On an ordinary school night in year eight, I was trying to memorise a leave-of-absence application in English prewritten by my private tutor. A senior cousin, also educated in my home town, albeit in a private English-medium school, was on a visit from the US.
He asked, "Who wrote this for you?"
"My sir," I replied instantly.
It had, errors he said, but he wouldn't point them out for me to show my tutor.
"Your tutor would be hurt," he said.
That was over 25 years ago, and although not everyone's learning methods or ability in English was as poor as mine, there were many more of 'us' than the 'better' ones. Even today I struggle with my English, and the 'mug-it-up-and-vomit-it-back-on-exam-papers' method used to teach and test our abilities has been a major mental block to creative thinking.
This is not to shift my inability onto the system – after all, many of us have 'made up for lost ground,' and somehow acquired acceptable expertise and employment.
I understand that we have moved on from such methods as school curriculums have been updated to align with contemporary demand. Students are tested for their reasoning and creative thinking more than in the past, and there are more MCQ tests. Yet certain habits never die.
Tracing our education system back particularly from the post-Raj period, we can see erosion. I cannot exactly document a time in our region when private tuition and guidebooks were scarce or absent. Colloquially, we called them 'notebooks' and used them to regurgitate prepared stock-answers, though 'good students' prepared their own 'notes'. But what a chase ensued, with pleading and competitive pampering in order to acquire such 'quality notes' – alas only to be memorised.
Members of older generations frequently claimed that schools, teachers, and education administrations were far superior in their time, testing learning and truly drawing out talent. I could not vouch for such assertions, and I had seldom felt confident in what I was learning in a leading government school and a college in our second largest city.
Education systems at secondary and higher secondary levels (and maybe at tertiary levels, which I did not attend in our country) had detrimental malpractice. Though I had used such practice to secure 'good marks,' I have suffered from the lack of 'true' learning and application of theories.
To give an example, attending 'group private tuition' by certain teachers of schools and colleges helped us to get full marks in SSC and HSC practical exams for physics, statistics, chemistry, zoology, or botany without actually having to know how to conduct scientific procedures. However, a few students still cared to learn the practicals.
Top-notch private English-medium schools served improved curricula, perhaps preparing a better pedigree of students. As was then as is now, advanced middle class and wealthy students avoided the whole system, opting for 'O' and 'A' levels followed by overseas higher education.
Stark differences in standards in Dhaka differentiated it from other cities. I can only imagine that this has accentuated now. Fortunately, in our country, many value the benefits of education and most students are naturally motivated to do well and to learn properly. It can be argued that to find a spot in a fiercely competitive system, students are often torturously over-burdened with study commitments from an early age (I have heard of preschool enrolment starting as early as 3 and half years of age, which is cruel).
It continues until they are successfully absorbed into higher education or 'a good job.' This leaves students little room to develop other capacities, such as social, cultural, practical or life-skills.
These pressures have increased in recent decades as aspiring middle or low income families try to source quality education for their offspring. Private enterprises have jumped into the fray but they are yet to mature. Ad hoc and unplanned growth can lead to problems. The higher education sector has seen the development of a great number of providers, some of them excellent, but with rather poor administration and quality of service. At the same time, the number of public providers has burgeoned, extending their reach to regions and communities but remaining thin in quality.
This is no easy challenge. Just as building and maintaining roads need resources, schools, colleges, and universities need funding to deliver learning. A recent report prepared by UNESCO states:
"Bangladesh has one of the lowest ratios of GNP (around two percent in recent years) among developing countries devoted to education. Total per student primary education public expenditure is around 50 dollars. This results in low educational quality in terms of learning outcomes, pedagogic process and essential inputs."
The need for increased investment in education needs no emphasis. Study after study, research after research and empirical evidence suggest that as you sow, so shall you reap. Economic impact from investment in education has been shown in tax, unemployment, and social contribution. This issue even faces advanced economies. In recent times, Vietnam has apparently made stunning progress through high investment in education (21% of GDP, much higher than that of OECD countries). But it was not investment alone that helped the educational improvement. There has been a significant change in attitude towards education –– such as respect and improved salaries for teachers, genuine commitment to forward planning, curricular emphasis on deep understanding of core concepts, and testing pupils to apply them in unfamiliar contexts. A large proportion of poor pupils are nevertheless left out of the schooling system.
Calls to increase budgetary allocations for education in Bangladesh are not new, and allocation has increased, though still far from a demanded level of 6% of GDP. In addition, a blanket approach is generally used in utilising available funds. Just as the government now prints and distributes free text books for millions, in our time stipends and tuition-free scholarships were provided to students.
But scholarships were mostly won by students from well-off families who did not need them, when they could have been used by other poor students. As an urbanite middle class student, I had never paid tuition from year eight to HSC since I secured higher-threshold marks in national exams. Yet my parents spent a lot of money for private tuition which allowed me to get such marks.
Administering means-tested programs in an already cumbersome bureaucracy would not only be expensive, it would be utterly ineffective. Perhaps there are other options. Why not scrap the whole scholarship/stipend scheme and use the funds to provide more resources for schools in remote locations?
Culturally there has been a decline in attitude towards teachers and the teaching profession. In some contexts, the teachers' approach is partly responsible for this. In others, a milieu of disrespect leaves the teaching community hapless.
Even though it is probably a bit rich for an unruly ex-student to preach respect for teachers, these are lessons from admissions. No matter what we do or what amount of caning is allowed, there will always be pupils who simply do not enjoy structured learning. We have to find other methods of teaching for those students.
The same goes for teachers. In the main, teaching is a thankless task – often a part-time or a second job. Yet thousands of teachers are on the public payroll. It is the teachers' duty at least to pretend be earnest and not to encourage short-cuts in learning, although that may have been 'a crucial feature' of successful teachers of our time.
I have whinged here about the progress or lack of it for urbanite well-offs. It helps to see issues in the right context. We have a huge population that needs considerable resources. Design and delivery of education is complex and challenging with a socioeconomically diverse demography. Students access numerous systems – madrasas, religion based, common curricula, and English medium – in equally varying locations, whether rural, remote, regional, or urban. Overhauling the education system is daunting but progress is being made. Collective work by government, NGOs and the philanthropic sector has aided rapid and higher enrolment, literacy and numeracy rates, especially for girls.
A quick glance at the Ministry of Education's Education Statistics would reveal reference points.
Our students face enormous challenges but they continue to prove that they are up to it when given the opportunity despite the system and continued political unrest disrupting life in general. They are eager to learn, investing time and energy to become qualified and earn a living.
Education is the medium through which issues from inequality to better social and environmental well-being can be cured. Historically and culturally we seem to appreciate it when looking at our efforts at national and individual levels.
This is our best hope. Limiting quality education to a 'privileged elite group' would make such hope seem foolish.
Irfan Chowdhury is an opinion columnist.