A 'sack' full of knowledge is what Rafid, a fourth grader, carries all the way to school every day.
Rafid's back is too frail for his heavy trolley-schoolbag that he and his mother take turns to drag along, dodging the gridlocked cars in Dhanmondi. Heavy schoolbags today bear witness to the increased competition and onerous study load even at the primary level of education.
Like Rafid, school goers throughout the city are forced to be intensely competitive at both Bengali and English medium schools. Parents are becoming increasingly bent on fulfilling their own unfulfilled ambitions through their children's academic performance. This places a heavy burden on their small shoulders, a burden not all of them can bear.
Take Raisa. Her parents have delayed her schooling expecting that a late entry into Class-I will ensure their daughter topping the class in an English medium school. Apart from her preparatory studies at home, Raisa's companions during this hibernation have been computer games and counting crows on lonesome afternoons on the fifth floor veranda.
“Some parents are just making their children handicapped,” says Naila Zaman Khan, professor and head of Paediatric Neurosciences at Dhaka Shishu Hospital. “Scoring first, second in the class has now become obsolete. Also children not participating in co-curricular activities for the sake of studies are poor in life skills. Participating in all sorts of activities helps them learn to develop relationships, have more friends and a social circle,” says Khan.
Dr Abul Ehsan, director of Institute of Education and Research (IER), thinks that education for the primary school goers, aged between six to eleven years, should be entertaining and engaging so that their creativity fosters. He elaborates, “It is a founding time for their physical, mental, spiritual and aesthetic development. Primary school curricula in other countries are so simple yet carefully designed to develop intelligence.”
Even until a year ago, entrance exams at the best city schools, particularly Bengali medium, used to be battlegrounds where these little warriors had to sweat through gruelling tests. Nasrin Sultana, a home maker and mother of a third grader comments that the Class-I admission tests in Bengali medium schools that her child competed for two years ago, were 'mini-BCS (Bangladesh Civil Service) exams'. “My son doesn't study as much as he did for those admission tests,” she says. “He spent six hours per week at one coaching centre, while some of his friends did more than that.”
An economist specialising in education, Niaz Asadullah, also a British university teacher, thinks parents have no alternative but to prod their children to be so competitive. “Parents want their children to study at the best schools because it is a one-time investment. Otherwise you pay very high fees for quality but expensive education. I think parents act rationally,” he says.
Failing to rank children through a fair competition, most schools had to put an end to admission tests at primary level soon. Some schools switched to a lottery system, preceded by viva voce, for selecting the 'best' candidates. Now the lottery system is regrettably the only entryway to the best schools in town. The other option is to pay high fees at very expensive schools that many cannot afford.
Asadullah also observes that GPA-based assessment under the national curriculum is one of the reasons for which many complications prevail at Bengali medium schools and in higher education. “At present, higher educational institutions are running out of ways to rank almost 50,000 top high school graduates a year. The increasing number of GPA-5 holders at all levels gives the impression of an overall development. But it does not always ensure quality of education and has implications in the long run. The graduates are eventually facing difficulties at the higher level and then in the labour market,” he adds.
These days parents brag among themselves of how smart their children are in handling their own hectic schedules. Meanwhile intense competition tends to take away the joy of learning from the little ones, depriving them of even a little respite. Parents who place too much emphasis on achieving grades and getting certificates should ask themselves whether their children are missing out on a holistic education that includes extra-curricular activities.
Tarif is a third grader at a government primary school on the fringes of Khulna district. As soon as the bell rings, in the blink of an eye, he is seen meandering in the meadows, flying kites whilst taking relishing bites from ripe fruits. Later he just sneaks out for an untimely midday plunge in a local pond in absolute ecstasy. Sunset drives him home for some routine memorising of lessons. There's little urge to excel or do more than the bare minimum. Tarif snuggles up in bed. His parents, meanwhile, are satisfied that their child is learning to read, write and count.
In contrast to the city-based primary level schools, students of the government primary schools across the country have different struggles to face. These schools have long been termed as 'schools for the poor' where children cannot enrol or later drop out mainly due to poverty. Unlike Rafid's heavy trolley-bag, a few frayed textbooks are all that the primary school goers carry. It's no wonder why the timely textbook distribution this year became front page news.
Most students and their parents in rural areas think it is enough to learn the basic literacy and numeracy skills, informs primary school headmaster Kowsar Islam from Jessore. Government primary schools were lenient on education prior to the primary terminal examination, introduced in 2009. The examination brought some positive changes as pass rates have gradually attained 97.35 percent last year with almost one hundred percent enrolment. Islam informs that his students got more studious to score well and get a certificate while the teachers are rigorously engaging in lectures.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), thinks the fact cannot be denied that more children have enrolled because certificates are culturally invaluable in our country. “In any remote rural area, certificates mean a lot to the family, they don't bother much over how well their children perform,” she says.
Unlike the previous scholarship programme, terminal examination offers every child the equal opportunity to compete for the primary school certificate. “Many rural schools have surfaced with good results in the terminal exams for alleviating the previous selection process for scholarship,” Chowdhury adds.
Along with a change of attitude towards studies, the terminal examination results show that a quantitative change has certainly taken place. But does the outstanding pass rate in terminal exams and enrolment figures indicate a qualitative development in primary education?
Asked whether the terminal examination results were qualitatively evaluated by any government or non-government body, Rasheda K Chowdhury informed that it is difficult to assess the outcome until at least five years have passed. She adds, “Indeed there is an overall progress. But upon completion of five years' education, a primary student is supposed to be achieving 50 competencies including reading, writing, numeracy as per the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB). Of this, only 27 cognitive skill-based competencies can be measured.”
“Since we do not have competency-based assessment, we cannot really make sure whether the children are achieving quality education with the current GPA-based assessment. Yet it is the only way to figure out the success for the time being,” she says.
Manzoor Ahmed, a senior adviser at Institute of Educational Development (IED), BRAC University and vice-chair of CAMPE says, “Despite good enrolment, the dropout rate is still very high, between 30-40 percent. Also, independent assessments and sampling show that the actual competency, reading, writing and basic numeracy skills are not always up to the mark.”
Ahmed also thinks that GPA-based assessment is not the most appropriate way to assess primary school goers. “Most public school students come from humble backgrounds; using GPA-based assessment to label them is educationally not defensible as it may undermine self-confidence of the ones not doing very well. In other developed countries, children in primary level are also assessed but not labelled in such a way,” he explains.
Introducing certificates and public examination at primary level have been inspiring to many; children at government primary schools are now constantly struggling to score well in the terminal examination. Another primary school teacher informs that they had been instructed to find the ones being deprived of primary education in their respective areas. Enrolment and results have been glaring outcomes of praiseworthy efforts but the experts have pointed out that GPA-based assessment falls a little short of being the only measurement tool of success.
IER Director Dr Abul Ehsan also thinks that GPA-based competition, apart from poverty, may well be a reason for the constant dropouts from the public primary schools. “The world has adopted innovative ways to assess primary school children. In most countries, small groups of primary school students are categorised as top 5 percent, 10 percent in a class rather than the conventional grading system that narrowly assesses a child's performance,” he says.
GPA-based result also complicates admission at higher levels when too many students acquire similar grades, provided that the best performing higher educational institutions are relatively fewer in the country. Introducing an all-inclusive aptitude-based assessment tool may resolve this lopsided evaluation. Such a tool should not only reveal how much a child has learnt but also how much s/he has been able to absorb the material taught in class.