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Taking Off: The Hope of Education

Rafiqul is the son of a betel farmer. He had always been interested in science, even as a small child. One day, he read an article in Prothom Alo [newspaper] about an essay competition organized by NASA, for children from poor families. The prize was to be a trip to space! To everyone's amazement, Rafiqul's essay won first prize. He became very famous and he was even interviewed on the TV. His primary and secondary schools became famous as well. He also got a golden A+ in his SSC exam. Unfortunately, he could not claim his prize, as he was refused an American visa.

But the schools he attended remain well known, and have become very popular in the area. (Recounted by Kushtia schoolchildren to Mamunur Rashid;in Hossain and Tavakoli 2008, 33)

Rafiqul's story may or may not be true, but it meant enough for the children from the southwestern village to tell it to visiting researchers. I remember and retell this story because it strikes me as a child's-eye view of the adult world's enthusiasm for education. With hard work and innate ability, not even the sky is the limit! It may not be quite enough to gain legal entry to the US, but (local) fame and fortune await those who succeed at school. The view it encapsulates is an essential optimism about the prospects of education, in which society is seen as basically meritocratic, so that a modest background is no barrier to advancement for people with luck and hard work in their favour.

I wrote in Chapter 3 ('The Elites, the Masses and Their Donors') that political culture here contains a strong meritocratic streak, a blend, perhaps, of Islamic egalitarianism (among men) contrasted against Hindu caste hierarchies, a protracted political history of evicting foreign economic elites, and a more recent experience of rapid social mobility via education among the upper middle classes. To be a Bangladeshi should mean that with hard work, innate ability will make success possible. Faith in education as the means to both national and individual progress appears to unite the elites and the masses.

There are distinct perceptions of the purposes of education. The first is the development of what educationalists call 'non-cognitive skills', a variant of the Bangladeshi elite's 'awareness' (in Bangla, chetona). This denotes a capacity for rational thought, a familiarity with the modern world or an ability to engage with it.[1] For bureaucratic elites, basic education is essential to be able to cope with the disciplines of the state—registration of vital life events, the literacy required to absorb most state communications, the behaviours and speech required of formal organizations. There is little point investing in schemes and policies to protect people against crises and poverty if they remain mired in fatalism and unable to help themselves. You may be able to vote with a thumbprint, but full citizenship presumes literacy. And there is more: young people with whom I have spoken about the value of school have said that education offers the prospect of a 'beautiful' life, suggesting an openness to the possibilities of the world and of intellectual fulfilment. Of course, as enrolment rates have risen over the decades (see Figure 7.4), going to school has increasingly become just what one does to remain part of society, to avoid being left behind (see in particular Hossain 2010a).

Second, there is the materialistic dimension of education, the fact that it increases people's economic productivity. With good credentials, the individual stands a chance of a good job. With higher average skills, the nation stands a chance of competing, turning its burdensome human population into a valuable human resource:

Our problem is this issue of poverty—we have these economic problems, this is true, but manpower, that we have. For example Japan, they have manpower. But they can properly utilise this resource of manpower, and develop this in a highly technical way, which is why they are now one of the leading countries in the world. If we were able to train up our manpower in that way, give them

Making Bangladeshis

Education enrolments

Figure 7.4. Education enrolments

Source: World Development Indicators. Accessed 6 January 2016. data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators.

employment opportunities in that way, then manpower itself is a big asset. This is something that foreigners don't understand...

(Senior civil servant interviewed in 1998;in Hossain 2005, 58)

My research in the late 1990s identified a clear vision among the national elite about the role of education in transforming the population into an asset, a vision in which Japan featured prominently:

There is a lot to count our blessings for. As a Japanese friend once told me, 'you are better off than we are... You have a population problem, we had a population problem, and we are exposed to the elements, no less than you are, and we have more severe winters. We need heating, warm clothes, which you can do without most of the year. And then you have natural gas, we don't even have that. We fought two world wars, and got the atom bomb into the bargain in the last one. These went on for years, and Bangladesh only fought a war for nine months. The destruction there was unprecedented.' This is a way of speaking: the point is what is it that made Japan do what it did, in terms of engineering economic wonders? Land management, human management, human resource management.

