary education — to strip students of the space to learn their own way and at their own pace, which among many other issues has opened up ways for educational institutions, teachers and others to make a bit more money.

The government introduced the Primary Education Completion Examinations in 2009 which is a public examination but administered by the government agencies that look after primary education. The government introduced junior secondary-final Junior School Certificate Examinations in 2010 which is a public examination administered by the boards of intermediate and secondary education. While results of the two examinations have all along given a false sense of pride among the students and their guardians, and even among teachers by some measure, all this has kept students busy studying for examinations, results in fact, and has denied them the space and the scope for learning.

The government also introduced the English version of the national curriculum, which had been limited to cadet colleges since the late 1990s, for students outside cadet colleges around 2010, which created the scope for many schools to charge higher fees, which are still lower than English-medium schools that run to Edexcel or Cambridge International Examination scheme, and prompted many parents and guardians, not so well off so as, or willing, to spend so much money, to send in their children to the English version scheme, which employs textbooks of the national curriculum translated into English and published by the National Curriculum and Textbook Board.

The attempt of the government appears to have been aimed at grabbing a share of the students and the money that they collectively spend on their education in English-medium schools. Although there are some qualified teachers in some of the schools offering the national curriculum course in English, teachers qualified to teach students all the subjects in English are starkly absent from many of the schools that offer English version courses. The whole of the exercise appears to be taking on English-medium schools and grabbing whatever amount of money possible from the parents and guardians willing to send their children to English-medium schools.

The government, which controls almost the whole of the primary education scene, has, thus, failed to establish ‘a uniform, mass-oriented and universal system of education’, as laid out in the constitution of the republic, at least at the primary level of education. The government, as the manager of the state, must ensure a universal education system at all levels. And doing this at the primary level could be easy for the government because secondary schooling is largely maintained by non-government and private initiatives. Successive governments have thus missed on the chance of making primary education uniform. It has created divisions in education by introducing or allowing different streams. On having had a uniform system of primary education, it could then be easy for the government to lay its hand on the system of secondary education.

The government has often been heard, especially in recent decades, of saying that a universal primary education could be extended up to Class VIII for eight years of education. But a firm decision has not been forthcoming all these years. Indecision on the duration of primary schooling has, in turn, affected the goals of primary education. It is true that the government tries to create competence of varying sorts in the current five-year primary schooling, but the objective often falls flat, as periodical assessments of primary students by government agencies have for years showed.

Primary education, for the duration of either five or eight years, has always tried to make students competent in basics so that they can read, write and understand the basic working of society and governance. Primary education also tries to make students competent enough so that they can be law-abiding, worthy citizens when they grow up. But primary education has so far failed to instil values and morality in students that are required for an effective functioning of society. Governance campaigners have for long said that people have to come in touch with corruption almost everywhere in society, with some coming to engage themselves in corruption and yet some others coming to conform to the culture of corruption but with none to stand in conflict with corruption, to defy it and to agree life without all the good things that come with corruption by engaging in or conforming to.

The primary education that teaches students to become selfless has almost always imbued them with a sense of selfishness, ready to lay hands on anything they want by whatever means, mostly. All the fables, parables and allegories that the students are taught in their primary school days almost inevitably lose on themselves when they grow up into adults perhaps because the society that teaches them all these parables hardly does what it preaches. Primary education may have a set of objectives for the students but they are all related to competence, somewhat ineffectively inculcated, that is needed for the students to lead their lives, but in almost all cases, they are not related to morality that the students need to become worthy citizens when they grow up.

The textbooks that the government provides the students with should reflect the essence of collective efforts of education made to make life, society and the world better. But allegations are not rare that text in the books is changed on its way from writers to the printers, because of, in some cases, intervention born out of partisan politics, partisan narratives, religious intolerance or majoritarian views of society. The textbooks appear to be devices to create views in students rather than to help them to create views on their own.

Changes in textbooks have often also marred the classroom teaching. My daughter, a student of Class IX then, was asked by her teacher at a non-government school to buy the physics textbook that had been taught until 2016. But why would teachers ask the students to buy an old textbook that the board has recently replaced with a new one, supposedly better written and edited? The teacher said that the current textbook was difficult for the teachers to teach and the students to learn. If this is so, why has the book been rewritten and edited? And this is not an unusual case. Textbooks published by the board are meant for free distribution. They are not available on the market for sales. When I asked for a copy of the book at a book shop at Nilkhet, the seller readily held out a book, photocopied and bound, from a stack of more than two dozen copies.

