Bangladesh has made a space for itself in the region. Over the last few decades, there has been stable economic growth underpinned by increased investments for human development, poverty alleviation, increased access to microcredit, improved service delivery of social sectors including education and health. Despite lifting a vast majority of people out of poverty, however, there are still millions of people, especially children, who lack access to basic amenities, clean drinking water, two nutritious meals a day and basic schooling. This points to a complex set of challenges which can be overcome with the right polices, actionable plans, proper resource allocation and a bold commitment to making a difference for those in need.
I have had the pleasure of working in the vibrant education sector of Bangladesh over the last three years. During the course of my time here, I visited over sixteen districts to take a close look at the conditions of schools, observe classrooms, talk to teachers, head teachers, upazila education officials and parents, especially mothers. During each field visit, I enjoyed interacting with children the most. Sitting at the end of a classroom while silently observing the teaching and learning processes, or asking children about their goals and ambitions in life, it was a unique, eye-opening experience. It made me realise how vastly different the reality is for a child born in an urban, educated, affluent family from that of one born into a poor household with illiterate parents, in a remote, hard-to-reach village. The potential to learn and grow is the same in both cases but opportunities are strikingly different.
We all know that education plays a transformative role in life. There are tons of data, evidence and well-established research to show that education vastly improves economic opportunities not just for the individual alone, but also for the family, community, society and country at large. It leads to longer, healthier lives with enhanced well-being and quality of life. Education creates building blocks for inclusive institutions, re-enforce positive relations in society; therefore, people with higher education have stronger beliefs about democracy and have higher rates of political participation. While Bangladesh has made excellent progress in enrolling children in schools, it still has a long way to go to make its education system work for all children. Following are some of the key education issues that the country needs to tackle to give its children the best opportunities to fulfil their potential.
It is important to recognise that schooling is not the same as learning, and the schools today are failing the learners as minimal learning is taking place inside the four walls of classrooms. Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity and contributes to the learning crisis. There are four immediate factors that stop learning from happening: i) unskilled and demotivated teachers, ii) unprepared learners, iii) weak school management, and iv) school inputs that don’t affect teaching and learning. Reading proficiency is low in most countries and research from Bangladesh shows that children who cannot learn to read properly by grade 2 struggle to catch up for the rest of their school days, often dropping out at some point. Poor children learn the least here which hurts them the most and further limits their prospects of socio-economic development.
The great schooling expansion in Bangladesh during the 90s provided many children with access to education, but it has also left behind far too many. Poverty, gender, ethnicity, disability, geography and income are factors that explain most schooling disparities. School completion is higher for rich and urban families whereas for the poor parents, schooling requires trade-offs. Girls from poorer households often have the lowest rates of educational attainment which, in the context of this country, compounds the multi-faceted challenge of early marriages.
Bangladesh needs to focus on making its education system work for learning at school. Measures for improving learning need to guide action; tried and tested measures for learning need to illuminate all parts of the education system. Schools need to measure gaps in learning, track progress of learners, test students when corrective action is still possible, and balance the stakes to facilitate action and leverage public resources for learning. Bangladesh has a rich tradition of public libraries and a book-reading culture at home and in communities which need to be tapped into as a resource to promote learning for all. Teachers need to be adequately trained in child-centred teaching approaches, have increased contact hours with students, and be motivated to do an honest job. Having met with dozens of teachers and head teachers across the country, I am very optimistic about the dedication of teachers. With the right support, they can play an instrumental role in ensuring a strong foundation of quality learning for all children.
Finally, the education system needs to be aligned with student learning and not remain an input-driven structure only. Community-led school management committees are already very active in most districts I have visited. The level of interest shown by community elders and mothers is particularly high as they really value education. They need to play a strategic role here. There needs to be school-based budgeting and leadership in the spirit of decentralisation and empowerment. Providing quality education and producing learning is complex but investments of time, resources and efforts to change what happens inside a classroom is worth it, for children are the future. They belong to the nation and they need to be prepared to take this great country to new heights in knowledge, economy, science and technology.
I would like to wish this amazing country all the best in its road ahead for ensuring quality education for all children with a quote by Emma Goldman, “No one has yet realised the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure.”
Bushra Zulfiqar is Director of Education at Save the
Children in Bangladesh.