SA Chowdhury

The endemic problems of primary education are a low quality of education and the low completion rate.

 At the recently held Annual Conference of European Union funded SHARE education program in Dhaka, the minister of primary and mass education told the audience about the important but complementary role of NGO-operated non-formal primary schools in Bangladesh for contributing towards achieving the goals of Education For All (EFA).

 Bangladesh has a long history of community supported basic and post-basic education sponsored by local philanthropists and managed by local authorities. However, the newly independent country had nationalised all existing non-government community supported primary schools (36,615) by an executive order in 1973, and  39 years later in 2012 another stock of 26,192 primary schools (mostly those that were established by the community during the interim period) were nationalised, creating  one of the largest  central government-managed primary education systems in the world (in most countries, primary education is fully decentralised both in funding and management).

With the assistance of the World Bank Group, Bangladesh launched successive drives for Universal Primary Education (UPE) programs since 1980s, and subsequently, three large sector-wide Primary Education Development Programs (PEDP) with multi-donor support.

 Despite these initiatives, Bangladesh is still some distance away from achieving most of the the goals of EFA and education goals of MDG by 2015.

To make matters worse, it is estimated that currently there are about 5 million illiterate children in the age group 11-14, and another 28 million in the age group 15-45 (who are either already in the labour market, or will eventually attempt to enter the labour market at home and abroad).

 An analysis of the current landscape of primary education will indicate the poor  status of education. Net enrolment rate of 6-10-year-old children (official age group for primary education grades I-V) increased from 87.2% in 2005 to 96.7% in 2012. Average repetition was 10.8% for all grades in 2005, but decreased to 7% in 2012; the rate is higher in grades III and IV (9.4% and 8.4% respectively).

 Average dropout in 2005 was 10.2%, and it decreased to 5.4% in 2012; again the rate was higher in grades III (5.1%) and IV (10.0%). Survival to grade V was 52.9% in 2005, and increased to 75.3% in 2012. Completion rate was 52.8% in 2005, and increased to 73.8 % in 2012. Although there are some incremental improvements, a quarter of school-age children either do not enrol at all, or drop out from the primary cycle before completion.

 With regard to students’ learning outcome ie what they learn in class, the 2011 National Students Assessment (NSA) carried out by the Department of Primary Education  showed that at the end of grade V, only 25% of students mastered grade V Bangla language competency and 33% of students mastered class V mathematics.

 The endemic problems of primary education in Bangladesh are:  Low quality of education and low completion rate. These problems have seriously constrained the development of quality primary education in Bangladesh. On the other hand, a quick glance at Bangladesh’s Southeast Asian competitors viz Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam shows that these countries have already fast-tracked nine years of basic education for their children, and are currently moving towards 12 years of education for the majority of their children.

 In addition to the mainstream state primary education system, it is estimated that currently over 1.6 million children are enrolled in NGO-operated schools (over 10% of total primary enrolments). These schools mostly serve the underserved or unserved areas like chars, haors, hills, coastal areas, and urban slums and address the education needs of the poor, ethnic minorities, and children with special needs who dropped out of the primary education system or never enrolled.

 According to some sources, there are over 1,000 education-related NGOs providing NFPE in Bangladesh. Two major NFPE programs are: Brac primary schools with about 670,000 students, and the EU funded SHARE Education Program which currently serves about 380,000 students and will extend up to 655,000 hard-to-reach children in 2017.

 Although these schools/learning centres are called non-formal primary education schools/centres, in general they all comprise of classrooms, textbooks (national curricula), teachers, supervisors and education managers like the regular mainstream government schools but offer flexible routines, smaller class sizes, child-centred learning, intensive contact hours, locally recruited teachers, closer supervision, and the involvement of the local community.

 There is a general perception that NGO-operated schools have been more successful in providing basic education to the poor children who otherwise would remain excluded from education in their lives. These NGOs are known to have proven track-records and field-tested innovative approaches to education and in general maintain good contact with government agencies at local levels.

 According to National Education Policy (NEP) 2010, until all children receive a full cycle of basic education (currently 5 years but in future 8 years) the need for non-formal education as an alternate form of schooling will remain strong, perhaps for some decades. It’s clear this is a huge minefield. However, the NEP 2010 doesn’t say anything specific about financing or sustainability of NFPE providers.

Historically almost all non-formal education projects have been funded by external donors. The government has had little input in the financing of the NFPE programs. The NFPE essentially begs two fundamental policy questions: How can we coordinate the education provided by the NGOs and ensure their complementarity, quality, and accountability – shouldn’t this be led by the government? And how can we sustain the continuity of education services provided by the NGOs in the likely event of drying up of donor funds (exit strategy for the NGOs)?

Published: Dhaka Tribune, 6 June 2014