Kabir Sheikh could easily pass for any third grader in his white shirt and green trousers. Only that he still can’t read even the simplest form of Bangla or English.
He was shown a sentence “he loves Bangla” from his English text book.
He squinted his eyes, looked intensely at the words gleaning from the book for the next ten seconds and then slowly waved his head sideways.
“I can’t read,” Kabir whose final exam is round the corner flatly admitted.
His Bangla book looks as new as his English one. He also gave a vacant look at a sentence “Amar Desh Bangladesh” (My country is Bangladesh). His lips tried to silently mutter out something, but nothing came out. Then he gave up.
Kabir stood third among the 38 students in his class in the last exam at the Bindaha Government Primary School in a village in Sirajganj’s Chouhali upazila.
Strangely, none of the students in his class could either read or write Bangla or English and that reflects the quality of primary education in Bangladesh.
On paper, Bangladesh has advanced on primary education. The government is slopping over a thousand crore taka every year on stipends for primary students – last year alone saw Tk 1,550 crore set aside for this.
Each student from 67,000 government primary schools gets Tk100 a month and then some selective schools get free meals from the World Food Programme.
That has helped attain an enviable 98 percent primary education enrolment rate.
But a survey two years ago by the government’s National Academy for Primary Education (NAPE) has found that more than half the third graders cannot read Bangla.
And more hair-raising finding came in the National Student Assessment survey in 2015 by the primary education directorate. It found that only 10 percent students who passed fifth grade had knowledge in maths, down from 32 percent four years ago.
All this raises questions about what our students are learning and with what impact on the country’s human resource.
An assistant teacher of the Bindaha primary school looked flustered when asked about the performance of his students.
“I feel very ashamed. I was never ready to face such a moment,” Alam said.
But then he quickly blamed the guardians for the poor performance.
“The guardians are also not aware. Many families do not have proper environment for study,” he said.
The headmaster of the school, Md Shahidullah, explained, “Ninety-five percent students come from poor families. Their guardians send them to school only for the stipends. They compel their children to work with them during school times. A large number of students are also reluctant to come to the school.”
Bindaha primary school has 163 students with only three teachers, making it probably one of the highest teacher-student ratio in the world.
Benches and chairs in the five classrooms mostly lie empty.
Some thirty kilometres from the remote Bindaha, Malsha Para Government Primary School in Sirajganj Sadar Municipality area is the same. The school has 417 students and just eight teachers.
Nusrat Jahan, a third grader again, was wearing a similar green and white Salwar-Kameez in her class.
She also could not read the simple sentence of “He loves Bangla.”
“We are trying hard to improve the students’ overall reading, writing and other capacities. But it is very difficult to teach so many students with this number of teachers,” explained the school’s headmaster Sabina Yasmin.
She says most of the students come from poor families and they do not get any help to study at home.
We went to four more schools in Sirajganj, all randomly selected, and found similar situation.
At Bindaha primary school, we met Nazrul Islam, a labourer and father of a third grader.
“My son goes to school regularly, but we cannot afford any private teacher,” said Nazrul, an illiterate himself. “If my son cannot learn anything from school, I can’t help it.”
And how do the students pass tests and graduate to the next class if they can’t read or write?
Sabina Yasmin, an assistant teacher of Mohonpur Government Primary School, said the guardians want stipends and the government wants pass rate. “What should we do?”
“It is a long-term problem”, Sirajganj district Primary Education Officer Siddiq Mohammad Yusuf Reza told The Business Standard. “I have asked all schools to start following ‘one day one word’ learning method.”
By this method, the students may rote memorise the words – may be some 1,800 words in ten years until they pass through the primary education.
But whether that would make them learn the languages is an open question.
What the NAPE findings say
Most students of class IV across the country cannot read Bangla properly and a large number of them do not know how to build a joint-letter, reveals a survey by the National Academy for Primary Education (NAPE) in 2017.
Even many students do not know the Bangla alphabet properly, says the survey.
As many as 73 percent students can read single words only.
The NAPE in its research titled “Identifying the Reading Ability of Bangla of Class Four Students in Government Primary Schools in Bangladesh” also finds that the teachers’ performance is very poor in primary institutions.
The NAPE research team selected 28 schools from 10 districts randomly from the national list of schools prepared by the Directorate of Primary Education.
A total of 280 students who have completed grade IV were selected randomly. Ten students were selected from each school.
A total of 28 teachers were selected using purposive sampling techniques and 10 English classrooms were selected purposively to see the real classroom practice. One classroom was selected from each district.
The NAPE team found a very unpleasant scenario of the students’ skill in English. Almost all the students of some primary schools cannot read a sentence from the English textbook. The number is also very poor when they read a sentence from books not in their curriculum.
NAPE sources say less than 40 percent students of all divisions could read textbook sentences with proper and understandable pronunciation.
“Maximum 45 percent students of all divisions could read a text from English for Today Book Four with understandable pronunciation.”
Less than 50 percent students of all divisions could read beyond the English textbook sentences with understandable pronunciation, stress and intonation, the study says. Maximum 30 percent students could read texts beyond the textbook.
“A large number of class IV students don’t know the joint-letter. As a result, they cannot read Bangla properly. Even 60 percent teachers don’t help the students to learn the joint word in the classrooms.”
An earlier study of the NAPE published in 1996 showed that 63 percent students of class III in Mymensingh district could read Bangla properly, which was better than the present finding.
Even the World Bank found that 35 percent of grade III students scored too low to even be tested on reading comprehension in Bangla, and only 25 percent of grade V students in the country passed the minimum threshold in mathematics.
In a report published in 2014, the World Bank said the enrolment rate increased in primary education but quality education was not ensured.
The report said that 75 percent students, who passed the Primary Education Completion examinations, cannot read and write properly.
The World Bank blamed a lack of access to early childhood development programmes, low quality of teaching practices, challenges related to poor school management, and low levels of overall spending on public education.
The Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) Bangladesh’s research finds the same picture of the quality in primary education.
It blames the exam-centric school education and rote memorisation reality, students and guardians’ dependency on private tutoring, students’ tendency to adopt malpractices and unethical means, and inequality throughout the system.
Dr Alamgir Hossain, Associate Professor of Institute of Education and Research of Dhaka University, told The Business Standard that there is no alternative to trained and skilled teachers to ensure quality in primary education.
“We now emphasise on just examination. But class evaluation is also important. Unfortunately, it is absent in our schools,” he says.
“Students can improve themselves through co-curricular activities. But we never encourage them in this regard,” he adds.
He also underlines the need for supervision of the Primary and Mass Education Ministry at every sector of primary education.
A study by Room to Read, a non-profit organisation for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world, also questions the quality in primary education in Bangladesh.
It says that a class I and class II student must read at least 60 words in a minute. But 32 percent students cannot read a word in a minute in Bangladesh.
Rasheda K Choudhury, executive director of CAMPE, tells The Business Standard that a good number of students end their primary education with very little knowledge and poor basics which affect their future student life.
It is also a concern for the country’s secondary, higher secondary and overall education sector, she says.
“The government must concentrate on updated research to develop the sector,” she says. “Schools are the most important learning place for students. All schools must have learning environment. But the education in schools in Bangladesh is not good at all.
“A large number of teachers practise traditional pattern in teaching. Even fewer trained teachers apply their training in schools. As a result, students pass primary education with poor knowledge,” she says.
She believes the increase in enrolment in primary level will be useless if the quality of education is not ensured.