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Home > General > Plea for a Secular Education Policy in Bangladesh

Plea for a Secular Education Policy in Bangladesh

by Zakeria Shirazi, 4 February 2009

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New Age, 4 February 2009

Rehabilitating education on secular basis

Since implementation of education policy has always run into troubled waters it is necessary to obtain national consensus for durable result. … An elected government does have the right to formulate and implement whichever policy it deems appropriate but in the case of education there has been enough of tinkering and half-measures in the past and so it is now time to rehabilitate education on a durable
basis, writes Zakeria Shirazi

THE government, we are told, is going to formulate a new education policy within the next few months. This is in response to a crying national need and public demand. Unfortunately, in the past, much time and resources were frittered away in the name of educational reform. It had been a favourite pastime of almost every new government to set up a new education commission and attempt, or promise to attempt, a rehash of the whole thing. In the 38 years since the liberation of the country seven education policies have been formulated and none implemented (except by patches and fragments in some cases). This left the education field more disorderly and anomalous instead of being made the vehicle for fulfilment of the hopes and aspirations of an independent nation.
If the successive governments were serious, all that they needed to do was to implement the Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission Report of 1974, subject to some updating as might be necessary. But the politicians who were coming to power had their own philosophy of education which they were not loath to foist upon the nation. At present, education is not only in a mess; it is far from being a unifying element of the nation. The three streams of education – mainstream Bengali medium, English medium and madrassah – that exist side by side at present are producing citizens who have no common outlook and are contributing to social fragmentation and mutual hostility.
Of late a new interest has been shown by the rulers of recent times in madrassah education. Perhaps some of them even wanted that madrassah teaching should usurp wider spaces of general education. This became clear when, according to a newspaper report, 13 of the 50 test questions for admission to the first year honours courses under the national university were religious and of a nature that even Muslim boys and girls who had no special orientation in Islamic teaching would not be able to answer. One such question was ‘at what age should children be directed to say namaz’ and ‘which is the full-fledged Islamic bank in the country?’ How far fundamentalism has usurped educational spaces will be clear when it is recalled that in February last year Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami demanded that the National Curriculum and Textbook Board remove the independence war history as far as it related to the role of Jamaat-e-Islami.
The enthusiasm for religious teaching on the part of decision makers can be called ‘impersonal’, that is they did not send their own children to madrassah but wanted the madrassahs to remain their strong and permanent constituencies. As patrons of the madrassahs they made no serious effort for updating and modernising madrassah curriculum. Modernising the madrassahs has always remained a pious wish. As a result, the madrassahs have failed to turn out enlightened citizens and are instead inducing bigotry and intolerance in society. Those qualifying from these madrassahs are found to lack the basic knowledge and skill required for meeting the needs of the employment market. But per capita allocation for the madrassahs out of the public exchequer is quite high. It was estimated a few years ago that the number of ‘ibtida’ (corresponding to primary schools) madrassahs is close to the number of registered non-government primary schools in the country.
If madrassah education could be integrated into the national education programme there would be no problem. After all, most madrassah students belong to the underprivileged classes. Recently media reports have narrated outstanding successes of some madrassahs in the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The reports have mentioned that these madrassahs which have made a mark in the education of low-income people of both Hindu and Muslim communities teach, at the core, the government-approved board curriculum besides any supplementary course. Students of the leading ones among these madrassahs are found to compete for and win seats in the medical college and engineering college. As communal exclusiveness is not practised and students and teachers are from all communities, a healthy interaction takes place leading to social harmony.
A more recent media report last week mentioned that in the Indian state of Bihar a madrassah is distributing bicycles to girl students to help them to attend their classes from distant villages. We mention these facts not because we want these instances to be replicated in every detail but to show that madrassah education need not be in conflict with modern teaching if the system is appropriately overhauled. As things are, the madrassahs are not only educationally anachronistic; they tend to roll back social progress. As female teachers are not welcome, students fail to grow a positive outlook towards gender issues. Topics relating to social progress are almost never discussed in classroom.
Exclusiveness is not practised by the madrassahs alone. There is the English-medium and kindergarten education which mostly enrols children of affluent people. The fees of these schools are always high but not all of them ensure quality education as they are run on commercial lines. As the general standard of English learning has fallen steeply people feel a demand for good grooming in English and these schools take advantage of it and boldly advertise that their medium is English. Some such English-medium schools are a world unto themselves and the government has no control over, and perhaps even no knowledge of, what they teach. It is alleged that the syllabus followed by one English medium school has no correspondence with that followed by another. Although the exact number of these schools cannot be determined, a rough estimate is that during the last ten years five hundred English medium schools have been established in the country under private sponsorships, besides a few thousand kindergartens.
We have said above that there are three streams of education running side by side. In fact, there are many more sub-streams, especially at the primary level, accentuating inequality and divisiveness. There are government primary schools alongside registered and unregistered private primary schools, community schools, kindergartens, primary schools managed by NGOs, etc. That the existence of the three different education systems was jeopardising national unity was recognised by the Miah Commission set up by the former four-party alliance government. But the commission made no recommendation for ending the disharmony. Besides, the Miah Commission recommended that the fazil and kamil degrees be treated at par with bachelor’s and master’s degrees of the university. Now fazil and kamil degrees are awarded by the madrassah board; how can they be regarded as equivalent to the degrees awarded by the universities?
This being the situation the Qudrat-e-Khuda Commission Report has acquired a new relevance today. The new education policy is being formulated in the light of the Qudrat-e-Khuda Commission report of 1974 and Shamsul Huq Education Commission Report of 1997 (which had largely been based on the Khuda Commission report). Education has to be secular and inclusive. There must be uniform curriculum throughout the country as far as core studies are concerned, although supplementary studies may vary. There will be eight years of primary education followed by four years of secondary education which will be the qualifying stage for higher education. There will be no ‘higher secondary’. There will be four-year honours degree course followed by one-year masters.
Since implementation of education policy has always run into troubled waters it is necessary to obtain national consensus for durable result. Opinions of educationists, guardians, political leaders, civil society representatives, student leaders, media persons, and others concerned should be sought in a spirit of free exchange of ideas. An elected government does have the right to formulate and implement whichever policy it deems appropriate but in the case of education there has been enough of tinkering and half-measures in the past and so it is now time to rehabilitate education on a durable basis. By national consensus it is not meant that undue deference should be shown to the opinions of fringe groups of fundamentalists and anti-national and anti-liberation forces which oppose all progress.
Change and reform cannot be brought about by official fiat. Physical facilities in the primary schools are inadequate even for five-year course. While it will take time to overcome the budgetary and infrastructural constraints, these can eventually be managed. Far more difficult will be updating and harmonising madrassah curriculum. Even more difficult will be retraining the teachers and managing personnel. National unity must be the aim and values of the liberation war the guiding light.