Paving the way to future?
In an article for The Daily Star, I had written:“A new National Education Policy was announced by the government in June 2010. It had the potential of initiating a process of much needed reform in the educational system of the country. In over two years since the policy was adopted, progress has been slow and lacklustre — bringing about the change envisaged in the policy needs a surge of energy and a sense of urgency.” (“Education Policy 2010 – Keeping the Promise”, March21, 2013)
Pretty much the same can be said in 2015, except that more than four years, rather than two, have passed since the announcement of the Education Policy. In some ways, it has become more difficult to keep our attention focused on education and the future, which require taking a long-term and sedate view of things.
The new year began with the destructive bang of political parties calling for hartal (general strike) and oborodh (blockade). Children and parents have been killed and maimed by attacks,made on vehicles to enforce these. Educational institutions have been ransacked and damaged. Parents are afraid to send their children to school.
The return to violence and turmoil after a relative calm for a year is accompanied by a continuing pattern of criminal activities by student wings of major political parties, which jeopardise normal academic pursuits, especially in the public higher education institutions. The political leadership refuses to rein in their followers and demand that institutions enforce rules of academic and scholarly conduct. The normal operation of the education system, as well as reform and development efforts have become hostage to the dysfunctional political culture and short-sighted vision of politicians of all stripes.
A myopic vision shuts off the future. Yet we must look beyond the immediate difficulties with some confidence in our resilience and our efforts made in good-faith to prevail despite the adversities. We must consider what can be done to make education truly pave the way to the future. Our people are our resource, and it is the capabilities and skills of people that will shape our future.
The urgent and the long-term
The national effort, with the lead given by the government and the education authorities, has led to major progress, especially in expansion of opportunities in education. The National Education Policy, the Sixth Five-Year Development Plan, Vision 2021, and the Perspective Plan have set the direction and goals for educational development. The preparation of the Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-20) is under way with the aim of the country's attainment of middle income country status by 2021. At this juncture, the progress in education has to be critically assessed and the right strategies intensified.
The various components and levels of education are inter-connected. Specific aspects of the system cannot be handled in an isolated way. But certain concerns about the state of education have come to the fore in public discussion and the media. These reflect deeper problems and call for a comprehensive and long-term reform effort. At the same time, early action is called for, so that the ground is prepared for the long-term changes, and the problems do not fester and multiply. These actions may be characterised as those about operational concerns to be addressed early and structural problems that require medium or long-term measures.
EARLY ACTION PRIORITIES
a. Reduce burden of public examinations
Public examinations at grades five and eight, introduced recently on top of those at grades 10 and 12, serve no good educational purpose, and in fact are harmful. High stake national examinations for young children that declare a few as super-achievers while undermining and discouraging the large majority, cannot be educationally defensible. The number of exams is contrary to education policy recommendations. Moreover, evidence suggests the exams measure rote memorisation capacity rather than actual competency, and diverts energy and attention of both the students and teachers from actual learning. There are other ways of assessing the performance of schools and teachers in the system, which should be applied and emphasis must be placed on school and classroom-based assessment of students' who learn in a learner-friendly environment.
b. Extend compulsory education up to grade eight
Necessary steps should be taken to implement the Education Policy recommendation to extend compulsory education up to grade eight by 2018. The scenario of a majority of young people without even a grade eight education is not consistent with the status of a middle income country. An upazila-wise planning exercise has to be undertaken by a task force of the two concerned ministries of education to take the necessary steps. The aim should be to upgrade facilities and teachers, with attention given to improving quality of teaching-learning and continuity of curricular content for students in present secondary schools. Schools can continue to be for grades 1-5, 6-12, 1-12 or other combinations. The problem is not that of transferring administrative responsibility from one ministry to another and turning the present grade five primary schools into grade eight primary schools. This approach would make the problem more difficult and expensive to solve. Teaching-learning upto gradefive is qualitatively different from that of grades6-8 and requires teachers and facilities of different kinds.
c. Plan upazila-wise to achieve universal primary education
With a quarter of the students dropping out before reaching grade five, the 2015 target of universal primary education, has been missed. All stakeholders – education authorities, local governments, education NGOs, madrasas and the private sector – need to be brought into a comprehensive planning and implementation process for each upazila. Present efforts, including the flagship Third Primary Education Development Programme, fall short.
