Education: Pinpointing priorities, overcoming political dilemma

Three children returning home from schoolFile photo

Education minister Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury on 3 March joined a presentation and discussion on some recent research at the Dhaka University Institute of Education and Research. The young, modest and humble education minister spoke about his aspirations, commitment, concerns and the existing problems.

He recalled his schooldays when his father (who had been a renowned public leader in Chittagong) had got him admitted into a reputed school. But he got to see it was actually private tuitions and coaching classes that were behind the scenes of this school’s reputation. Once the school managed to make a name for itself, meritorious students would get admitted there and so no matter what the school did, its reputation remained intact. Every locality did not have a school of acceptable standards for the students and the situation remains the same.

The education minister spent much of his student life in England. He said that the public schools there taught and assessed the students in one way, but it was a completely different model that they exported overseas in the form of Edexcel, Senior Cambridge and so on, with commercial objectives. In most cases, with a few exceptions, the coaching centre-based and rote-dependent system was put into place and given an ‘international’ seal.

Children of wealthy families and relatively meritorious students take up this English medium education.  The question remains as to how far their merit and intellect is actually developed. Based on inbred merit and with the effort by well-to-do families, many children do well in the English medium of education and attain success in life. It cannot really be determined how far this can be credited to the school and the system of education. It has the harmful fallout of creating discrimination and divisions in society.

The education minister’s words echo much of the problems raised by the educationists of the country. The education minister went on to speak about religious fundamentalism in the country and how efforts are being made to use education as a tool for the fundamentalists. That is why even the slightest issue or dissenting view is magnified in an attempt to stir up people’s sentiments and emotions. In this manner, confusion is being created over mental and physical gender identity, Darwin’s theory of evolution or issues pertaining to history and so on.

According to the education minister, the position of the head of government, Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, on these issues is clear and ideological. Based on the four pillars of state, she is firmly committed to uphold the nation’s and the individual’s diversity that protects non-communal values, equality and people’s dignity. This vision and ideology of education must be manifested.

There is the problem of a glaring lack in accountability. The largest weakness is in the number of qualified, skilled, dedicated teachers. There are no visible qualitative changes in this regard

Giving the example of the government attaching priority to education, the education minister said, the allocation for education in the 2023-24 fiscal budget is Tk 880 billion (Tk 88,000 crore), that is Tk 200 billion (Tk 20,000 crore) more than the entire national budget of 2005-06 which had been Tk 660 billion taka (Tk 66,000 crore). He will not be unaware that this figure is not a reflection of the actual priority of government allocations. Proportionately speaking, expenditure on education remains below 2 per cent of the national revenue, the lowest in the world.

More importantly, the reach of education has increased over the past two decades, the number of students having doubled. So, also taking inflation into consideration, public expenditure per student on average remains as before (around USD 200). In expanding the reach of education at a low expenditure, we are paying a steep price in holding back the students in attaining knowledge and skills.

The official records concerning student evaluation reveal that even after completing Class 5, most of the students are not attaining basic practical literacy (simple reading and writing) or basic skills in math. The World Bank says, we (like other low income countries) have been caught in ‘learning poverty’ from which we are unable to extract ourselves.

The bottom line is, opportunities must be increased for students of acceptable standard and this investment must be used properly. But there is a lot of weak planning and management as well as corruption in this area. There is the problem of a glaring lack in accountability. The largest weakness is in the number of qualified, skilled, dedicated teachers. There are no visible qualitative changes in this regard.

Education analysts point to a lack of clear and cohesive efforts to resolve the long accumulated and multifarious problems as well as weak political and administrative leadership in this regard. In other words, it is the task of the education minister and his associates to clear away the debris and start anew. For this difficult task, he will require cooperation from all as well as sound advice. What is most importantly needed is the scope from a high level in the government to take long-term and immediate decisions along with the major stakeholders to resolve these complex problems.

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The words of the education minister rang with uncompromising resolve. He is determined to go ahead speedily with the new curriculum, despite the various misgivings and questions of educationists, teachers and parents. Many educationists fear that in the case of education priorities, as in other sectors, this too will be an example of fractured, partial initiatives, based on symptoms rather than going to the root of the malady. They feel that it is essential to first work on preparing the teachers, schools, parents and students before taking up such highly ambitious changes.

Experienced teaching and lessons under the new curriculum is the main objective of a developed education system. But everywhere there is a gap between the aspired goals and the activities on ground. In countries like ours, this gap is very wide. That is why we must proceed with caution. If not, there will be increased apprehensions of a disaster rather than success.

Many fears have arisen particularly in the matter of student assessment. This has not been given adequate consideration. The proposal to base the assessment of a student on the regular monitoring and assessment by the teachers, along with the results of the public examinations, will mean merging two very different and unequal matters, absolutely apples and oranges. The objectives and the methods of the two are different. The assessment report can be drawn up keeping these two separate. The institutions of higher education and job recruiters can take the school evaluation reports and the public examination assessments into consideration as they deem appropriate. There is no logic in merging the two and it has not been heard of in any other country.

Many educationists, including organisations such as Education Watch and others, are of the opinion that it is essential for overall education sector-based plans (with SDG 4, the government’s 2031 and 2041 vision in mind) to be drawn up along with long-term and essential measures. There is need for change in management and accountability. The 2010 education policy spoke of forming a permanent regulatory education commission to provide guidance for such tasks. Will merely having a permanent commission solve all problems? The country has many commissions and regulatory bodies which are ineffective. Attention must be paid to whom are being appointed and how far there is political support behind these initiatives.

Will it be possible to keep education away from politics? For example, the misdeeds carried out by so-called student politics nurtured by ruling parties of the past and present have made the environment on the campuses unbearable. Nepotism, corruption and even sexual abuse have reached shameful heights in appointments and management at the educational institutions. The teachers are getting involved in politics for their personal interests and they are being encouraged to do so.

This calls for a change in the mindset of the political leadership. There is no alternative to bold and stern measures in this regard. The theme of the Global Education Monitoring Report for 2024-25 is the crisis of leadership in education. One of the main aspects of this crisis is the crisis in political leadership and vision. We are caught up in this cycle. We must find a way out.

May the education minister be successful in this mission. May the vision of Bangabandhu’s daughter for a smart generation of youth and smart Bangladesh be a success. This requires determined and bold political decisions and leadership.

* Dr Manzoor Ahmed is Emeritus Professor at BRAC University, Chair of Bangladesh ECD Network and advisor of CAMPE

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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