Revitalising primary education | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 22, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 22, 2012

Bitter Truth

Revitalising primary education

Photo: Shafiq Islam/Drik News

If a country wants social and economic development, it will have to break away from its orthodox and backward mould, and there must be policy initiatives to integrate social justice with economic development. This calls for a thrust in literacy as an integral part of this policy. But as it stands today in Bangladesh, there is only petty party feuds and money making to the utter disregard of human resource development. Literacy is the most crucial factor in achieving the MDG. While we brag about our education system making a leap forward, we are unable to discern if it is functioning properly.
Since independence, primary education has been treated with neglect and tokenism. Some leaders may have visionary ideas, but those ideas fail to focus on the basic needs of the long overlooked masses. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of education. Schools have failed to cater to the needs of our children. According to a Unicef report (2005-10), literacy rate in Bangladesh is about 56% against net enrolment rate of 89%. Apart from politically sponsored programmes, education appears to have become a low priority, where only 2.3% of the GDP goes to education.
Even if the governments had thought about the importance of primary education, their ventures lacked initiative and commitment and had almost fallen through because of financial constraint as well as corruption in the utilisation of the funds allocated. With about half the total population steeped in illiteracy, as the education minister mentioned in a write-up in the Prothom Alo (September 17), the effort to eradicate illiteracy by 2014, as stipulated in the electoral pledge of this government, can hardly be achieved. According to a survey made by the primary and mass education cell of the government in 2010, there are no schools in about 16,142 villages out of 68,000 villages in the country.
With 50% of the students admitted to Class I dropping out just before completing Class 5, as revealed by NCTB in 2010, it will be a big challenge for the government to implement its programme of achieving cent per cent literacy in the foreseeable future without improvement in infrastructure, strict adherence to merit in teacher recruitment and accountability of the teachers. Government and NGO efforts to advance adult literacy programmes did not succeed because a very insignificant number of people participating in such programmes only learnt to write their names, and the drives made no effort to enhance either their perception capability or skill.
Analysing the slow progress of primary education one is led to believe that poverty of the parents is the prime cause of such massive dropout. Experts feel that government must take effective measures to meet the challenges coming from shortage of trained teachers, ramshackle educational institutions in rural areas, non-availability of text books and writing materials, provision of mid-day meals in poor rural areas and, foremost of all, accountability of the educational institutions.
Irregular attendance of children and teachers, disruption of school functioning, and differences in quality of schools persist. The findings of some NGOs associated with the task of building a sound base for primary education in rural areas paint a grim picture of poor learning achievements of in-school children -- nearly 50% can't read or write or do basic arithmetic in spite of spending four to five years in school.
These challenges have to be met. Surely no benefit could be reaped if the schools exist only in name. Obviously, the focus is turning to quality. Paradoxically, the pace of improvement in areas requiring administrative decision making is much faster than in the area of "quality of education." As far as the government is concerned, it is statistics about the spread of literacy that count. But if education is a means to transform lives, then sub-standard education is of little use. In the mad rush for high literacy rate, we have lost sight of the quality of education. The need of the hour is to strengthen our traditional system of education by imposing responsibilities, concurrently with rise in the salaries of bright and committed teachers recruited through fair selection process.
Improvement in quality is not possible without planning, beginning with clear goals as to what is to be achieved. Experts opine that children should learn the basics of reading, writing and numeracy by class two, which can be built upon later to include higher levels of comprehension and analysis, using not just textbook knowledge but also the child's environment. There have been serious lapses in the whole management process as well as teaching method, aggravated mostly through recruitment of incompetent teachers.
The reason for the poor quality of schooling and poor attendance is the physical infrastructure, which is woefully inadequate. In most schools in the villages, classes are held under a tree during dry season, and they remain closed during the rainy season. In most villages, many of the buildings have leaky roofs, making it difficult to hold classes during rains. A report with photograph of the students published in a Bangla daily in the recent past indicated that children in non-government primary schools in Lalmonirhat and Shimulia (Manikganj) are attending classes in the open with their books and writing materials placed on bricks. Some of them even brought sacks to be used as floor mat for sitting.
With ruling party high-ups influencing teacher appointment in most of the private schools in the country and taking their share from the development fund, the managing committee including the headmaster can hardly enforce the policy guidelines and criteria in the appointment of teachers. Sadly true, people entering the teaching department through hefty kickbacks or personal relations with the ruling party elites hardly feel interested in teaching. They are more interested in finding a way to recover the money. The result: teachers don't teach and students don't learn.

The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.

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