d. Build a network of community centres for lifelong learning
Our own experience and international lessons show that a functional and sustainable adult literacy that can make a difference in people's life, require more than a quick literacy campaign to declare districts illiteracy-free when people can sign their names. Most cannot put this rudimentary literacy to use in their daily lives and thus, relapse back into illiteracy. The lesson from this experience is that a network of permanent community-based learning centres has to be established, with the involvement of the local government, NGOs and community groups, as a base for lifelong learning opportunities. Over 5, 000 such centres run by NGOs already exist and can serve as starting points for this initiative. Climate change concerns and IT potentials make such an initiative especially relevant.
e. Stop criminality, extortion and violence by student wings of political parties
Prudent decisions by the government can help bring student criminality and unrest on campus under control. The code of conduct for students and teachers must be enforced impartially with political and administrative backing of the government. Institution-based student councils should be restored for creative, constructive and cultural activities.
f. Bring degree colleges under National University
Over 2,000 colleges under the National University, serving three quarters of tertiary education students, are in a deplorable state. They are also the suppliers of teachers for primary and secondary schools - creating a vicious cycle of poor quality in the education system. The proposed move to bring back some 500 of the government colleges under public universities and leaving others with the National University cannot solve the problem. The National University was created precisely because the public universities could not manage the degree colleges. Ways must be found to make the National University function properly. The root of the problem lies in the politicisation of decision-making.
g. Use the potential of ICT for student and teacher support
The limitless supply of relevant learning content on the internet must be used effectively to improve quality. Access to such information must be expanded. The spare capacity of the BTV Parliament channel can be systematically used to bring lessons and contents to learners and classrooms if a creative and dedicated team is given the task.
MEDIUM AND LONG-TERM ACTIONS
a. Reverse the decline in public allocations for education
In spite of promises, the proportion for education in the GDP and the budget has been in decline(currently around two percent of GDP and eleven percent of the national budget). These are about the lowest even among developing countries. The acceptable international benchmarks are SIX percent and 20 percent respectively. A time-bound commitment must be made to move towards these benchmarks.
b. Move towards genuine decentralisation of governance
The constitution and the Education Policy require that governance and management be meaningfully decentralised with greater authority, responsibility and accountability at local and institutional levels. Local government bodies and communities must be substantively involved. The difficulties in ensuring good results from this move cannot be underestimated. But effort has to be made through piloting and experimentation in selected districts, upazilas and institutions.
c. Think afresh about attracting and retaining the best talents in teaching
Manageable class sizes and an acceptable teacher-student ratio call for at least 50 percent increase in the number of teachers. At the same time performance standards of teachers must be established and enforced along with improved remuneration, incentives and status. With at least half of tertiary graduates going into teaching and education professions, regular degree programs should offer education as a discipline and attract the best students to it with incentives. The graduates may be inducted into a National Teaching Service Corps with attractive salaries and status. To make this work, the degree colleges offering the education course have to operate with an acceptable standard.
d. Bring all school education under one ministry
To ensure continuity and quality of primary and secondary education, all school education should be brought under one Ministry, as is the case in most countries of the world. The separate ministry for primary schools has outlived its utility. There may be a separate ministry for higher and professional education as in many countries.
e. Modernise madrasa education and decide its place in the educations system
There is no justification for supporting the low quality and obscurantist madrasa education with public fund. The criteria for the modernisation of madrasa education should be established and applied. At the same time, universal access to quality general education must be ensured; low household cost and affordability should not force poor parents to send their children to low quality madrasas with an irrelevant curriculum.
f. Establish a permanent education commission
Education policy 2010 received a broad support and must be implemented through effective and concerted effort. The policy itself proposed the formation of a permanent commission with appropriate authority and capacity to guide and assess its implementation. There appears to be a curious lack of interest in taking this step.
A broad education vision
The review and analysis of the education system often looks at the efficiency in terms of producing skills and competencies seen as necessary for economic development. In fact, the above enumeration of priorities may be characterised as taking this utilitarian view of education. This is necessary and important, but this by itself is a limiting point of view of the visions, aspirations and values of a society. This is also restrictive from a long term perspective of national development. Human beings are not just cogs in the machine of economic production.
