Primary and secondary education
What’s happening on the ground
Asad Islam

Education is central to economic development and was recognised as the second of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Many countries, including Bangladesh, achieved impressive progress in primary school enrolment, including increased female enrolments, although much still remains to be done. But, as far as the outcome is concerned, problems are there with the completion of education, retention of the students, their literacy rate and numeracy skills even among those who complete primary education.

Despite significant progress in last two decades, school dropout rates and grade repetition rates are high. Nearly one-fifth of students currently drop out before they reach the secondary school level and about one in ten students repeat their grades at the primary school level. Currently, it takes an average of 8.5 years for a child to complete the grades one-five. About 10 per cent of primary school students are above the primary school age (11+). About half the children who complete primary education are unable to read, write or count properly.

There are a number of policies and programmes that successive governments took in last two decades. Those contributed to the success in enrolment. NGOs also played a major role, thanks to the lack of government primary schools in many rural areas. Various policy measures such as distribution of free textbooks and the provision of ‘food for education’-converted to cash stipend in 2002-have improved incentives for the students to attend primary school. Those resulted in higher enrolments. One programme that stands out and perhaps should deserve much more credit than it has got is the female secondary school stipend programme (FSSSP). The FSSSP was introduced in mid-1990s for girl children in secondary schools in rural areas. The programme has seen a substantial rise in female education at both primary and secondary levels and has effectively reversed the gender gap in secondary education.

In my research (jointly with a number of colleagues at Monash University and PhD students) we find that the FSSSP increased years of education for girl children by 14 to 25 per cent. We find that the stipend recipient girls were more likely to get married later and have fewer children. These students also had more autonomy in making decisions about household purchases, health care and visiting relatives. They were more likely to work in the formal sector than the agricultural or informal sector. Stipend-eligible women were likely to marry more educated husbands, who had better occupations and were closer in age to their own. Their children’s health outcomes also improved. Our results show that siblings of these girls who received the stipend were also benefited. An additional year of schooling of older siblings increases schooling of their younger siblings by 0.13 years. Our research findings suggest that the FSSSP has both short- and long-term gains, not only via direct benefits to the beneficiary children, but also via indirect benefits to their siblings. An important policy implication of our finding is that stipend programmes, such as the FSSSP in Bangladesh, can also achieve social objectives by influencing marital and fertility outcomes for the long-term. In rural Bangladesh with low levels of education and high prevalence of early marriages, our results suggest that even a modest conditional cash transfer for schooling of girl children can have a large impact on improving the socioeconomic status of women later in life.

As means to ensure quality education, the government has introduced two new public examinations since 2009-one at the end of primary level (end of Grade 5) and the other at the end of Grade 8. The introduction of the public examinations in grades 5 and 8 might have made some positive changes as it forced students, parents and teachers to pay more attention to students’ study. Unfortunately, since its introduction we see an increasing emphasis on the pass rates rather than giving any attention to what students are learning. While I visit schools, teachers often refer to the pass rate and feel proud about such high pass rates in their schools. My observations and experience talking with teachers and educational administrators such as TEOs have also been backed by a recent report by Education Watch. The report finds that schools and education authorities emphasised more on coaching and mock-tests as means to pass the examination, rather than focusing on achieving the competencies set by the curriculum. Instead of improving the teaching standard, teachers are putting emphasis mostly on a high pass rate in examination as the only goal and any means to reach the target are thought to be legitimate. Parents also spent a major portion of their expenses for private tutoring, school-based coaching and buying guidebooks, suggestions and hand notes. It suggests that the quality of classroom teaching is very poor due to which students had to find other ways to pass the exam.

A number of studies including various standardised tests conducted recently for my research projects and some other research work suggest that students’ learning achievement is very low. Simple tests conducted for my research find that many children in rural areas fail to achieve basic competencies in literacy and numeracy. We observe that many teachers in rural primary schools did not have proper training, do not even understand the material they teach. Although parent-teacher associations and School Management Committees (SMCs) exist, their effectiveness is questionable. Members often gain their seats through political connections rather than genuine concerns for schools.

