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‘Almost half the primary school population is dropping out’

The primary school dropout rates in Bangladesh, with a population of 150 million, have always been high, running at around 38 per cent, but the recent statistics call for immediate action and desperate help.

According to a study conducted by 10 NGOs with the Commonwealth Education Fund, the dropout rate has increased from 33 per cent in 2002 to 47 per cent in 2007. Moreover, the net enrolment of six to ten-year-olds declined to 93 per cent in 2005 from 97 per cent in 2002.

The increasing dropout rate also suggests that Bangladesh is unlikely to attain a 100 per cent completion of primary education by the MDG deadline of 2015.

According to experts, this finding has been a major shock for the education sector. The government’s recent efforts to generate more funds from multilateral lending agencies and bilateral donors are being questioned.

‘The dropout rate is almost half the primary school population, which is alarming,’ says Salma Akhter, professor, Institute of Education and Research (IER), Dhaka University. ‘This also reveals that the overall system has not been effective and immediate actions need to be taken.’

The Second Primary Education Development Programme, known as PEDP-II, conducted the latest survey all over Bangladesh in March, this year. The report was prepared in June but according to reports the findings have put the project officials in a fix over when to make them public.

The government provides 64 per cent of the funds of the Tk 5,000 crore programme. The Asian Development Bank is the leading of the 11 partners of the six-year (2004–2009) programme for the development of primary education. The downward trend took place during the second primary education development programme (PEDP-II), an ambitious, US$7 billion project funded by the government (63.9 per cent) and development agencies (36.1 percent) that runs from 2003 to 2009.

According to the US Agency for International Development, a partner in the PEDP, Bangladesh’s primary school dropout rate remains unacceptably high, especially for children living in poverty and from minority families.

However, according to Siddiqur Rahman, Professor, Dhaka University and also someone who is a part of PEDP-II, the dropout rate has not increased but has improved. ‘Earlier, the dropout rate was understated in an attempt to gain confidence, while in reality the rate was much higher — around 57 per cent or so. Therefore, this rate is in fact, much lower than before, indicating that the recent efforts have been effective. Moreover, one needs to also consider the successful enrolment rate running at 97 per cent.’

Among those children who are not enrolled and those who have dropped out, a significant number come from poor households and live in rural areas, urban slums, and areas with high populations of ethnic minorities. According to academicians, the reasons for the lack of quality in education services include lack of well-trained teachers, particularly in remote areas where the poorest and most marginalised children live.

Despite all the accomplishments of the past decade and a half, there are still a number of urgent challenges which must be addressed in primary education, says Maniruzzaman Miah, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University and chairman of the National Education Council.

‘While the dropout rate remains high, of those who remain in school, less than half achieve the expected competencies by the end of the primary cycle. Access, equity and quality remain the major challenges,’ says Akhter.

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Primary education’s moment of truth

For nine-year-old Hamid, the primary school that he goes to in old Dhaka is only associated with horror and repulsion. Not the regular horror and repulsion that all children feel towards schooling, this is worse and justified too. Despite the orders of their apparently omnipotent parents, many children in the neighbourhood are refusing to go to school. ‘And why wouldn’t they?’ asks a mother of two primary school students, in Lalbagh. ‘The state of primary schools is depressing - not only do they fail to offer an encouraging environment for children but they also provide unskilled and crude teachers, who seem to find it very difficult to understand children.’

For this teacher, who has completed her HSC examination two years ago, teaching itself is a rigour and she follows the same Victorian system, the conventional way of having children learn a prescribed syllabus by rote. ‘Sometimes I just lose my nerve trying to make sure that we get done with the syllabus and have them memorise everything- after all, if they don’t then they don’t learn,’ she explains confidently.

‘But the job itself is frustrating. I stay here for long hours and in return get almost nothing for a salary. Where is my motivation to do better?’ While teachers themselves understand the need for quality, they say there is little scope for further on the job training.

Parents meanwhile are continually struggling to make sure that their children are getting a quality education even though they attend school. ‘I do not even know what my daughter should learn by the time she passes primary education- she continues to memorise the given tasks and there seems to be nothing beyond that. Add to that, most often she does not seem to enjoy school because of the teacher’s behaviour and the environment,’ says Selina Begum, a mother of three, living in Kakrail.