The demand that the teacher made was not typical of one school or the other. Teachers in almost all schools asked their students to buy the old textbook. This suggests either a lack of qualification of the teachers concerned to understand the textbook that the board has revised, or a futile exercise on part of the textbook board to revise the old text. If the board has rightly revised the book and the teachers are qualified enough, it is then a failure of the Curriculum and Textbook Board in providing the teachers with teachers’ manuals or the required training in the changes made in the book.

The textbook board, set up in 1954 in another name, has revised, or put in efforts to revise, the national curriculum more or less five times after the independence of Bangladesh — the first for the duration of 1976–1978, the second in 1991–1996, the third, which is viewed as incomplete, in 2002–2005, the fourth in 2011–2012, with a gap between two efforts ranging from 10 to 15 years. The fifth time the textbook board has put in efforts to revise the national curriculum was in 2019, only seven years after the fourth initiative that ended in 2012, which is reported to have still been going on since then.

It is still for education researchers and educationists to weigh if the textbook board has so far done the job keeping to standards, with language planning and language status issues in mind, but the curriculum appears not to have been effectively implemented by way of the required training of teachers. Education managers, for an example, jettisoned the grammar-translation method of teaching English and introduced the communicative language teaching method in 1998–1999, but the introduction of the communicative approach left the whole lot of teachers, students and their guardians confused. The idea of the communicative approach is an emphasis on interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal in that learning languages successfully comes through having to communicate real meaning.

Students stopped needing to make sentences like ‘the old philosopher pulled the right leg of the chicken’ in translation as a means of learning grammar, but teachers — a tellingly significant portion of them having been trained in the grammar-translation method and not having an iota of what makes the communicative approach — also failed to adopt the communicative language teaching method in the absence of training.

The National Curriculum and Textbook Board these days prints about 360 million copies of textbooks for distribution to about 42 million students for Tk 10 billion. But the board has always come up with the excuse of fund constraints whenever it has been asked about the publication of teachers’ manuals which could make classroom teaching effective and keep it in sync with the changes in the curriculum and syllabuses. There has been a long spell of delayed publication of textbooks around the first decade of this century. The problem has now, however, been adequately attended to.

Education managers in 2008 also decided on the introduction of structured questions for the 2010 SSC students and the same batch of students faced structured question in the HSC Examinations of 2012. The managers decided in 2009 to introduce the system for students who would be taking the Primary Education Completion Examinations in 2013 and in 2010 for students taking the Junior School Certificate and the equivalent Junior Dakhil Certificate examinations in 2012. Structured questions, which education managers love to call ‘creative questions’ require students, and also teachers, to focus separately on cognitive (knowledge), analytical (understanding), application and higher ability at comprehending issues. But reports even in 2014 showed that a half of the schoolteachers cannot set questions keeping to the structured question system. The number of teachers able to set questions keeping to the system has not, however, been more than a half even in 2020. While this means that most of the teachers do not have a clear understanding of what the system is, it also has forced many schools to share question papers set by one school or another. It again comes down to the absence of teacher training.

The aim of the structured question, as education managers that time said on television, was to cut down on the number of public examinations to afford students care-free time for learning. The number of public examinations, as was said then, could be dropped to only one, say after 10 years of schooling, which would decide the course for higher education of the students. The government has, meanwhile, weighed the idea of dropping either the Primary Education Completion and the Secondary School Certificate examinations to create the space and of dropping one or the other examination in various combinations, yet no such decision finally came about.

The government dispensed with the traditional division in student evaluation and introduced in 2001 the grade point average system; the highest of GPA 5 was introduced in 2003 — all on a scale of 5. This was, perhaps, a right decision so as not to make any visible distinction between the students who score 59 and the others who score 61. But the government may not have done it the right way. The government in 2019 started planning to make changes in the letter grading for primary, secondary and higher secondary examinations to make it consistent with the letter grading in universities, worked out on a scale of 4.

As for private tuition, which has come to be known as coaching, in batches with school teachers or with teachers employed by centres, the government has failed to make any resolve either on ending the practice or continuing with the practice in a sound manner. The government has, at times, echoed the sentiment of educationists and educationalists about ending the practice of private tuition outside classrooms as this could improve classroom teaching. The government on many occasions issued orders limiting the scope for private tuition by schoolteachers and teachers employed by coaching centres. This was expected to force teachers to concentrate more on classroom teaching and stop coaching centres from promising a royal road to learning.

But the draft of the education act, initiated in 2011 and put into a final form in February 2021, does not appear to have adequately attended to provisions on guidebooks and notebooks, almost always sugar-coated as education assistance materials. The draft of the law aims at prohibiting the printing and distribution of notebooks and guidebooks, which are summaries of textbooks that try to build a royal road to learning by doing the hassle of the toil that the students are supposed to do. Yet, the draft proposes that supplementary books meant to enhance the students’ understanding of textbooks could be published with the permission of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board and that teachers should not insist on students’ reading, which is, in fact, buying, supplementary books. The existence of supplementary books also points out inadequacies in textbooks because students need to read supplementary books as the textbooks are not adequate.

