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Reforming the education system

New policy should be acceptable to all

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Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed :
Education is a vital component for human development in a country. Research has shown that higher investment in education can have a positive impact on the growth rate of the economy. It is important for Bangladesh to increase the education expenditure. As the benefits of education can accompany a time lag, it is essential to increase investments on education immediately. Over 60 protagonists and activists in education have demanded a Right to Education Law in a roundtable on the theme "Right to education: Ensuring access with equity and quality." They argued that such a law was indispensable to fulfill the state's obligation to its citizens' redeem and the Vision-2021 commitment of the government.
The formulation of the fundamental principles itself states that these principles shall be a guide to the interpretation of the Constitution and other laws, and shall form the basis of the work of the state, "but shall not be judicially enforceable." The lesson from the Indian experience is that an unequivocal statement of state obligation regarding universal basic education should be incorporated into the listing of justiciable fundamental rights. Such a provision is a prerequisite for creating the environment for adopting a law "with teeth" on right to education and for implementing it effectively. The former Minister for EducationNurul Islam Nahid had agreed with the idea of an RTE law. He had said: "It is not enough to have a National Education Policy. The real challenge is its full implementation." The right to education law backed up by a fundamental rights provision in the Constitution can help avoid the fate of past policies, which remained un-implemented. The law can provide for a permanent education commission, recommended in the policy, to guide and monitor implementation of the policy.
More children are going to primary schools now than ever in Bangladesh. Primary enrolment rate (net) has increased from 87.2 percent in 2005 to 97.3 percent in the recent years. In addition, the enrolment rate for girls is higher than boys. Though this gives a big boost to the Millennium Development Goal no. 2, which targets the achievement of universal primary education, we have to know if we have crossed the biggest hurdles in the path to education. In the sphere of the education sector, one major concern is the dropout rates. Dropout rate in primary education is 21.4 percent which means that out of every 1000 students, 214 have dropped out by the end of the five-year primary cycle.  
Such rates in the secondary education sector are even more concerning: a 44.4 percent dropout rate translates into 444 in every 1000 students dropping out of school by the end of the secondary cycle. High dropout rates depict a huge waste of resources for the government as public money is being spent for educating these students. Many may think that the education sector is getting adequate attention as the size of the education budget has increased by 25 percent last fiscal year. However, it is also necessary to strip away the effects of inflation to deduce actually how much the education budget has increased; for instance, after removing inflation, we can see that the education budget has increased by 18 percent as opposed to 25 percent.
The road to promulgation for a generally acceptable education policy has been a long one. Attempts have been made to do so in different decades, none of which made it to enactment: the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report in the '60s, Qudrat-i-Khuda report in the early '70s, education policy in the early 1980s during H.M. Ershad's regime all failed for one reason or another. The present government promulgated the Education Policy in 2010. This in itself is a major milestone for the government. Though laws have been changed to challenge the entrenched 'coaching' system, eradicating an annual multi-million taka trade is easier said than done.
It is interesting to note that the law has irked both parents and teachers alike. A change in mindset will take time since grades are involved. The present system benefits those who can benefit to make the financial commitment involving thousands of taka a month spent on buying the services of unscrupulous teachers to get a comparative advantage for their children. It is hugely detrimental to the bulk of students who cannot afford these extra fees and are largely left to their own devices since the lessons that they are entitled to in class do not take place.
Effort is required to motivate a child to go to school, to ensure that he or she makes progress and to free him or her of domestic chores. The willingness of parents and children to make the required effort depends on what they can expect to get in return, in terms of schooling quality, which is, more often than not, abysmal. There are many reasons for this. For a start, the physical infrastructure is woefully inadequate. The state of school buildings is the main reason why children are not drawn to school. Many of them have leaking roofs, making it difficult to hold classes during rains. In some schools, classes are held under trees during the dry season and are closed during rainy season.
With only three or four teachers for 200 to 250 students, how much attention can a student hope to receive from his or her teacher? One finding shows that children who have read up to class V are unable to read or write. An expert committee constituted by the education ministry attributed the reason for the poor performance in the just concluded Junior School Certificate (JSC) and Junior Dakhil Certificate (JDC) examinations to shortage of efficient teachers in English and mathematics. English is hardly taught even at the secondary stage, and there is a dearth of competent teachers and standard textbooks for all stages.
The education sector is corruption-ridden, messy and chaotic. Many institutions have been pushed to the ropes by dearth of qualified and competent teachers, nepotism and political consideration in recruiting teachers, and lack of supervisory control in teaching and running the institution. How do you introduce computers or provide laptop to schools that function under trees? How do you explain internet in a country where literacy still means being able to sign his/her name? The most important step at this stage should be to establish exactly which areas of the country have lagged behind and why. The best schools are those that use English as the medium of instruction. Most traditional vernacular schools, because of resource crunch and declining quality of teaching, are out of touch with the modern methods of education.
This pinpoints the responsibility of the government, which must provide in public education what parents are now obliged to buy privately. At the same time, the government, through introduction of attractive pay structure for the teachers, must take effective steps in putting a curb on private tuition by teachers at all levels at the expense of class room teaching. This will promote egalitarianism among students and restore an atmosphere of fair education.
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.
There are still a lot of challenges; students should be placed in job by the institutions through developing linkage with the employers. UCEP provides job to more than 95 % of their graduates. The most demanded skills abroad have to be identified and included in the trades to be trained; linkage should be maintained with international agencies for exchanging technical knowledge. Syllabuses should be updated reflecting the market demand; training facilities should be established for teachers.

(Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed; Writer, Columnist & Researcher)

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