As one can imagine, the frustration is mutual for students, parents and teachers. ‘I left school when I was 11,’ says thirteen-year-old Maliha, referring to a Bogra based primary school. ‘All we did at school was memorise lines that never made sense to me, and if I could not do so, the teacher would mistreat me and often hit me. At the end, I just stopped going to school.’

‘Those who complete primary education do not end up receiving basic competencies and more often than not, the achievement from it is nil,’ admits a government primary school head teacher, based in Dhaka’s Paltan. ‘So even though we see high enrolment, the quality of education has not improved. The whole idea of delivering these children certain skills is not achieved at the end.’

Primary education strategists, researchers and experts suggest that success is achieved only when students are engaged as real participants in the learning process. But instead, the primary education system has been evolved in a way where the students, instead of being partners and active participants, very soon after their entry into schools, turn into passive participants, subordinates and lose all initiatives and interest in studies and ultimately turn into dropouts. This dropout rate, no doubt compounded by factors such as poverty, has translated into 47 percent this year, a total of 15 per cent increase in two years.

According to recent reports, Bangladesh has about 16.5 million children attending 80,395 official primary schools where more than 320,000 teachers are employed, with many secondary level schools having primary facilities. In addition to that, there are more than 20,000 informal primary schools run by NGOs and the private sector where children are taught up to the third grade.

More than 65 per cent of primary schools are under direct government management, with the rest registered as non-governmental schools, receiving assistance, support and being subsidised by the government. It is also undeniable that primary education has expanded significantly, in the past decade.

While it is noted that some primary schools have improved significantly, and the country has made considerable progress towards achieving the millennium development goal of universal primary education, the state of primary schools in general, across the country, specifically remote districts is of dubious quality.

Add to that, this past month, the country saw protests from organisations of primary school teachers and associations protesting against the government’s recent decision to hand over the responsibility of supervision of primary schools in 20 Upazilas across the country. While state-run primary education is crumbling due to sheer failure in management and operation, some see the move to involve non-government actors in training teachers as a pre-cursor to a shift towards privatising primary education – an allegation that BRAC has denied squarely.

‘We will be dealing with only the quality of education and work on reducing the drop out rate,’ explains Anwarul Haque, director of Public affairs and Communications at BRAC. ‘We are not dealing with any form of administrative intervention or taking over primary schools. Our aim is to purely work on quality that needs major attention. The protests have come as a result of the inherent perception that people seem to have about NGOs and their fear of privatization of the primary education system.’

Despite these explanations, experts feel the move was undefined and unclear. ‘This was not discussed earlier and even though BRAC claims that they are not looking at the administrative issue and do not have much control, documents and notices clearly suggest that BRAC is being given a major responsibility of managing the primary schools in 20 Upazilas,’ says Zafar Iqbal, writer and educationist.

‘While this is understandable that there is a need for improvement, the larger issue here is the fact that BRAC specialises in non-formal primary education program rather than a formal system as this and these 20 upazilas consist of a huge number of schools. Therefore, the matter needed to be sorted more carefully,’ Iqbal says.

Experts also continue to point out, that primary education should remain under the government and private sector control can prove to be damaging.

According to the Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, primary education shall be the responsibility of the State. To bear this responsibility primary education in Bangladesh underwent a great deal of changes and development during the last few years, but the issue of quality and structure remain to be a matter of great magnitude and national concern.

‘Bangladesh does have one of the largest universal primary education systems in the world,’ says Salma Akhter, professor, Institute of Education and Research (IER), University of Dhaka. ‘It is noted that education system has expanded and reached out greater number of students. But the larger question remains that how much have we achieved in terms of quality? And how much has been actually the learning achievement?’

According to professor Maniruzzaman Miah, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University and chairman of National Education Council, ‘The standard is much less than desirable but the problem is in the teachers’ quality, management and monitoring system. Primary education must not be only text book based; it should propagate knowledge.’

Yet, over the years any form of increase in budgetary allocation for development of the education sector has not been translated into cost-effective spending, and sometimes, a large part of the annual development budget remains unspent, say experts and academics.