The draft legislation prohibits teachers from teaching students of other institutions and allows them to teach their students but only in the compound of own institutions — neither outside nor online. But this also points to an official admission that students need additional classes because regular classroom teaching is not adequate. The legislation also proposes that all coaching centres should be registered with the education ministry and coaching should not take place during class hours and such centres should offer tuition exclusively either in national or foreign curriculums. The government appears to be keen on having a share, however small, from supplementary books rather than on having done with such education assistance materials. It also appears keen on having a share of the money that coaching centres earn through a registration process.

Another issue that has been in discussions among the teachers but has hardly been heard of outside the teaching circle is the time allocated for classroom teaching. Teachers need to call the rolls, they need to write down the topic of the day’s teaching in the classroom on the blackboard, they need to given an introduction to what they would teach and then they begin the actual teaching. In the meantime, especially in primary and junior middle classes, they need to train students because of their restlessness. Teachers complain that they hardly get any time to remain with the day’s topic in detail for long, which they think harms classroom teaching.

Advancement in curriculums and syllabuses is essential and it is also essential that efforts to develop curriculums and syllabus for a better teaching and learning should be a continuous process. But any indecision or bad decision is highly uncalled for, especially when all this deals with the education of children. But it largely seems to be a string of experiments, paused by periods of indecision, when it comes down to national education. The government in November 2020 announced its plan to dispense with, beginning in 2022, streams of education such as humanities, science and commerce in the secondary final education. The students may not need to choose one from the three and all would need to study the same integrated curriculum, at least up to the secondary level, as has so far been planned.

The use of information and communications technology in schools and colleges has also failed to get off on a sound footing although Bangladesh connected itself to the information superhighway in 1996. Much has happened on the ICT scene all these years, but education managers have hardly felt the need for hard-wiring the educational institutions, which has stared back at the managers in the past one year since the breakout of COVID-19. The outbreak of the disease closed all educational institutions in Bangladesh on March 17, a few days after the government announced the first cases on March 8. The institutions have been closed since then and not many schools and colleges could hold classes online and two-thirds of students could not attend classes online as they do not have any devices and the connectivity at hand. The internet has been a vehicle of business for all, the public and the private sector, but none of them has even thought of putting the internet to educational use. This has left national education almost stalled despite various claims of successes that the government has made this one year.

Teacher recruitment has remained another problem that the government has diligently failed to attend to. Positions have not been there and positions go vacant, keeping a wide gap in the teacher-student ratio. Classrooms have remained crowded, forcing teachers not to allocate adequate time for individual students. There is more to it. The government has not been able to make any plans to pay the teachers enough to lead their life without having to care for some more money for a decent living. As the pay remains low, no one capable of teaching and loving to do the job takes up teaching as a profession. Brilliant students in a large number are rather opting for a few thousand positions in the public sector and for other corporate jobs in the private sector that pay them well yet also press them hard. The government should devise ways to draw capable students into teaching and sustain them there under a comfortable, practical framework.

What, however, is the gravest cause of concern is the unwillingness of the government to shelve out money for education. The budgetary allocation for education in the ongoing financial year registered an insignificant increase by 0.10 percentage point to Tk 664.01 billion, or 11.69 per cent of the 2021 budget outlay, from 11.68 per cent of the 2020 budget outlay; the 2020 revised budget has, however, the percentage at 11.84. The allocation for education for the 2020 financial year was 11.68 per cent of the total outlay, accounting for about 2.1 per cent of the gross domestic product. Such an allocation appears insignificant compared with Bangladesh, along with others, having committed to increasing the allocation to 6 per cent of the gross domestic product as laid out in the Dakar Framework for Action signed at the World Education Forum in Senegal in 2000.

Such an allocation was meant to achieve the universal coverage of basic education and to overcome current deficits. Governments were also expected to ensure that at least 7 per cent of the gross domestic product is allocated for education in five years and 9 per cent in 10 years. Nineteen years after the Dakar declaration, Bangladesh’s education spending hovers around 2 per cent of the gross domestic product, which is the lowest even among South Asian countries.

Education has been a happening sector, in all senses, positive and negative, with decisions being made and then the decisions are overridden by indecision, all along half a century of the nation. Experiments have been made, with fresh experiments setting aside the earlier ones. Adhocism has often dominated education planning. It is time the education sector, especially the national education and more specifically primary education which makes the building block, came of age.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2021 Mar. 26) National education: in breadth and width, but hardly in depth. New Age. S


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