Parents play an important role in the education of their children. I have spent my primary and secondary schools in remote rural areas of Bangladesh-in Paikgacha in Khulna district. When I visit my primary school, my teachers always say that my parents were very conscious and they always wanted to know how I and my siblings were doing at schools. They said such motivation from the parental side is important for better learning outcomes of children. However, one may argue that parents who are aware and concerned about children’s education are more likely to meet the teachers. Again, children who perform better may not necessarily do it due to the parental interactions. In order to understand deeply whether the parental interaction is behind children’s progress I initiated a research on 76 primary schools in Khulna and Satkhira where school teachers invited parents for a monthly meeting to meet them and provided parents with information about their children’s progress at schools.

We randomly selected schools arranging such meetings and then encouraged parents to attend face-to-face meetings with the teachers. The randomisation ensures that we can interpret the results by simply comparing the schools holding such meetings with those left out. There was no selection bias. Hence any changes we observed in schools having meetings between parents and teachers could be attributed to the impact due to such meetings. As part of the intervention, teachers showed a report card to a child’s parent or guardian, and explained how the child performed in regular class tests or semester exams. Teachers also advised parents about measures that could be taken at home to improve the student’s performance.

Our research shows that a large number of parents intended to participate in the meetings. However, some parents needed nudge, and when they were given incentives, they were more likely to turn up in meetings in due time. We observed a significant increase in parental presence in meetings where the additional incentive was offered. Research showed that test scores improved significantly up to 10-20 per cent for children whose parents attended these interviews and became more engaged with the schools. We find that parents also spent more time with their children at home, tried to help children in learning. Students in schools with parent-teacher monthly meetings also developed positive behaviour, attitudes and confidence.

Our findings have important policy implications. Parent-teacher interactions can be a cost-effective tool to improve students’ outcome. In the next phase we offered a different intervention in additional 200 schools. We targeted underperforming schools and focused on girls in some regions. Our results show that students who were targeted by our project benefited significantly from having a tutor who helped them after schools for their homework and filling the gap in learning in classrooms. Not only had they benefited. We found that those students who were not included in our programme but were in the same school also benefited almost the same way. This suggests that increasing additional resources to help underperforming students have beneficial effects, students of both targeted and non-targeted groups benefit.

In our research and evidences from many other countries, the lessons we have learned are that a large number of children are not particularly ready to go to schools. Hence, they do not learn in schools. In order to address this concern, we are currently working on a research project which involves an intervention for pre-school age children. We will establish 120 kindergartens in remote rural areas of Bangladesh. We will establish kindergartens where caregivers will provide lessons to children in their respective villages. They will make regular home visits and teach parents of what they should do with their 3-5 years old children at home.

In order to address the growing concerns of improving quality of education in developing countries, a number of such nations have adopted interventions such as provision of free textbooks, school meals, additional teachers, and classroom computers. However, most of these programmes are highly resource-intensive, which imposes substantial costs on governments in resource-poor developing countries. In contrast, we see a simple low-cost intervention-a traditional face-to-face meeting between teachers and parents-could have much more significant effects on students’ learning.

Our research shows that teachers and communities have a role to play for motivation and encouragement of parents to have more interactions with teachers in schools. There should be a regular interaction between teachers and parents, and the government could play an active role in making sure the parent-teacher association is effective and more frequent. We must admit that a lot of parents are aware of what is happening in schools and how their children are performing. However, many children particularly in rural areas are first-generation students, whose parents are not aware about how they are doing in schools. Many of these parents are also not motivated enough to send their children to schools or encourage them to study. We demonstrate there is high value attached to making sure that parents-teachers meetings take place regularly. The teachers should play a primary role that is to encourage and educate parents about benefits of having such meetings with them. Parents can play an equally active role in children’s learning. Since parent-teacher meeting is low-cost and logistically simple, the findings have important implications for educational practices in Bangladesh. Parents should come first, when it comes to responsibility for children’s education.

Dr Asad Islam is Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Monash Business School, Monash University.