Around the world, children's education suffers in conflict-prone areas, particularly in countries in Africa, the Middle-East and Central Asia. Although Bangladesh is not affected by civil wars and violent conflict, we have an unusual domestic situation of our own making. Each year, a number of hartals strike the school calendar. Streets become war zones, forcing students to stay at home, leaving classrooms empty. Alongside the business community, children also bear the brunt of hartal.
When announcing the results of this year's HSC examination Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was therefore quick to blame BNP and Jamaat for this year's “poor” and “unexpected” results. In the general stream, pass rate went down from 76.5% in 2012 to 71.3% in 2013. The combined (general, technical and madrasa education) pass rate also fell by 4.37 percentage points. According to the PM, more students would have passed if the opposition had not enforced hartals. Given the timing and frequency of hartals this year, her accusation doesn't seem unreasonable.
The opposition on the other hand exchanged verbal invectives and blamed AL for messing with the education system. The acting secretary general of BNP stated that the dip in pass rate reflected a downfall in education quality. His remark did not go unnoticed. The education minister stood firmly by the PM and was prompt to demand an apology from Mirza Fakhrul for mocking the students. Thankfully, this war of words did not go far. BNP showed restraints by not retaliating with another hartal over “poor” HSC results!
Our politicians rarely lock horns on issues that matter for the country. On this occasion, they have brought several important topics to public attention.
Analysis of periodic data on hartals in Bangladesh shows two patterns. First, we experience more hartals in pre-election years. Second, the overall number of hartals at the national level increased steeply between 1991 and 2006. However, compared to past political regimes, 2009-2013 has seen fewer hartals. It may seem that the incumbent government has succeeded in fighting hartals by introducing additional public exams during its tenure: PSC and JSC. Together with SSC and HSC, four public exams may have led to a hartal squeeze. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the data to suggest sensitisation of hartal timing. According to the education minister, as many as 32 public examinations had to be rescheduled this year because of hartal.
Year and month-wise information on hartal is hard to come by. According to a UNDP report published in 2005, both major political parties -- BAL and BNP -- have been equally active in using hartals as a means of political protest. During 1991-2000, 67 national hartals were called by the AL, while the BNP called 61. We lost 173 days during 2001-2006 when AL was in opposition. During 2009-2011, on the other hand, 17 days were lost to hartal; the figures for 2012 and 2013 are 29 and 36 days respectively.
If AL is right in blaming this year's low pass rate on hartals, we would expect a higher pass rate in years that were less affected. When combined with data on hartals, a number of patterns can be detected from an analysis of public exam results. First, pass rate grew steadily throughout 2001-2006, a period when there was the highest number of hartals. This is true for both SSC and HSC results. SSC pass rate grew from 35% in 2001 to 59% by 2006 whilst the figures for HSC were 28% and 69% respectively. Second, SSC pass rate increased throughout 2009-2013 showing little sensitivity to hartal. Pass rate in madrasa (Dakhil) exam also registered an increase this year. In Alim (HSC-equivalent) exam, madrasas also enjoyed consistently high pass rate in 2012 and 2013. Third, the frequency of hartal increases in pre-/election years (e.g. 1995/6, 2005/6, 2013). But so does the political incentive to deliver favourable education statistics to appease the voters.
The sharp jump in pass rate in all national exams in 2006, arguably the most violent year in Bangladesh's recent political history, is a case in point. SSC pass rate jumped from 52% to 59% between 2005 and 2006 whilst HSC pass rate shot from 59% to 64%. Similar jumps are visible in this year's SSC and PSC results. As a matter of fact, SSC pass rate crossed all past records by reaching a record high of 89.72% in 2013. Such high pass rates make little sense given the poor quality of our primary and secondary schools.
It is hard to explain away year-to-year fluctuation in public exam results solely in terms of days lost to hartals. Even then, the latter should be phased out. There is no room for marathon closure of schools if we are serious about educating our youths. Compared to other developing countries, Bangladeshi schools already suffer from very low teacher student contact hours. At the same time, the buck should not stop with hartal. Low classroom contact hour is because of a host of governance related reasons that have little to do with hartal. Fixing them and making schooling a valued experience is the most potent strategy to mobilise public opinion against frequent closures of educational institutions on political grounds.
As a student of Dhaka College during 1991-1993, I barely remember attending classes. My HSC "education" had very little to do with what happened inside lecture rooms in Dhaka College. Classes were irregular (because of absent teachers) and/or often ended prematurely or remained suspended (because of political events). None of these bothered my classmates. For us, hours spent studying at home mattered most, aided by an army of well-paid private tutors.
For many students, school closures in Bangladesh still do not mean much as far as public examinations performance is concerned. Their preparation takes place in private setting, in close supervision of a competent tutor at home or in a coaching centre. But this opportunity is limited to better-off, urban students. Poor school attendance does not hold them back from appearing in exams. At the same time, for rural students who rely on lessons imparted in schools and colleges, hartal-induced closure may matter significantly. Therefore, alongside continuous social campaign against hartal, we must demand an education system from the government that is accountable to parents and students and functional in two dimensions: (a) enough classroom time and (b) learning centred activities inside the classroom.
With the national election around the corner, Bangladeshi parents want to see a clear commitment to educational reform in the manifesto of all political parties. The starting point should be a shift of focus away from narrow indicators such as pass rate in public exam. Issues that need to be prioritised include implementation of a competency based curriculum, tackling teacher truancy, reducing double-shift operation of schools/colleges and proper training of teachers before changing the curriculum and the examination process (both exam paper formulation and marking of exam scripts).
Reform attempts must not be rushed. Although nearly half a million secondary school teachers have been trained on 'creative' question method during the current government's tenure, questions remain over the quality of training provided. We need to learn from past mistakes (e.g. using multiple-choice question test bank for SSC exam in the late 1990s) and be prepared to abandon failed policy measures. Through field research and careful piloting, effective reform measures should be identified so that students do not suffer from poorly executed policy experiments.
The writer teaches economics at Reading University, UK. He is currently visiting Brac as a Distinguished Fellow and Brac University (the Institute of Governance Studies) as a Senior Fellow.