The international and national discourse on post-2015 educational agenda in the context of defining the global sustainable development agenda for the next 15 years is on-going. In the World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea in May 2015, the EFA 2030 agenda will be given its final shape. At the United Nations, in the autumn of 2015, the overall global development agenda, SDG 2030, will be adopted to replace MDG 2015. A consensus is emerging about the purposes and values that have to be served by and internalised into the educational systems.
In formulating the future EFA agenda, goals and targets had been proposed in the Global Education Meeting in Muscat, Oman in May, 2013. The Muscat agreement pledged to “Ensure equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030” as its overarching goal. It urged that education must promote sustainable development and active global and local citizenship and thus contribute to strengthening democracy and peace, and foster respect for cultural and linguistic diversity.
In Muscat, benchmarks and indicators were proposed for early childhood development, primary education, adult literacy, and knowledge and skill for “decent work”, with attention given to gender equality and the marginalised. It also recommended targets for all learners “to acquire knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to establish sustainable and peaceful societies, including through global citizenship education and education for sustainable development.” (UNESCO, Muscat Agreement, May 2014)
Celebrating multiple identities
What is the role of education in promoting an inclusive identity of a nation which respects and celebrates multiple identities of citizens - defined by gender, religion, ethnicity, language, cultural, tradition, geography and so on? This is where citizenship – local and global – and ethics, values and responsibility associated with it is pertinent. The objectives have to be spelled out and made part of the curriculum, teacher training and teacher conduct, the culture and environment in schools, and the schools' interaction with the community. Equally important is to assess critically the educational practices and prevent educational activities from becoming promoters of division, intolerance, misguided chauvinism, prejudice and superstition, which is unfortunately the case in many situations.
A specific issue in this respect is the existence of a parallel faith-based education system, some of which is supported by public budgets. All of the high population Muslim majority countries – such as, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan – have major parallel madrasah education systems which are supported by public funds along with the secular system. This in itself complicates reform and modernisation of the national education systems. The complicating factors include:
i. The history and tradition of madrasa education and its religion-linked basic purpose and objectives make it sensitive to subject it to rational and objective public scrutiny;
ii. Empirical observation and evidence show that the curricular objectives, learning content and the teaching-learning approach in faith-based education systems have remained obscurantist and mostly not amenable to a significant departure from their traditional practices;
The basic approach that is workable appears to be to make the secular system relevant, of high quality and affordable to learners and parents and thus an attractive educational option. This strategy still does not solve the policy dilemma, contending social and political pressures and the relative degree of public patronage and priority that should be accorded to faith-based and secular education.
The challenge of sustainable development
The world faces the unprecedented crisis of climate change and its devastating effects. Time for action is running out fast. The latest assessment of the Inter-governmental Climate Change Panel (IPCC) of the United Nations starkly warns that the burning of fossil fuel must come to a full stop by the end of the century. Many urgent measures have to be taken to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emission and not to further aggravate its effects. The rise in in average global surface temperature needs to be limited to two degrees Celsius.
Besides everything that need to be done in technology, research, laws and regulations, and economic investments, the new generation of citizens have to grow up with new values of awareness, and a knowledge and behaviour pattern leading to a new pattern of consumption and production globally. The aspiration for and concept of a good life for the world cannot be that of three automobiles and mega-watts of energy consumption in every household as is the case of the USA, or for that matter, the privileged sections of society in developing countries. The planet cannot bear the burden.
Articulating the changes necessary in educational objectives, content and method is difficult and complex. The job cannot be left just to the current educational specialists and authorities. Universities, research institutions, think-tanks and the civil society have to be involved in this effort.
The discussion about instrumental and normative functions of education is all too academic if schools cannot function with a semblance of normalcy. It must be asked - can a way be found to draw a redline around schools, students and education, and for all parties to agree to keep their political protests and disruption out of these bounds? In our nascent democracy, political unrest and conflicts are likely to continue. The call for dialogue among the political contenders needs to be about the rules of the game to protect and serve people's interest, rather than only about how one or the other group grabs power.
The writer is Professor Emeritus, BRAC University.