SourceBangladesh is at a critical juncture and facing a difficult and challenging time ahead. Its challenges of development agenda are, indeed, immense. However, in the quest for quick economic growth and development, the country must seek inclusive economic growth. It has to put in more resources for reduction of poverty of millions of people who live under desperate poverty. This would need to create and expand access to opportunities and more investment in health, education and safety net programmes for the poorest. Alongside, the country needs big investment in infrastructures — energy, power generation, roads, railway and ports — to attract further investment and ensure industrial development and employment creation through private sector participation.
A number of systemic problems notwithstanding, Bangladesh is showing promising signs in respect of achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on universal primary education (UPE). The children want to go to schools and the parents prefer sending them to schools; both the government of Bangladesh and non-government organisations (NGOs) have stepped in to fund and support education for the beginners. Now, the challenge is to fit all these into a cohesive structured plan and produce the desired results.
Progress in the primary education sector, over the last few years, has made the MDG on UPE for all by 2015 an attainable goal. One accomplishment is the phenomenal growth in enrolment in a relatively short period of time. Gross and net enrolments in primary schools have risen to 98.8 per cent and 91 per cent respectively (School Survey Report 2007 published by the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education). The ratio between girls and boys in the primary shools, 52:48 in 2007, shows the eradication of gender disparity that existed previously.
Nonetheless, a number of adverse circumstances, which have dented the success story to some extent, call for intervention by the government and other actors of the society for further achievements in this sector.
A community of Purbapara village in South Keraniganj, an outlying suburb, 10 km south of Dhaka, along with a few other localities, was selected for the purpose of a study on MDG issues. Nearly 30,000 people, mostly day labourers, live in the village. Detailed discussions on the subject were held with the teachers, students, drop-outs and parents of the locality. Successes and failures of the primary education system were pointed out during the discussions and some pertinent suggestions were also made:
(a) The drop-out rate has been persistently high, offsetting a considerable part of the gains in enrolments. Many students enter the schools, but not all stick till grade V. “Ensuring that all boys and girls complete their primary education remains a formidable task because of the prevailing excessive drop-out rate”, says Sultana Razia, the headmistress of Nayashubhadya Government Primary School in the Purbapara village. She recollects only ten years back the percentage of school-going children was barely over 50 per cent in the area. But, since then, things have dramatically changed and gender discrimination is rarely visible in schools. She points out nearly 90 per cent children of Chunkutia community now get enrolled in primary schools. However, many of them, belonging to different classes, drop out gradually before they complete primary schooling. About 800 students get admitted every year in Class I in her school but the number stands at 400-300 in class four and declines further to less than 100 in class V. The education system needs constant review, continued support and interventions from the government and its development partners to enable the stakeholders to overcome the hurdles getting in the way of meeting the MDG by 2015, the headmistress suggests.
(b) Child labour is still widespread. This deproves the children of their inherent right to education. Thus, the primary education suffers a setback and the schools are compelled to run with less number of students than originally planned. This causes a huge drain of scarce resources devoted to the educational infrastructure which a low-income country like Bangladesh can ill afford. The law to prevent child labour should be strictly observed.
Betari, 20, who studies at a private university in Dhaka, expresses the view that some guardians are either unaware or have doubts about the true role of education. Others, shackled in chronic poverty, are forced to send their children to work instead of to schools. Child marriage also brings an abrupt end to the academic career of many girl students, Betari adds.
(c) Many students in the village come to schools underfed or unfed. Hunger makes it hard for the children to concentrate on their studies and `digest’ the lessons taught. Nasima, a teacher of the Government Primary School in Chunkutia says, “What will the child learn and how will it pay attention to lessons on an empty stomach? I, sometimes, share my tiffin with a child.” Providing tiffin to the students as an incentive, in the form of nutritious biscuits or other food, can work in two ways – first, to bring them to school and secondly, to keep them alert and interested in the lessons. According to the Community and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), the School Tiffin Programme of the government, with support from the World Food Programme (WFP), covers only one per cent of the total primary school students in the country. So school-feeding programmes should be expanded, if necessary, with the support of international organisations, she stresses.
(d) Under the existing scheme, 40 students out of every 100 are awarded stipends from the government. These are handed out on ‘first come first serve’ basis. They get the stipends from class one to class five. As a result, the remaining 60 students are left in the lurch and lose the motivation for going to schools. Out of frustration, many of them leave schools and look for work that pays. Had there been a provision for awarding stipends based on merit, the scenario would have been different. Textbooks (three new and three used ones) are also distributed among the pupils free of cost by the government but only to 60 per cent of the primary schools, according to CAMRI. NGOs are also joining this programme. But, providing only textbooks may not draw enough children to schools and keep them there. Students should also be supplied with stationery items like exercise books (papers), pens, pencils, etc. either for free or at subsidised prices as an added incentive.
(e) School curricula should be overhauled and brought up to date. The lessons should be taught in a comprehensible manner to arouse students’ interest and curiosity. Students feel teachers should conduct classes in a student-friendly environment. The traditional and conservative teaching methods should be abandoned in favour of modern and innovative practices that make learning process a satisfying and rewarding experience instead of a dull and often stressful exercise.
