By Naimul Haq
DHAKA, Nov 19 (IPS) – Since her admission in January 2009 into Kurmitola government primary school in the Khilkhet district of capital Dhaka, 10-year-old Anju Aktar has never missed a day of class. In fact, Aktar’s mid-term report card shows that she is one of the
school’s top students.
But if not for free education offered in Bangladesh, the
young girl who lives in a nearby slum with her seamstress
mother and mentally challenged father might not even have
had the chance to study, let alone pursue her dream of
becoming a doctor.
Like Aktar, fellow student Mohammad Pappu says he wants
to complete his education and escape a life of poverty.
Pappu’s mother works as a domestic helper, putting in more
than 15 hours a day to support her three children.
“We have tremendous pressure of students seeking
admission in our school,” said assistant teacher Firoza
Khanam, one of 15 teachers at Kurmitola school. “Over ninety
percent of our students come from poor families who now
realise that free education for their children can bring
The poor, who make up some 45 percent of Bangladesh’s 164
million population, are the main beneficiaries of the
country’s education efforts. In addition, girls have
overtaken boys in rates of enrolment, attendance and
completion of primary education.
With over 94 percent net enrolment, Bangladesh is one of
only a handful of the world’s least developed countries that
are close to achieving the U.N. millennium development goals
of 100 percent enrolment rate in primary schools by 2015.
“Achieving some other goals like bringing dropout at all
schools to zero level by 2011, (and) eliminate illiteracy by
2021, compulsory free computer education in all primary
schools have helped in high retention rates of students in
primary schools,” said Abdul Awal Mazumder, secretary of
Bangladesh’s Ministry for Primary and Mass Education, which
was set up in 1992 as part of the country’s efforts towards
achieving development goals.
The government currently spends between 60 and 70 U.S.
dollars per year towards the education of each of the 18
million eligible students aged between six and 10.
Since May 2004, the government has spent an estimated 1.8
billion dollars for upgrading some 82,868 primary schools,
retraining of teaching staff and focusing on quality
According to the latest annual performance review report
released in 2009, net enrolment has grown steadily to 93
percent in 2008, more students (97 percent) have gone on to
Grade 6, and absenteeism rates have dropped to 19 percent.
The average teacher-to-student ratio has also improved to
some 46 students per teacher. In addition, students now get
to spend close to 750 hours a year with their teachers, up
from less than 400 teacher contact hours in the late 1980s.
Experts attribute the success to the Primary Education
Development Programme – a six-year mission, the biggest
state-owned programme, to develop primary education started
Bangladesh is on right track, Mazumder claims, to
maintaining the yearly growth rate, dangling carrots like
stipends for females, the now-defunct Food For Education
programme, rewards for good results and free distribution of
revised textbooks to increase enrolment rates.
But experts say that there are still a few drawbacks that
need to be addressed.
While some 42.7 million of the state’s annual budget goes
toward primary education, the total budget for education is
only two percent of Bangladesh’s Gross Domestic Product –
the lowest percentage allocated in South Asia.
“The ground reality is that poor children come to seek
education in public schools, not the rich,” said Bimol Saha,
a primary schoolteacher in Manikganj district, about 60 km
south of Dhaka. “To reduce dropout rates, we have to make
the classes more attractive and friendly. For instance,
students in generally prefer female teachers who are
friendlier and more tolerant.”
“Despite remarkable achievements in student admission and
holding the sub-continent’s best gender parity record,
dropout rates and enrolment of disadvantaged children still
pose problems,” said Tapon Kumar Das, programme manager of
Campaign for Popular Education, a coalition of over 1,000
non-government organisations advocating for quality
education in Bangladesh.
“School dropout (rates) in many areas show as high as 40
percent against the government’s claim of 11 percent.
Children from indigenous families also have low enrolment
rates,” Das added.
NGOs play a major role in addressing such issues,
supplementing the government’s primary education programmes.
The number of NGO-run primary schools has quadrupled since
the early 1990s and now comprises 8.5 percent of the total
educational system in Bangladesh.
Many consider these schools to be more effective than
public schools through their offering of flexible school
timings, better infrastructure, facilities and textbooks, as
well as separate monitoring and evaluation of students.
For example, schools by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement
Committee (BRAC) – whose 1.2 million students account for 76
percent of all students in NGO-operated primary schools –
are unique in that local community members decide and
implement all academic programmes in consultation with
parents and stakeholders.
“We enrol drop out (and) non-enrolled children – mostly
girls – from poor families, ensure high attendance, child
friendly pedagogy and high completion of five-year academic
studies in our primary schools,” Safiqul Islam, director of
BRAC’s education programme, told IPS.
“But it is not merely primary education we focus on,” he
added. “We operate pre-primary schools to cater to
mainstream primary schools as well as support the mainstream
secondary schools to improve quality of education which are
all linked to one another.”