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<>Mahfuz Sadique on the state of public schooling in Bangladesh…

<> ‘Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.’ Forgive me for not being able to extract the original context of Bertrand Russell’s comment but it is so true to the topic at hand that it seems to me that the formative education given to children and teenagers at Bangladesh’s primary, secondary and higher-secondary platforms might as well have been modelled on the premise of this screwball comment. They are churning out ‘stupid’ young men and women, who are neither ready to enter today’s competitive market dynamics due to their lack of practical skills nor anywhere near the required general educational competency to pursue a deeper study of a specific subject. Even more alarming is the fact that the parade of ‘lost generations’ is growing longer and longer. And this legacy is a not a three-decade-old one, but one of more than a century.

To start with, thirty-four years after independence, it seems, we haven’t even figured out what we want to teach our young minds, let alone how to do it. Last year, our ever vigilant educationists, came up with another — the sixth, to be precise — education commission report headed by Professor Maniruzzaman Miah. If the 1974 Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Report is to be considered the first declaration of the new nation’s vision of its tomorrow’s citizens then it was a good one. For it envisaged a restructured two-tier primary and secondary education system with a modern structure and uniform approach befitting a modern and a new nation. The Qudrat-e-Khuda Commission suggested that primary education should be of eight years (Class I to Class VIII) and secondary education will be of four years (Class IX to Class XII) and regarding curriculum, syllabus and textbooks, the commission suggested a uniform curriculum for primary level based on competence. The commission gave special emphasis on ‘improved assessment system’ and suggested letter grading in the assessment of student performance in all stages of education.

With letter grading introduced just in the last few years in both the Secondary School Certificate and Higher Secondary Certificate Examination systems and almost every education commission report after the independence recommending a two-tier system stating that ‘there should not be separate institutions for secondary and higher secondary education as these impede quality development and management’, the lack of constructive change is appalling. Furthermore, most reports have recommended a single-track education system, instead of the current multi-track, up to the secondary level; this too has met little, or no, attention. So what happened in between these thirty years? Well, everything under the sun, and yet nothing.

The children of Bangladesh have turned out to be dummy cases for each and every new whim the educationists could come up with. Be it the regular change in the national textbooks, not on the basis of new and improved content but more on certain ‘ideological’ issues or the ever changing examination system — more objective MCQ style and the vomiting of memorised generic notebook subjective answers.

To begin to understand the state of a mind that goes through the process of the Bangladeshi education system, it is imperative to start from the beginning.

Before attending government primary schools, for which the starting age is six, children in urban and semi-urban areas attend one- or two-year pre-primary education in either private schools, kindergartens for almost two years, or just informally in government primary schools for six months. Though very little attention — in terms of critical importance — is given to such forms of pre-primary education, those are the formative years in terms of the basic moulding of cognitive and analytical skills so crucial for future learning. Time and again, the need for good language skills have been emphasised. The 2004 education commission report emphasised ‘teaching of Bangla and English at the primary level’.

One would not be incorrect in stating that the primary education system in Bangladesh is in shambles and in terms of quality lacks even the basic requirements. However, enrolment rate is probably the most positive side of the primary education system and special mention, in terms of increasing the general literacy rate is deserved by the non-formal primary education initiative undertaken by various non-government organisations. Since 1985, over 34,000 thatch-roofed schoolhouses of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee with earthen floors and simple teaching materials sprang up in villages across rural Bangladesh and nearly a million children received primary education through this initiative. With eleven types of primary schooling institutions totalling 78,126, government primary schools constitute the bulk portion of this with above 50 per cent of the total number. But almost justifying Nietzsche — Large state public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad — our public primary education system is plagued by inadequate classrooms, teachers and textbooks. The other inadequacy that disturbs many social scientists is the growing lack of playgrounds and other non-academic activities that create the proper platform for a primary level of education filled with joy. If Tagore was right when he had said, ‘An education without joy is not education at all,’ then primary education is hindering the first step to creating proactive citizens.

The need for competent teachers is the other big issue when it comes to primary education. Like a vicious cycle, since primary school teaching has become an outcast job with uncertain and meagre pay, less and less well-trained teachers are opting for primary teaching positions. Even if we solve the infrastructure inadequacy of primary education as a stop-gap solution, the attitude towards primary education itself is an ominous sign.

Though this is the scenario, the crux of the matter remains that expenditure for salaries constitutes the major part of the public budgetary expenditure breakdown. For starters in addition to paying the salaries of teachers of government primary schools, teachers in non-government registered schools also receive almost full salary payment from the government. Non-registered non-government schoolteachers also receive grants. While successive governments have kept one of the highest budgetary allocations for the primary education sector, the percentage of that allocation going as salaries still remains in their 1990s. But the sheer volume of students still keeps the teacher-student ratio down and expenditure on infrastructure also remains ignored. Like a double-edged sword, we are stuck with low paid primary school teachers — taking up huge budgetary allocations — imparting equally low quality education to ever growing numbers of students under appalling educational conditions.

The sad eventuality is that a huge portion of these primary-school goers will either drop out or discontinue their studies at the secondary level.