The existing institutional structure needs enhanced capacity to utilise more and more resources to develop the sector,’ points out professor Anisuzzaman, University of Dhaka. ‘Not only is there a dire need for capacity building but also proper and effective planning in the overall sector.’

‘Improving the standard of teaching is crucial. Teachers are poorly trained and paid. Teaching methods and materials are generally sub-standard, especially in government schools. Schools are in poor condition and detrimental to learning. Moreover, the entire system and structure needs to be provided,’ points out Miah.

Primary education has evolved through various challenges and taken decades to shape. Around 1973, after independence, primary schools were nationalised as part of a larger policy framework. These nationalised primary schools began to cater a major portion of primary population. Subsequently, teachers and headmasters became employees of the central government with their ties and their accountability to the local communities that they serve almost severed.

Presently, these schools are directly run by the government which pays 100 per cent of staff costs and grants for school infrastructure and free textbooks for all their students. Along with this financial assistance, the responsibility over the year, has been extended to non-government organizations too. ‘But, these private organizations, extended only support to some of the larger activities by the government,’ says Siddiqur Rahman, professor, Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka, and heading the Primary Education Development Program(PEDP).

PEDP II represents a major operational part of the government’s Education for All (EFA) and poverty reduction agenda, which are linked with the Millennium Development Goals. ‘We have been looking over the overall primary education program and planning to ensure better development and training programs are served for the teachers. We are constantly working to better the services,’ adds Rahman.

‘While we do recognise the many improvements within the primary system lack of proper monitoring and transparency in the operation of the system has been a major issue of concern,’ adds Salma Akhter. ‘Moreover, even though you have greater enrolment, at the same time the drop out rate has been increased to 47%- almost half the group, which is alarming.’

Inclusion of BRAC

On May 23, this year, the government approved the pilot primary education project under which BRAC would work to improve overall education and classroom environment in the 20 upazilas by training teachers and making school management committees (SMC) more effective.

According to primary teachers, experts and academics, this move comes as a shock and a major shift in the policies so far. According to them, this move would not improve the standard of primary education; rather shift primary education control to private sector control.

‘I feel this step has not been a good idea,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘BRAC is covering a major portion and that is undesirable, specifically because, they have no experience in delivering formal primary education as such. Moreover, the whole process of getting BRAC involved and their role has been highly non-transparent and confusing.’

‘The pilot programme of Brac will assist the government’s second phase of Prmary Education Development Programme (PEDP). Monitoring of the government programme on primary education has not been given to Brac or any other NGO,’ said Khondaker M Asaduzzaman, director general of directorate of primary education in response to this past week’s outrage by the primary school groups.

‘We know from the notices and documents, that this is the first time that a private body is working along side government, instead of providing support,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘This goes against the principle of keeping the primary education out of private hands.’

‘It could be presented differently with more strategic thinking and preparatory groundwork involving key stakeholders. NGOs (not just BRAC) working with primary education could be supported by PEDP to fill in the educational/school gaps (through establishing schools in remote areas, promotion of pre-primary centers, inclusive education for ethnic minorities, disabled, street/working children and similar others and inclusion of life/ occupational skills) as appropriate,’ suggests Anish Borua, an expert who has worked extensively with BRAC education program in the 80s and later at the Dhaka-based ngo CAMPE.

Brac has no intention of privatising or commercialising primary schools in the country and its pilot project, funded solely by Brac, said Brac chairperson Fazle Hasan Abed told reporters last week.

‘Since Brac is funding the pilot project, it will not use public funds allotted for Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP-II) of the government. We have no plan to take any fund of the PEDP-II or any fund from foreign donor agencies,’ added Abed.

‘There are 500 Upazilas in the country, so the 20 that BRAC is in charge of is insignificant,’ says Rahman. When asked about BRAC’s role, the PEDP officials refused to speak about the issue.

According to primary and mass education adviser, Rasheda K Choudhury, ‘We need supports from all stakeholders including NGOs for improving the quality of education in primary level. With this end in view we gave an NGO the responsibility of monitoring all the primary schools in twenty Upazilas across the country. It is an experimental programme, not a permanent one.’ She further said that the education ministry and directorate of Primary Education will monitor the pilot project and make a report after completion of mid-term and final supervision evaluating the performance of the NGO. ‘The ministry will cancel the pilot project if the NGO fails to reach the target.’

