THE primary and mass education ministry, too, made the headlines in January 15–16, as other ministries did around the same time, after the cabinet of the new government had been announced. They so did, with the ministers, ministers of state, deputy ministers and even the secretaries making lofty promises, which given what has happened in the past one decade appears near impossible to achieve, to make people dream of better, or good, days ahead.
The primary and mass education secretary, in video conferences with education officials and teachers of four upazilas of the Dhaka district — Savar, Dohar, Nababganj and Dhamrai — talked about ensuring that primary schoolteachers send their children to primary schools and not to private schools, which the government views as kindergarten-type schools. The move is meant to mount pressure on schoolteachers to improve the quality of teaching in primary schools, which they would do on their own as they would not be able to send their children to primary schools of other types.
The Directorate of Primary Education in a circular that it issued on August 30, 2016 made mandatory for officials and employees involved in primary education and teachers of primary schools to send their children to government primary schools and not to non-government or private institutions. It was reported that time that the number of seats in government primary schools outweighing the number of students enrolled had also come to play behind such a circular. A growing public perception of the poor quality of education born out of the fact that government primary teachers do not send their children to government primary schools is also reported to have been a reason for the circular, which provisions for stern action against teachers failing to comply with the circular.
While the August 2016 circular specifically mentioned the government primary schools, the January 2019 iteration of the statement, as reported by a handful of online Bangla news outlets, stopped short of saying government primary schools and rather said primary schools to, implicitly, mean government primary schools.
The Bangladesh Primary Education: Annual Sector Performance Report 2017 reports the existence of 1,26,615 primary schools of all types — the government classifies primary schools in 24 categories — in 2016; the number is reported to have increased in 2017 to 1,33,901. Of the three types of schools that have the most number of students enrolled, 38,306 are government primary schools, 25,716 are newly nationalised primary schools and 20,601 are kindergarten-type schools, which are privately run.
While the total number of students, in all types of schools including ibtedayi madrassahs, in all the five primary classes was 18,602,988, which is reported to have declined to 17,251,350 in 2017, government primary schools had the highest number of students of 9,325,505, followed by the newly nationalised primary schools having 4,063,547 students. Kindergarten-type schools had 2,237,767 students.
The figures show that the government primary schools, which are the highest in number, had the highest number of students, each on an average having 243.5 students and each of the newly nationalised primary schools had 158 students while each of the kindergarten-type schools had 108.6 students. In a situation like this, if the government wants the teachers of government and newly nationalised primary schools to send their children to government and newly nationalised primary schools, the number of students in government or nationalised primary schools would certainly increase in some measure, but it is highly unlikely to improve the quality of education in such schools.
The government primary schools have a student-teacher ratio of 38:1 and the newly nationalised primary schools 41:1 while kindergarten-type schools have a student-teacher ratio of 19:1. Although the ratio in the newly nationalised primary schools appears to be the highest among the three, there are schools of four other types — 124 registered non-government primary schools, 123 community schools, 185 shishu kalyan schools and 1,627 high schools with primary sections attached — where the ratio is even higher, as high as 51:1 in high schools with attached primary sections.
An addition of students to government and newly nationalised primary schools would further increase the student-teacher ratio, which is the lower the better, in government and nationalised primary schools. The ministry must remember that this is not the case of ’the more the students, the better the quality of education.’ The quality of education and good classroom teaching depend on other issues, which, besides a lower student-teacher ratio, include adequate facilities, an adequate number of trained teachers, proper supervision, good academic environment and the accountability of teachers.
The Campaign for Popular Education in the Education Watch Report that it published in December 2015, found 13 per cent of government teachers remaining absent from schools on the day it conducted the survey, which indicates a high level of absenteeism on part of the teachers in the absence of any effective mechanism to streamline their attendance.
It is generally perceived that the poor send their children to government primary schools as they cannot spend that much on the education and associated facilities that well-off families can do in sending their children to non-government schools and kindergartens.
Education officials have also routinely blamed guardians, especially in cities, for turning their children away from government primary schools, leaving the government schools to falter in the results of public examinations. The primary and mass education ministry appears to have been mired in this rhetoric, in its efforts to wash hands of failures that keep plaguing primary education in government schools, in particular, and in schools of other types, in general.
On the other front, if teachers of government and newly nationalised primary schools are having to send their children for schooling to the type of institutions that they work with, in efforts to make people believe that the ministry is sincere about improving the quality of education in government and nationalised primary schools, the government could very well make it mandatory for about 1.4 million government officers and employees to send their children to government and nationalised schools for primary education. It will rather set an exemplary instance, or at least speak of sincerity of a sort, if the people who rank high in the public sector send their children to government and nationalised primary schools.
The government can very well make it mandatory for government primary teachers to send their children to government schools; this should rather be the norm, but the norm should be extended to cover all public servants — officials, officers and employees alike. Besides, people having been teachers in government and nationalised primary schools does not constitute any crime. There should, therefore, be no discrimination against them. There are choices to choose from; and the teachers, rich or poor, are at liberty to do so. If the provision is for them, it is equally for other government officers and employees.
The public sector health care is an abysmal state. No one needs any proof to understand this. But this has happened because almost no one from the upper echelon of society and administration resorts to public hospitals for treatment. It is left to the poor. If people from the ruling class, ranking people in the administration and the government, start going to public hospitals, the public-sector health care will definitely improve. It might take time, but it will.
Similar is the case with the education sector, public or private and primary, secondary or tertiary. The primary and mass education ministry appears to have harped on the right string — it certainly did in issuing the circular in 2016 in that it woke up to the reality and could get to the problem of primary education, the declining teaching standard and the poor quality of education — but in a wrong manner. Now is the time for the ministry to work out how to improve the quality of primary education, which is the first building block of worthy citizens, but definitely not by making all government primary teachers send their children to government primary schools.