The secondary education system has its own separate failures on the other hand. While the textbooks for the secondary level have been massively revamped, the issue of concern still centres on skilled teachers and a lack of infrastructure.

But the greatest hurdle facing the secondary education system of the country lies, not inside the classroom, rather outside it. It is at the secondary level that out-of-the-classroom education has gradually turned into a full-blown ancillary business, if not a bigger operation than the schools teaching apparatus itself. Private teaching by the same teacher who teaches at the school, or the armada of coaching centres with ‘KG I to Degree’ make education nothing less than a money spinning machine. And with meagre salaries, no wonder teachers are opting to teach less and less in their classrooms. And on the issue of notebooks: solutions and made-easy publications are widely available everywhere in the world, but in Bangladesh, the attitude towards these sub-standard pre-fabricated answers-for-exams halls have taken a dubious turn. They have eclipsed the education imparted in the classroom or even the main texts. It should not be a surprise to find a student in our secondary schools scampering over dozens of notebooks and not even knowing the basic content of the textbook.

Obviously, the mainstream education in secondary institutions is not yielding results in terms of providing required foundations for a self-sustained individual in a high unemployment scenario. A solution to this could be through diverting a larger portion of the students in secondary education institutions towards technical and vocational training. During the 1990s this need was felt. With just 2 per cent of total budgetary allocation for education going to this area, the realisation did not materialise. But in recent years, especially in several policy guidelines being considered by the education ministry, the establishment of at least two vocational training colleges with the capacity of providing more in-depth technical know-how is being planned. If this plan comes through and the basic principle of education at secondary institutions is geared toward a more practical, real-world solution, the ultimate goal of creating qualified self-sustaining individuals shall be attained.

Not sounding too idyllic, it is a nightmarish situation to find hundreds and thousands of students, literally, attending school just as a stop-gap solution, while memorising same answers for questions from notebooks and teacher’s ‘private notes’ for the sole purpose of giving that perfect answer on the exam paper. On the issue of exams, our SSC examination is probably the other factor fuelling the growth of this unhealthy education habit. Our question structure imposes the need to memorise rather than deliver analytical answers to questions based on concrete study of the subject. In the early 1990s, our education system came up with the ingenious idea of ‘objective questions’ i.e. multiple-choice questions. However, the logic that this would force students to study the original text and thus increase ‘objective’ knowledge is a farce in itself. Here is the catch: first of all, the idea that multiple-choice questions plucked out from the original text would increase the student’s objective understanding of the subject is not only flawed, but also detrimental. Just feeding information into brain would make it less competent than a processor run memory bank, while the primary premise of any education is not just to feed information but harness analytical skills to use any information – acquired in the classroom, or outside. The second, and more alarming, scenario for this type of examinations system is that it creates a massive problem of mass ‘cheating.’ Sadly, the idea of putting something on the answer sheet from any available source is not a matter of shame, rather a necessity. Parents, siblings and the plethora of ‘suppliers’ providing material for examinees (inside the exams hall) is a pitiful sight even more so in semi-urban and rural areas. Commendable, though, is the ‘crusade’ attitude taken by the government and especially, the junior minister of education in stopping mass public cheating. His helicopter rides across the country and one-man invigilation army may be the first step to stop this mass hysteria of pass-by-all-means attitude, but in reality it is the core problem which needs attention. And that is the examination system and method of teaching at our schools, or rather the lack of it.

Those who survive (or are damaged) by the secondary education system move onto the perplexing world of higher secondary institutions or commonly known as colleges. The sheer leap that the higher secondary syllabus takes from its predecessor is huge. With an inherent systems loss within the system which wastes nearly six months, students find themselves in a quagmire of rhetorical theory and a race to know them.

Any self-respecting educationist will tell you that it is during the higher secondary phase of education that a young mind sets forth forming an opinion on what higher education to pursue in the future, or any other course of action. Not to mention the lack of any guidance on such crucial issues, the education imparted on the teenagers of such delicate age is nothing less than sad.

The mainstream education system — all the way from primary to the higher secondary platform — is not quite different from the attitude we have towards education, or rather what we consider important. As mentioned in the beginning, it is the legacy of makeshift solutions to our requirements for decades that is to blame.

The nauseating replay of the same old notion that we have inherited a subservient education system from the education system from the colonial period is what I spare you from. But I ask a different question. India has inherited the same education system that we have. Look at that. India is a superpower in the ‘knowledge economy’ that has taken centre stage in today’s global information-driven dynamics. Indians may have had a two decade headstart, but their present state was not attained in one stride of a decade. A knowledge-based economy needs professionals with a solid grounding on the basic sciences, on the lingua franca of the world i.e. English and a plan (that a nation sticks to).

The idea that a higher percentage of students passing public exams serves as a benchmark is preposterous. Producing hoards of force-fed incomplete humans with a certificate to show their competency is the last thing Bangladesh needs. Not taking much liberty on the interpretations of the many philosophies of education, this is what I have felt. Education is a state of mind that enables individuals to make choices bearing on its merits and demerits, and eventually acquire skills to fulfil that choice.

I see a never ending procession of young minds lacking the power to choose, bereft of real world skills with an almost catastrophic lack of confidence. I just see ‘lost generations.’

Published: The New Age/ August, 2005

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