Be it experimental or a long term process, the steps that have been taken recently needed to be discussed in a more accountable way and it is evident that the process was not a transparent one or clear to the major experts, academics, primary school organizations and associations, let alone the general public- who are, lest all the other actors forget, the masters of the state. Therefore, primary education system being as crucial as it is to any country across the world needs to stand on a stronger platform and steps need to be taken to clarify the confusions.

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Annisul Huq

How does the recent success of being elected as the FBCCI president feel? How has your life changed since then?
Winning elections can be euphoric and a humbling experience at the same time. It feels great to have won the support of the business community, but there’s also a huge sense of responsibility that pushes me 24/7. My life, today, is all about less hours of sleep, more hours of seminar, more sessions of brain storming and whirlwind meetings.

As the former BGMEA chief, what were some of the challenges that you faced?
The biggest challenge was the issue of minimum wage. In a world where we are plagued by inflation and price hikes, it’s incredibly difficult to set limits on wages. Yet, since the garments sector depends hugely on price competitiveness, there were multiple factors which had to be considered and appropriate checks and balances had to be put in place.

How do you see the worker’s unrest, clashes and the on going criticisms concerning the garment owners and the overall system?
If you closely follow the developments of workers’ unrest, you will very often realise that more stories are done on a negative incident. There is more hype on negatives and nearly zero or nothing on the positives. The unrests are at times is justified, yet there are also times when a bus tragedy has been enough to have the workers resorting to a frenzy resulting in damaging any and every factory that’s situated close to the spot. Would I call it a reasonable outburst? No.
Hence as much as all the criticisms are not well founded, there are also incidents where the factory owner has actually defaulted. There are grey areas at both the ends.

Where do you feel the problem of this on-going clash lie?
The problem of this clash lies mostly on the workers’ resentment and their inability to cope well with what they take home, at the end of the day. At the same time, the owner too, is facing a competitive world that disallows him to be more generous. The export volume may be on the rise, but the margins are all gone anyway. In such a situation, where the Catch-22 parallel can be drawn, there must be an efficient bridge between the two parties. We need to address our workers directly and not allow any other intervention to take place.

What are your views concerning the BGMEA Bhaban that was constructed o n a protected wetland in the city and is subject to a debate over whether it should be demolished? How do you think the impact will be?
The impact will not be positive for sure. The Bhaban was endorsed by two former prime ministers; the BGMEA has already been penalised for the loopholes that it earlier had. Therefore, even after legalizing, if the question of demolishing persists, the business community will be demoralised.

Before the state of emergency was imposed, a number of businessmen had requested for the state of emergency to be announced so as to bring peace in the country and bring a stop to the damages done to businesses. Where you a part of it? How do you look at the impact of this imposition today?
No businessman wants his factory to be vandalized. No businessman wants to face road blocks when he/she is attempting to export an urgent shipment. No one wants a disaster that violates the calendar of commerce. With the imposition of the emergency, hartals and road blockades had ended. But any conscious citizen opts for democracy. I am no exception to this.

What are your views concerning the present political economy in Bangladesh?
We would want more investments to pour in and this has not happened. It is natural for business communities around the world not to invest in a transitional climate and therefore sufficient FDI’s have not blessed our economy yet. With the new budget around and with the hope for the elections in December, Bangladesh may just see a new dawn in terms of economic progress. Going forward, business community would want to see timelier and a more focused negotiations and interventions from the administration in case of a crisis.

Your life as a television anchor was indeed very successful- when you look back to those times, what are the best times and lessons that you learned?
Media has taught me how to cherish spotlight and how not to let any viewer or any audience down. This has left reflections on my professional path as well. I think of any transaction as a transparent and a commitment dialogue. One can’t cheat the camera and similarly, one can’t fool the common eye either. For me, the best is only what happens today.