(Intellectual and journalist interviewed in 1998, in Hossain 2005, 58)

A third purpose of mass education is the transmission of national identity, a more explicitly partisan political goal. The two main parties have used the curriculum to transmit values of secularism or faith, and to instil their own accounts of liberation history. This too had its positive effects, as it probably created competitive pressures that drove the rapid expansion of the primary education system in the 1990s, as each incoming government sought to stamp their own visions and versions of nationhood on an incoming school cohort (Hossain et al. 2002).

The trajectory of educational enrolments displays marked political patterns. First, from the spike in the early 1970s, we can read off the high hopes for education that marked the immediate post-independence period. The new Awami League government nationalized 26,000 erstwhile community schools and brought them and their staff under the ambit of the state, while the new Constitution declared education a right; enrolment rates soared, although the system had few trained teachers or classrooms to cope with the influx. An education commission declared the value of education to be 'mass-oriented, universal', progressive, modern, and secular, targeting in particular the madrassahs or Islamic schools for reform. Aid donors were ambivalent about mass education programming in the early years, seeing these as nation-building activities and as potentially contributing to the revolutionary tendencies of the masses, rather than as relevant to economic development (Hossain et al. 2002).

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975, General Zia's Islamicizing tendencies were reflected in education policies, but education remained a relatively low priority until General Ershad took power in 1982. What Zia was to food security and population, Ershad was to mass education. Recognizing the popularity of education, Ershad sought to legitimate his civilian- ized military rule by expanding school provision. Primary and to a lesser extent secondary enrolment started to rise in the early 1980s, as public spending on basic education rose, and a new Directorate of Primary Education was established to manage the expansion. A new emphasis was put on getting girls into school, and technocratic committees drew up plans to establish compulsory primary education (Unterhalter, Ross, and Alam 2003). By the time the Jomtien Conference in 1990 kickstarted the global push for educational expansion, Bangladesh already had a Fifth Five Year Plan (1990-5) to establish universal primary education and was well positioned to expand its system (Hossain et al. 2002).

Democracy has been particularly important for the expansion of basic education, in Bangladesh as in other developing countries with open economies governed by competitive polities (Ansell 2008; Stasavage 2005; Avelino, Brown, and Hunter 2005; Hecock 2006). It was in the democratic period since 1991 that mass education really took off. Under the BNP's Khaleda Zia (1991-6), trends away from nationalization and towards Islamicization continued, and budgets for madrassahs increased. The policy issues that stand out during this regime are pro-poor efforts to increase access through the pioneering food-for-education scheme, an early conditional transfer scheme started in 1993 (Ahmed and del Ninno 2002). Data are sketchy for the period from 1991, but enrolment rates of girls started to rise sharply at this time, as did recruitment of teachers (particularly women). The employment of women as teachers has been so significant, with two-thirds of all government primary school teachers now women, that it has been credited with helping close the gender wage gap at the upper end of the wage spectrum (Al-Samarrai 2006). The feminization of education has contributed to the changing face not only of the public sector but also of opportunities for educated middle-class women. As we will see in Chapter 8, it has also been important in driving women's formal sector employment, in the manufacturing industry and services.

Under the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001), the policy of secularizing education was revived. The Education Commission set up during this period echoed the 1974 Qudrat-e-Khuda Commission in proposing modernization of madrassah education. The 1999 National Plan of Action and 2000 'Education for All' policy sought to universalize primary schooling. While Awami League governments have not reduced budgets for madrassahs, they generally took a more active approach to tackling some of their management and governance issues.

The Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-20) marks a shift in the emphasis on the size of the system towards a focus on quality and a new recognition that education is the basis of the skills through which the labour force can compete on a global scale. For the first time, there is not merely a focus on getting children into school to acquire rudimentary learning and non-cognitive skills, but a fuller focus on educational attainments. A close eye is increasingly being kept on schooling outcomes, as distinct from a historic focus on the inputs of classroom, teacher, textbook, and student number (GED 2015b).