(f) The teacher-student relationship occasionally leaves much to be desired. It is understandable that the attitude of the teachers toward the students should be sympathetic and students should also show due respect to the teachers. The students of the school, we visited, want their teachers to be gentle and kind. They complained about the rude behaviour of the teachers to them and accused some teachers of making verbal abuse that compel aggrieved students to leave the school in protest. While rudeness and abuse are surely undesirable, there is no report of any teacher beating the students with cane in the school, which seems to have become a rare practice throughout Bangladesh. The teachers of the school, however, deny any rudeness and cruelty to the students.
(g) Teachers are not paid well enough to make both ends meet. The teachers need to be paid adequately to enable them to maintain themselves and their families comfortably. The teachers have also to be oriented and trained for effectively and successfully imparting education to the children. Teachers’ training that aims at building their capacity and upgrading their skills, should be an ongoing process.
(h) At grade five, the children are too young to make their own choices. Once they are out of the school, the urge to acquire knowledge and skills or to continue studies is dissipated. Moreover, five years of study is considered inadequate for the children to master the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (3Rs) and can hardly be useful for the rest of their lives. In addition, perfunctory learning cannot be applied in later life as a basis for skill development. Since prosecuting higher studies by the pupils requires a good deal of money, discontinuation of the study becomes the only option. As a solution, the primary segment from classes one to five needs to be extended to class eight. With eight years of the curricula, pupils can better prepare themselves to face the realities of life and the challenges of the world around them.
(i) Betari claims that the number of schools and teachers in comparison to the population in most of the areas in Bangladesh is insufficient. Chunkutia has only two primary schools, one, run by the government, has 1600 pupils with 21 teachers and the other, operated by BRAC, has 400 pupils with 16 teachers. The teacher-pupil ratio being 1 teacher for every 124 pupils and 1 teacher for every 25 pupils respectively.
Primary School Registration Rules provides that at least one primary school should be established in every village with a population of at least 2000. But there are some 2000 villages without a single school with a population more than 2000. There are still nearly 14,000 villages in the country where there is no school at all, according to CAMRI, a research organisation.Therefore, in order to ensure universal primary education by 2015, many more schools have to be established. Long distance of the schools from their homes also discourages the students from going to schools.
(j) Ensuring security of the girls from being teased, pestered or molested by boys on their way to and back from school may prove to be difficult. Security can come from community education and peer counseling aiming at fostering fellowship and respect.
(k) Besides free primary education for all, girl students are getting an additional benefit of free education up to the higher secondary education level. These facilities sometimes go abegging. It is imperative that the opportunities, which are provided for all, must be exploited effectively. The government should make it mandatory for the guardians to send their children to schools to make the optimum use of all the benefits awaiting for them.
Let us now look at some of the positive aspects of primary education that hold out the prospects of attaining the MDG in this sector:
1. There is a mother, a vegetable seller in the local market, who lives in the shanties in the railway colony in Narayanganj. She earns money with the main objective of sending her children to school. This change in attitude springs largely from the deepening awareness among the people about the crucial need of primary education in life. The credit for this goes to th massive and sustained campaigns on the issue carried out by the government, NGOs and international organisations. Teachers and the community workers are also playing a significant part by visiting the houses of students and persuading guardians to send their kids to schools. Mass media has also been instrumental in bringing about behavioural changes among the ordinary people that favour socio-economic growth. Development of infrastructures, both the schools and the areas concerned, is another factor contributing to the spread of primary eduction.
The uneducated mothers, in the communities visited, are optimistic that Bangladesh will be able to achieve the goal in primary education, because most of the people are now convinced that education can change their lives for the better. They strongly believe that to enter into any profession, education is an indispensable tool.
2. It was observed at Chunkutia community in Keraniganj that the publicity campaigns in favour of prmary education have been very effective. But most of the people in that community are locked in a desperate battle against poverty, hunger and disease. They are genuinely interested in getting primary education for their offspring at whatever cost.
In this connection, the case of Sitara Begum can be cited. She is 35 years of age, a household worker and a mother of two sons and a daughter. She lost her husband eight years ago. Her elder son has passed SSC (Secondary School Certificate) this year and the second son is studying in class five and the daughter, in class two. Sitara said she was persuaded by educated people she worked for and her neighbours to send her children to the school. Sitara believes that though she has been going through an ordeal to maintain her four-member family, her children will not lead a miserable life like hers as she is making them educated.
3. The community people informed that they have heard from NGO workers, operating in their area, about the MDGs — one of which is ensuring primary education for every child of the country by 2015. The message has been driven to the doors of the people that knowledge is the power and a passport to a better life. The media and community discussions have contributed to imprinting this idea on them.
4. In order to make primary education accessible to all children of the country by the deadline, it will be necessary to set up schools in the villages where there is none, with trained and motivated teachers. This is not an impossible target. For a developing country like Bangladesh where the economy is yet to take off and the educational infrastructures are inadequate, night schools with proper logistics and management may offer a realistic solution.
The path ahead is difficult. But with the firm resolve and the will of the policy and decision makers to act promptly, it will be possible to eventually reach the goal of universal primary education for all by 2015. For this public opinion for MDGs should be mobilised and all the stakeholders should be involved.
The article is based on one of a series of community-centered surveys on selected MDG issues under a UNESCO/AMIC project. The writer is the Chairman of UNB