In the recent years, the IELTS (International English Language Testing Service) has become a household name among those who want to study in foreign universities or emigrate as skilled migrants. They are required to take the IELTS test to prove their proficiency in the four language skills--reading, writing, speaking and listening. According to Hannan Sarker, registrar of British Council, Bangladesh, each year about 15,000 to 20,000 candidates from Bangladesh sit the IELTS test. About 2000-2500 of them attend preparatory courses at various British Council centres in the country. A vast majority of the rest, for help, turn to shadow education i.e. private tutors or coaching centres that often guarantee high scores.
“I have attended two coaching centres and taken tuition from a private tutor in order to prepare for the IELTS test. I took the test twice,” says Pappu, a student of BBA in a college in Dhaka. “On both occasions, I got less than 6, although they guaranteed a score above 7. I feel like I have been ripped off. I need 6.5 for my admission in an Australian university.” Pappu’s English is poor. He is not alone.
A tutor who guarantees a score of 7 or above in an ad on a wall in Dhanmondi and charges Tk 6,000 for a three month course claims, “If a student fails to get this score in the first attempt, we provide them with extra lessons.” What if they don't get 7+ even after attending extra classes? “I believe they will,” says the tutor.
Javed is a teacher at a coaching centre that charges Tk 7,000 for a three month course and guarantees 7.5 in an ad on a wall in Mohammadpur area. “I have experience and a unique method,” claims Javed.
Exactly how many of these coaching centres are there in the country is not known. Such private tutors and coaching centres are not required to register with the government or any regulatory body.
“IELTS coaching centres are doing more harm than good. They are charging a lot of money and their tutors are not really qualified,” says Dr Arifa Rahman, Professor of English Language, Institute of Modern Languages, University of Dhaka and president of Bangladesh English Language Teachers' Association. “Coaching centres which claim that candidates will get 6+ or 7+ if they attend their courses are simply deceiving students – unless of course the candidate already has a competence level of that score – in that case it is no credit to the coaching centre.”
Proponents of this shadow education view coaching centres as a way to provide students with supplementary knowledge and skills. Learning centres such as Kaplan and Sylvan enjoy significant popularity in the US due to the high quality of their service.
“Someone with a very poor competence level in English may not get 7 or 8 by attending a short course,” says Mahbubul Islam, a director of St. John's coaching centre. “I do not know what to say about those who make such false claims.”
A well known coaching centre with branches all over the country and several best selling IELTS preparatory books under its brand name claims on the cover of one of its books that students will be able to find answers to the questions without reading the passage if they read the book. It has been in business since 1998. Their tuition fee for a three month IELTS preparatory course is Tk 8000. When contacted, the executive director of the centre had this to say, “Seventy percent of all who take the IELTS test in Bangladesh attend our centre. Maybe there was a printing error. But then again, who does not commit a mistake? ”
Mohammad Solaiman, a student of Dhaka University attended a three month course at this centre. “For the writing section of the IELTS test, the teachers told us to follow a particular format,” he recalls.
Solaiman does not know it will do little to help him improve his writing skills.
“For the writing section of the IELTS, most coaching centres give students a stereotyped format and tell them to write according to that format,” says Dr Arifa Rahman. “If they would put some effort in actually developing the basic English competence of the students, perhaps students would have a fairer chance in the test.”
Students often do not realise that. They flock to coaching centres fooling themselves with the idea that they will somehow be able to reach a high competence level in English by attending a three month course.
Dr Dil Afroze Quader, Professor of English Language, Institute of Modern Language, Dhaka University, now at BRAC Institute of Language says, “The IELTS questions in the reading section are of many different types, requiring the use of several types of sub skills. Such an internationally accepted and valued test would never set questions that did not require reading of the passage. They use these gimmicks to attract students.”
The mega trend towards shadow education in tandem with public schooling has failed to garner the attention of policymakers. No mechanism to monitor coaching centres exists. Occasional crackdowns have been the only government response so far. The law of demand and supply can explain why this has not been effective. The inefficiency in the national education system has propelled market forces to supply shadow education in response to a demand of students and professionals to compete in a global economy.
Why there is no marked improvement in the quality of English learning in the country is the million dollar question.
Dr Fakrul Alam, Professor, Department of English at Dhaka University, says, “The downgrading of English started many years ago in Bangladesh. But a turning point was the removal of English from BA (pass) course which is where most high school teachers come from. This meant that we had a generation of teachers coming in who did not have any skills in English.”
Many senior citizens talk about the good old times when educated people used to be able to speak and write fluently in English. Many university graduates these days struggle even to construct simple sentences in English. How did we get here?
“The number of school-going children has increased over the years but we have not developed appropriate delivery systems to reach out to all of them, particularly the socially and economically marginalised groups”, says Dr Arifa Rahman. “People without proper teaching qualifications or language skills are being appointed as English teachers. They instil poor language use and bad pronunciation in students which are often difficult to rectify later in life. And some of these students go on to become English teachers themselves, so it's like a vicious circle. Even at some private universities, the quality of English teachers leaves much to be desired”.
Learning English is a sine qua non of academic and professional development in a knowledge-based global economy.
“English, as is tested in IELTS, has four skills—speaking, reading, writing and listening. Our education system only deals with the two skills--reading and writing, completely ignoring listening and speaking”, says Dr Dil Afroze. “These two skills are not tested in the academic system, so students do not feel it is necessary to develop these skills at all.”
The problems in learning English in Bangladesh are complex and multi-layered.
“The government worked with the British Council and came up with what they thought was a ‘state-of- the-art’ solution to the problem,” says Dr Fakrul Alam. “They adopted CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) in designing the textbooks at the secondary and higher secondary level. These text books made the bad situation worse. The teachers were not trained adequately and classroom sizes were two big for this method. Moreover, outside Dhaka, most students were and are taught by teachers who have little or no skills in English. In other words, in the nineties the government turned to the British Council and DFID for solutions. They brought their experts. Their expertise was obviously designed to favour their system of education and their institutions. This led to a dependency complex. That was not very good for us. The aid came from them. So we had to listen to what their experts said.”
Some scholars believe that text books are not to blame. “From a language learning point of view, the quality of school textbooks has improved,” says Dr Arifa Rahman. “But the tests still encourage rote learning. It is easy for students to memorise things and get an A or a golden A at the SSC or HSC tests, thus making the assessment system invalid.”
Professor Alam observes that everything about the education system is against actually learning something on one's own. “We have to develop a reading culture. Class sizes must be reduced. We have to have an unseen component in the exam,” suggests Dr Alam. “If students would read books in English, if they were taught how to listen and speak as well as read and write English properly, then there would not be any need for these centres. If they would practice answering unseen questions, and if they were taught these things in the classrooms, they would do well in the IELTS test.”