Not all Bangladeshis have had equal access to schooling, however. The extent to which different regimes have attempted to make schooling more inclusive, and for which groups, reflects on their visions of nationhood and national identity. Both main parties have seen the rural poor as key excluded groups, reflecting their numerical importance and historical exclusion from modern education. Both parties have also been content to allow madrassahs to flourish, with state-supported Islamic education comprising a significant part of public spending on schooling. This reflects the enduring importance of Islam, perhaps particularly in the education of girls. It has been argued that this 'holy alliance' of tolerance for religious schooling alongside the push for gender equity which has featured across different political regimes has helped Bangladesh overcome social barriers to girls' schooling (Asadullah and Chaudhury 2009).

Bangladesh has been rightly famous for its non-formal primary education models, in particular the BRAC and Gono Shahajjo Shangstha (GSS) approaches.

Special curriculum and pedagogical approaches were combined with targeting mechanisms to ensure the poorest children, and girls in particular, could attend and succeed in those schools. The BRAC schools were single-class units in which well-trained volunteer teachers compressed the official five-year curriculum into fewer (first three, later four) years, then fed the graduates back into the state system. To date some five million children have graduated from these schools, two-thirds of them girls from very poor and disadvantaged families, and the majority have entered the state system (BRAC 2016).

Both the BNP and the Awami League have experimented with food or cash initiatives to attract disadvantaged groups—chiefly girls and poor children—to school. A pioneering food-for-education scheme, one of the early variants of the conditional transfer programmes that included Brazil's Bolsa Familia and Mexico's Progresa schemes, was established with the rump of the old Public Food Distribution System in 1993; this was then monetized in the late 1990s, to become the almost entirely government-funded Primary Education Stipend programme. A secondary school stipend for girls established under the BNP government was expanded by its Awami League successors to reach boys from poor backgrounds. A current push is on to make cash stipends and school meals available to all primary school students (GED 2015b). While there are good reasons to believe several of these schemes endure more out of political popularity than because of evidence of positive impact on learning (see Baulch 2011), they both send strong signals to the public about the value of education for all children, in particular girls and poor children, and they channel resources to low-income families, typically via mothers and girls.

Minority ethnic groups and non-Muslims are not served by the large madrassah system, nor have children in the more remote locations such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts or the tea plantations in the East been well served by the expansion of basic education. The urban poor are also typically unserved by state schools, which are not established in slums to avoid establishing permanent settlements in sites deemed illegal. From the 1990s, these groups were left largely to the efforts of NGOs and donor programmes; under the Awami League government that took office in 2009, there have been new efforts at more inclusive education, through 'mother tongue' learning policies and programmes to include children with disabilities within the mainstream system.

Bangladesh's successes in getting poor girls into school have been widely discussed (Hossain 2007b; Kabeer and Hossain 2004; Chowdhury etal. 2002; 2003). But while more girls have gone to school from all classes, boys from the poorest groups have lagged. This partly reflects the strength of economic growth and the persistent strong demand for the labour of young boys; cultural proscriptions on young girls and women working outside the home and the continuing premium on their sexual purity has meant the same has not happened to girls. The comparative failure to reach poor boys may also reflect the strong emphasis on gender equality in aid programming, which mainly translates into programmes to promote girls' education without attention to matters of class. In my view, the 'boys left behind' reflect the same patterns of human development found elsewhere: progress is made where the policies of the state go 'with the grain' of societal desires and needs. There has to date been relatively little desire to abolish child labour (particularly boys' paid labour) within Bangladeshi society, substantially because of a sympathetic attitude towards poor parents. The state pushes only gently and with limited effect on enduring social practices that run counter to public policy (Hossain 2006; Tariquzzaman and Hossain 2009).

We turn next to what Bangladeshis have done with their new control over their lives and capacities, with a focus on employment in the readymade garments (RMG) industry, international migration, and the micro-financed informal sector.

  • [1] A set of ideas with an intellectual heritage in the Bengal Renaissance, the nineteenth and earlytwentieth-century social and cultural reform movement among the Bengali elite which sought to'awaken' Indians from religious superstition in the struggle against empire. This draws on my ownresearch into basic education in Bangladesh (Hossain 2010a; Tariquzzaman and Hossain 2009;Hossain and Tavakoli 2008;Hossain et al. 2002;N. Kabeer and Hossain 2004;FMRP 2007;Hossain2006).
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