How did you shift away to a different sector? Do you feel it was a good decision?
I did not shift to a different sector. I was a young man back in the 80’s and media was a passion. But along with age, during mid-80’s, there were responsibilities to be taken care of and I had to choose a career. I have, in reality never disassociated myself from television. I have always been a part of that virtual reality.

Throughout the time, you have played many roles- anchor, owner of Mohammadi group, BGMEA chief, president of FBCCI and many more. Which one made you feel the happiest and satisfied? How so?
I am happiest being ‘me’. None of my roles are conflicting. They all belong to the same package. I am all of them rolled into one.

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Analyzing our times

With the dearth of engaging and educational cultural programs, many across the country, especially the younger generation are unaware of the true essence of Bengali culture and social standing of the country. Much of what we have today is indeed quality entertainment, but the kind that lacks analysis and critical focus on issues that make up our culture.

Having seen 44 unique episodes of Ntv Samoyiki, a weekly program, we can perhaps, safely say it has paved ways for a shift in the nature and forms of cultural shows that we have. The program that is aired every week on NTV deals with a range of literary, cultural, social, and political issues, particularly the ones that are either neglected by the dominant, or too obvious to capture attention.

‘We picked up the simplest things around us,’ says Azfar Hossain, the host who has successfully captured the attention of not only Bangladeshi viewers but also those living abroad in the past months. ‘Some of the topics we have covered so far are jokes, silence, joy, signboards, nostalgia, acting, the struggle of weavers, the cultural politics of media and metaphors and even mathematics, the politics of seeds, rice, waiting, etc.’

According to Azfar, the show reflects a weekly magazine in the form of electronic media- a brainchild of poet and writer Alfred Khokon who produced this program. ‘We wanted to be able to reach out to greater number of people through this approach- a critical weekly magazine in the form of electronic media- that targets people from all sphere of life- farmers, academics, students, workers and more,’ says Alfred.

Alfred Khokon, is an eminent young poet, producer and filmmaker and has several books to his credit. Apart from Samoyki, his notable TV programmes include Aajker Shokal, Ke Tahare Chinte Pare, a feature programme on Lalon music, Rabindranather Moner Manush, a special programme on Rabindranath Tagore’s Baul songs.

‘I had thought of this idea way back but did not have a person in mind who could actually do justice to a program such as this,’ remembers Alfred. ‘When I met Azfar and he attended some of the episodes of the Lalon Program I produced, I was awed by his critical analysis and depth in thought, and I knew he is the one.’

Azfar Hussain has made his mark as a critic, theorist, pedagogist, poet, translator, editor, activist and much more. At the moment, Azfar also teaches English at North South University after moving from US where he taught English, cultural studies, and comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University. He has produced an enormous and significant body of work on world literature, critical and cultural theory, and on politics. An activist, he is currently one of the coordinators of a cultural activist organisation JanaSanskriti Mancha.

‘Some of our goals are to create critical consciousness among our viewers about the very world we inhabit today; to see that what we call ‘culture’ and ‘knowledge’ are not politically and ideologically neutral; to recuperate lost and forgotten historical figures in the interest of democratic cultural struggle; and, overall, to advance the cause of the marginalized. And I have no hesitation in telling you that like my books, the TV show I host is decidedly interdisciplinary,’ says Azfar.

Samoyki also featured special issues on Edward Said, Akhtaruzaman Elias and more recently, poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. With guests appearing for critical discussion and various sections of the program that cover Bangladesh culture, art, life, politics and more, the program has gained much popularity.

‘We can see this media could emerge as a communication tool in place of a cheaper recreation box. This is a hope before us. I believe people involved with this media have to be educated as well along side audience,’ says Alfred. ‘We have a long way to go, and hope to make further contribution in restoring our culture.’

As for the responses, both Azfar and Khokon have received so far from here and outside the country (particularly the US, Canada, England, the Middle-East). ‘They have been rather unexpectedly quite positive and overwhelmingly numerous. One question that I got asked on several occasions was this: ‘Are you a professor of Bangla literature?’ Folks wonder how I avoid using English words or phrases while using Bangla. And some folks keep complaining that we have not yet gone for more air-time that we have now, despite many requests. Let’s see. I feel we have a long way to go,’ ends Azfar.

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