A few research papers have delved deep into the dynamics of primary and secondary education. Dr Asadul Islam of the Monash University of Australia has dealt with quality of educational outcomes in Bangladesh and elsewhere. He presents some interesting insights into the prevailing syndrome of primary and secondary education by drawing upon a few research findings of his own. It could be observed that (a) enthusiasm over enrolment rate at 91 per cent, as it is in Bangladesh, falls flat in the face of low in completion rate of 55 per cent, (b) half of the students in Bangladesh drop out before they reach secondary schools, (c) the level of learning is also very low in secondary grades, (d) in answering publicly released mathematics questions from an international testing agency, MCQ, only 36-38 per cent could correctly answer, (e) only 2 in 1,000 of children achieve prescribed competencies by the end of grade 5 and 70 per cent of children who complete primary education are unable to read, write or count properly. Thus Bangladesh's performance in enrolment needs to be pitted against pale learning outcomes to arrive at a proper judgement
In India, the condition is no less discomforting: (a) 44 per cent of children aged 7-12 could not read a basic paragraph; half of them could not do simple subtraction. In Ghana, mean score of Grade 6 students on a very simple multiple-choice reading test was 25 per cent and in Tanzania, only one in five children in Grade 3 can read at the Grade 2 level.
Dr Asdaul referred to this grim outlook in his presentation in an international conference on 'Human Capital, Food Security and Economic Development in South Asia' in Colombo recently. It was jointly organised by the South Asia Research Network (SARN) of the Monash University and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) of Sri Lanka. As Asadaul's main interest is about Bangladesh, he drove us to the reality on the ground there. Bangladesh has made rapid progress in terms of girls' education. In 2013, the net enrolment rate in primary schools was 98 per cent for girls and 89 per cent for boys indicating a sharp edge of females over males. In secondary schools, girls still dominate with a dwindling difference - 54 per cent vs. 45 per cent. Over the last two decades, the gender parity index increased from 0.83 to 1.01 in primary schools, and 0.51 to 1.07 in secondary schools. The researcher reckoned such achievement was fuelled by a number of factors such as compulsory primary education, Female Secondary School Stipend Programme (FSSSP), free books, food-for-education /cash stipend and presence of many large NGOs in primary education.
But although enrolment has risen, resources allocated to education remain unchanged. It is sad to note that about half of the schools do not have adequate infrastructure and learning materials nor do they have enough space to accommodate all local children. Ninety per cent of government schools run double shifts. Further, there is high student-teacher ratio (50 to 1) in primary schools. The problems are compounded by effective instruction time to students at 2.5 hours per day, high absenteeism of teachers, around one-fourths of the teachers are to rush through contents as they are supposed to finish curriculum in time to get students prepared for examinations particularly for national examinations.
The Female Secondary School Stipend Programme has produced many positive outcomes in the arena of education. It has increased education for female students by 0.7 to 1.2 years possibly for which eligible girls now marry later and fertility rate is lower than the past. In a setting with initial low levels of education and high prevalence of early marriages, Asadul's results suggest that even a modest transfer can have a large impact on improving the socioeconomic status of women later in life.
There could be many interventions to stem the rot. Coming to pre-school programmes, Dr. Asadul noted that only a small number of developing countries have preschool programmes integrated into their education systems. These programmes are typically accessible only by children from higher socio-economic backgrounds in urban settings due to financial constraints, and publicly-funded pre-schools, if they exist, often lack standardised curricula and suffer from poor school infrastructure. Development of own pre-school curriculum focusing on cognitive, social, emotional, physical/motor, language, basic numeracy, creativity, and life skills or problem-solving skills could go a long way in achieving quality in education. Besides, face-to-face meeting between parents and teachers could be another intervention where school teachers will invite parents to meet once per month to show a report card to them and explain how students performed in regular classes and exams and provide general advice to parents.
More importantly, school or contract teachers would provide supplementary teaching days/ week outside normal school hours with an eye on children from poor families who are less likely to have help at home as there is less incentive for parents to invest on female children.
By and large, the paper by Dr Asadul was on ensuring quality education at primary and secondary levels which conform to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For that to happen, new kinds of investment and interventions are needed. We have already harvested the fruits hanging low and for harvesting those in upper branches, we need a big ladder.
The writer, a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, is Acting Chair, Department of Economics and Social Science (ESS),
BRAC University. firstname.lastname@example.org