As pointed out by the World Development Report-2018 titled 'Learning to Realise Education's Promise', mere provision of education is not enough for raising aspirations, setting values and enriching lives in a country. It is in fact learning and acquisition of skills that generates real return on educational investments as these are the true determinants of human capital. The life of pupils is more likely to remain mired in poverty and social exclusion if they fail to learn properly at educational institutions. Therefore, 'schooling without learning is a terrible waste of precious resources and human potential'.
The World Bank report points to the pitiable state of learning in school education observed in developing countries like Bangladesh due to poor quality of programmes, inefficient management of schools and lack of adequate investment. About 4.5 years from a child's 11 year-long education in school gets wasted in Bangladesh due to inadequate learning. Consequently, his education in 11 years is equivalent to only 6.5 years' learning. It has been found that 75 per cent class-V students in the country cannot solve ordinary mathematical problems. Around 35 per cent class-III students were judged to be deficient in Bengali language reading skills. And 43 per cent among them could not provide complete answers to questions in Bangla.
The World Bank has identified four big reasons for the weaknesses in the area of learning. These are: weaknesses in quality improvement programmes for children's education, poor quality of curriculum delivery, weak school management and dearth of government investment in the education sector. But quality of education and learning is crucial for grooming skilled and efficient labour force, developing human resources as well as building human capital.
Although Bangladesh has achieved enormous successes in enrolment of children in primary education and has been one of the few countries that have achieved gender parity in schools, the quality of education is still a matter of concern. As in many other lower middle-income countries, the youths of Bangladesh usually do not find jobs of their liking. This is because, the education system that grooms them do not equip them with adequate reading, writing and mathematical skills. Bangladesh therefore needs more effective investments in the education sector.
Experts emphasise on four aspects for skilled human resource development through quality primary education. Firstly, emphasis has to be placed on learning in classrooms instead of over-emphasis on examinations. Procedural changes should be brought about, so that children's learning in classrooms can be evaluated properly. Secondly, the curriculum and its delivery need to be modernised. Thirdly, qualified teachers should be appointed. And fourthly, investments in the education sector should be raised, and local public representatives should supervise the utilisation of these investments.
Apart from the World Bank study, many other studies have also found that the children enrolled in primary schools of Bangladesh cannot properly read, write or count in comparison to international standards or benchmarks. They graduate to the secondary level with this incomplete knowledge and skill, where many of them drop out and others somehow scrape through.
This failure is a pointer to the fact that serious weaknesses exist in the education sector and its management. Many surveys have been conducted, many commissions formed, and many changes in curriculum have been brought about in the past for improving the quality of primary education, but the standard has consistently remained stagnant. Instead of becoming simpler, the delivery of curriculum has become more and more complex day by day.
Children become interested in reading and writing during their childhood. The environments at their schools and homes wield enormous influence at this stage in their upbringing and mental growth. The home is not only the place of a child's grooming, it is also the origin and key to his primary education. But without realising this, he is being unnecessarily burdened with additional books and examinations. The authorities should change gear as the results have not been very encouraging with regard to learning outputs and outcomes.
The World Bank report therefore stresses on realising the promises of education. For this, the governments need to prioritise learning, not just schooling. Firstly, learning should be assessed to make it a serious goal. This would entail using well-designed assessments of students to gauge the health of education system. It also requires using the resulting learning measures to spotlight hidden exclusions, make choices and evaluate progress.
Secondly, evidences should be acted upon to make schools work for all learners. Evidences on how people learn have increased in recent decades alongside a proliferation of educational innovations. These evidences can be utilised by governments for setting priorities regarding practices and innovations.
Thirdly, relevant actors and stakeholders need to be properly aligned to make the whole system work for all learners. The governments should realise that classroom innovations may not have much impact if the system as a whole does not support learning due to technical and political barriers. By taking these real-life barriers into account and mobilising all stakeholders, the governments can support and promote innovative educators to carry forward the learning agenda.
Experiences show that much progress is possible if improving learning is made a priority. The Republic of Korea was a war-torn society in the early 1950s - held back by very low literacy levels. But it achieved universal enrolment in high quality education within 1995 mainly through its secondary schools. Today, the young Koreans' performance in international learning assessments is at the highest level. A developing country, Vietnam surprised the outside world when the 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results showed that the performances of its 15-year-olds were at par with those in developed Germany. The South American country Peru also achieved some of the fastest growth in overall learning outcomes through concerted policy actions. Early grade reading in Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Tonga improved considerably within a short time due to focused efforts based on evidence. The society-wide collaborative approach to improve learning systematically in Malaysia and Tanzania is also yielding positive results. It is high time the authorities in Bangladesh learnt from their past mistakes and took corrective measures for improving the learning outcomes among the country's pupils.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.
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