'Education Watch' is an indigenous initiative to critically assess progress in education sector, especially of primary and secondary segments. Known as the brainchild of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the purpose of the initiative is to enable government, donors and civil society to draw upon evidence-based policy suggestions.
The Education Watch Report 2016 was launched recently at a ceremony in Dhaka with a welcome speech from Rasheda K. Choudhury, former adviser to the caretaker government and Executive Director, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE). The role of government in primary and mass education was highlighted by chief guest Advocate Mostafizur Rahman, Minister for Primary and Mass Education. The Education Watch 2016 research was led by Samir Ranjan Nath who presented the major findings in presence of, inter alia, representatives from the European Union and the UNESCO.
This year's Education Watch found Bangladesh's changing position on literacy, skill, and lifelong learning constituting the core of SDG4. So, unlike one-dimensional literacy, as measured by other estimates, the Education Watch embarked on a multi-dimensional yardstick. It is possibly no wonder that slight discrepancies might be there in comparison of this measurement with others.
Progress in literacy has been made, but at a slow pace. Good news is that Bangladesh has made progress in various levels of literacy.
However, the rate of progress is rather slow - only 0.7 per cent per year. The progress rate was relatively better in reading and writing skills but very poor in numeracy and application of the basics. Slower progress in latter two components slowed down the overall progress in literacy. At the current rate of progress, Bangladesh would take 44 more years to have an initial level of literacy skills for all its citizens and 78 years to attain the advanced level.
Education for all movement (EFA) positively impacted on literacy attainment. The highest progress in literacy was seen among those who have been at school age through the EFA period during the past 25 years (1990-2015). This implies a positive impact of surge of educational efforts prompted by the movement. This cohort of population would need 15 more years to have all of them literate at initial level and 36 years at advanced level - by 2031 and 2052, respectively.
School education is the principal source for literacy attainment but the quality deficits in schooling also have been a drag on progress in literacy. Strong relationship of literacy status and years of schooling completed indicates contribution of school education. From 2002 to 2016, literacy skills improved somewhat at different grade levels, but it still remains unsatisfactory for primary grade completers. More than a third of the fifth grade completers were found to be non-literate in 2002. The situation has not improved much since then.
The state of access to and use of various ICTs (information and communications technologies) and reading materials signal a state of hope. Demand for developmental information persists. Over 80 per cent of population use cell phones and two-thirds watch programmes on television. Access to reading materials including newspapers is also reasonably high. The Internet is mostly used for chatting and entertainment, but text messaging is less common than might be expected, presumably a reflection of the literacy level of the population. There is a demand for information on professional development as well as for personal and social wellbeing. Some of these demands can be fulfilled through current provisions and some cannot be.
There are clearly untapped opportunities to use technology devices for educational and occupational purposes. Different types of inequality exist across the components addressed in this study. Inequality in literacy, skills development and lifelong learning opportunities exist in terms of gender, area of residence, administrative division and sub-groups of population in various ways. Variation from one neighbourhood to another is very high. Furthermore, household wealth and parental education play an important role in literacy achievement and access to skills training and lifelong learning opportunities. Although it is not unlikely that the well-off households would take greater advantage of the facilities, the system so far reinforced disparities, rather than mitigate or reverse disparities.
Keeping in view the SDG4 agenda and education priorities articulated through national discourse in Bangladesh, the analyses of the findings and the main conclusions of Education Watch 2016 study lead to the following policy recommendations.
The national definition of literacy needs to be revisited with the aim of making literacy skills the foundation of lifelong learning as envisioned in SDG 4. A national assessment-based literacy measurement needs to be adopted.
Quality of school education must be improved to ensure that early primary grade produces students with an initial level of literacy and by the end of primary education (grade 5), they achieve a self-sustaining level of literacy and numeracy. The quality improvement initiative has to address the need for greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy competencies in primary curriculum, learning materials, teaching methods, teacher training, organising learning routine, and assessment of teacher and student performance. Literacy and numeracy have to be regarded as tools of learning and the foundational skills. This foundation has to be firmly laid at the primary school stage for all children.
The potential for expanding the scope of lifelong learning through information and communications technologies (ICTs) including cell phones, television, print media, and increasingly the Internet, must be fully exploited. The seventh target of SDG 4, an amalgam of educational ambitions, has not been addressed so far very effectively in our education system, and presents formidable tasks for all seeking to promote lifelong learning. This challenge still remains to be articulated and the strategies for action and indicators for guiding and assessing action need to be worked out. Pervasive inequalities in literacy, skills development and access to ICT must be removed; education and learning opportunities should not reinforce prevailing disparities.
Sustainable development cannot be achieved while various forms of inequality persist. Previous Education Watch studies have documented inequalities of various forms in school education system. Now a digital divide threatens to add a new dimension to inequality in knowledge, information and learning unless remedial and preventive measures are put in place. As general education comes before literacy, skills development and lifelong learning, it is important to reduce inequality also in general education system as the former influences the latter.
The writer, a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, is Chair of Economics and Social Science Department (ESS), BRAC University.