Sunday, January 23, 2011

On schools, education and lottery

Published in The Independent, January 21st; 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Not very long ago, newspapers carried headline news with pictures that showed children and their parents involved in lottery to get seats in some of the city’s top schools! I expected leading newspapers would express indignation and civil societies great concern that such a predicament should await our children in a country where we spare no opportunity to stress our love and devotion to such issues as fundamental and human rights and democracy.

There was no editorial and no concern from any group on pushing our children and their guardians to face such a predicament. Worldwide, right of education up to the end of school level is taken for granted, with the government and the private sectors in pro-active partnership. Even in our Pakistani days, a period we tend to write off with contempt, things were better. Guardians could pick from a number of schools where they could place their children and the only thing that was required was for the children to take an admission test to enter a school of choice. Schooling those days for the middle and not so affluent section of the society was there for granted and we got it without asking.

Somewhere down the journey as an independent nation, our education system turned on its head. In Dhaka, private schools started to spring up like mushrooms, particularly in areas where the affluent reside, places like Dhanmandi, Gulshan and Banani. A schism was introduced into the educational system un-noticed or deliberately overlooked by those responsible for regulating education. The government schools of pre-independence days that provided quality education and were in high demand fell from grace as those well placed in the city and the novae riche started to send their children to these mushroom growth of new private schools. Some of the elites even sent their children to boarding schools in India.

In the midst of all these, the once excellent government schools of Dhaka to which the elites and the ordinary citizens of the city sent their children lost not just their standing but also the quality of education they once provided. Thus if the schools of Dhaka are to be taken as a yardstick for development, it could be very easily said that the country has moved away from the right direction. The rich and powerful and the poor do not send their children to the same schools anymore. The government schools are for the less affluent in society and hence the standard of education there does not seem to be the concern of those in position to assist these institutions because their children do not attend these institutions anyway.

It is indeed very sad that a sorry state of affairs dominate the education system in Dhaka. In the country, the situation is even worse. The once proud schools of the old district system of the Pakistani days, for instance the Government Zilla Schools, are there in name only. In the good old days, they used to compete with the best schools in Dhaka and often do better, particularly when it used to getting places in the merit lists of the SSC examinations. These days, two developments speak of the status of schools outside Dhaka. The Government finds it almost impossible to post officers from Dhaka to the districts because no one who has school going children are willing to leave the capital. Those who are forced to leave, do so without their families. Affluent people in the districts have a second home in Dhaka for their children’s education.

Added to these facts about schools in Dhaka and in the country, some more worrying aspects have been added that policy makers for strange reasons have avoided noticing. This is the commercialization of schools. Some of the private schools that have been established co-terminus with the failure of government schools to deliver or meet up with demand have started charging unbelievable sums as tuition fees, thus making good primary and secondary education out of the reach of the majority of the potential students with not so affluent parents. Instead of strengthening the existing government schools or establishing news schools to meet demand with rising population, successive governments instead poured money into colleges, turning hundreds of private colleges in the district and erstwhile sub-divisions into government institutions.

Nationalizing of private colleges would have made sense if the Government had adequate funds and wanted to extend higher secondary education to the common people. Unfortunately, the Government did not have the adequate funds and nationalized the colleges for purely political reasons and sadly, at the expense of the government schools. It has finally taken the Prime Minister to try and correct what has been a major flaw in the way successive governments have handled primary and secondary education, in other words schooling up to class 10.

Addressing Teachers and Employees Welfare Trust of Private Educational Institutions recently, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would establish 11 new schools in the capital to counteract what she termed as “admission business” by some vested quarters at some of the established schools in the city. No doubt she was referring to an open secret that seats in some of the leading schools are sold for cash. In one of these schools, parents have contested to become members of the school’s board in the same way politicians contest national or local elections, with all the festoons and placards and money for campaigning. The authorities should have cracked down on such interest of parents because this was an overt expression of the “vested quarters” to turn schools into establishments for corruption.

The whole country will soon be gripped by events for Bangla. We will witness our annual homage to the language martyrs and our commitment for our mother tongue. In the midst of these events, we should spare a moment and look at schools in Dhaka and see what we have done for the language. When Bangla was being cornered in the Pakistani days, there was just one school of worth in Dhaka that taught in the English medium. That school was St. Gregory’s that also had a Bengali medium section In Dhaka there are now just too many English medium schools to count. The elites and the well to do send their children to these schools and then turn up in public forums to give fiery speeches for Bangla! If their love for Bangla was genuine, they should have intervened when these schools were being established; encouraged those establishing them through laws and regulations to make Bangla the medium of instruction and at the same time ensure that English was taught as a second language. Sadly, in our school system neither the cause of Bangla nor the importance of English has been served in any meaningful way in schools where the vast majority of our children study.

Education is the backbone of any nation. It is not a cliché but the bottom line for development of any country. It is time that we focus on education, particularly at the school level. The past and existing faults in the system or the lack of it are obvious. The Prime Minister has set the right directions. Let our children not be hostage to business interests of vested quarters. We should be ashamed for subjecting our children to enter into lottery to get admitted in a school that should be his/her birth right.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

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