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An exploration of the feasibility of Bangladesh’s education reform, examining both the potential opportunities and the complex challenges that lie ahead.


It is no news that the education system of Bangladesh has been under scrutiny and faced criticism for the better part of the last few decades, and a reform of our education system has been long overdue. In the march for development, the government has worked on the transformation of the education system and presented the current middle and high-school students with ‘National Curriculum Framework 2021’, which aims to build a generation of well-rounded individuals who can come together as an educated workforce to build a strong nation. How can we ensure the success of this ambitious undertaking impacting over 60 million children?

Finland serves as a role model for us with its 100% literacy rate and successful education reform post-World War II. In 1968, the Basic Education Act was enacted, bringing forth Finland’s comprehensive school system and replacing the pre-existing two-tiered system. The new system aimed to reduce educational inequality and provide improved education for the increasingly industrialised society. The centralised curriculum from the 1970s to 1990s saw success, and subsequent reforms in 2004 further improved outcomes. By the 2000s, Finland excelled globally in literacy and performed exceptionally well in international assessments like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2016 Survey of Adult Skills, showcasing the potential for transformative education reforms. So, how did Finland do it?

Finland’s government concentrated on broad, national-level goals to establish social justice, instead of stressing smaller objectives, ensuring that all children had an equal opportunity to receive a nine-year basic education irrespective of their parents’ socioeconomic status. The proposed changes to the education system garnered support from the various stakeholders involved in education reforms, although some had expressed reservations regarding the implementation and potential success of these changes. Finland’s tripartite concept in politics extended to education through comprehensive school reform, involving key stakeholders such as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, the new Teachers’ Union, central organisations of three municipalities, and teachers themselves, which was integral to policy development.

Despite having concerns about the applicable pay scale and potential limitations on their traditional pedagogical freedom due to the centralization of planning and execution, teachers actively participated in the planning phase of the reforms, collaborating through committees like the Comprehensive School Curriculum Committee (1966-1970). This involvement allowed for teacher input on crucial issues, considering that the reforms would impact content and curriculum, and not just teaching methods.

The success of these committees was attributed to the government’s efforts to select members with diverse political ideologies, professions, experiences, and areas of expertise, including scientists and teachers. A crucial factor contributing to the success of the reforms was the eventual delegation of authority to municipalities and individual schools. In 1994, reforms to the national curriculum granted teachers greater autonomy in determining how and what to teach. In Finland, teaching is a highly esteemed career, attracting numerous applicants compared to available spots in teaching programs. Opting for teacher education means entering a profession held in broad trust and respect, one pivotal in shaping the country’s future. Prior to these changes, Finland’s performance in international education surveys had not been particularly noteworthy.

Ensuring the success of the comprehensive school system required adequately trained teachers capable of delivering the desired outcomes. Consequently, in-service training was implemented, and the responsibility for teacher training was shifted from teacher colleges and seminars to universities. Municipal education institutions received substantial state subsidies to support the reforms, covering a significant portion of teachers’ salaries, school transport, pupil accommodation, and other expenses. This financial support enabled local governments to manage additional costs effectively, with the hiring of teachers proving to be financially advantageous.


Financing of the primary and secondary schools deserves the most attention when it comes to curriculum reform. As per UNESCO, 4%-6% of a country’s GDP should be allocated for education, whereas in Bangladesh, only 1.76% is reserved for the education sector.


There was consistent dedication from the political leadership to carry out educational reform in Finland during the immediate post-war period and the subsequent decades. The government initiated the planning of changes to the education system as early as 1945, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the comprehensive school system started to develop. A distinctive aspect of the reforms lies in their prolonged implementation. Over successive waves of reform since the 1960s, new changes have been introduced. The current success of comprehensive schools stems from steady progress rather than abrupt innovations by a specific political leader or party.

The education system reforms enjoyed robust public confidence in Finland, driven by the nation’s high regard for education. Post World War II, with economic growth and increased personal wealth, parents sought to provide their children with a quality education, exerting pressure on the government to facilitate this desire. This success may also be linked to values that emerged among Finnish baby boomers post-World War II. With the baby boomer generation entering school age, there was a surge in parents sending their children to secondary education in grammar schools, which reflected the aspirations of ordinary Finnish citizens for greater educational opportunities for their children, a message that resonated with the country’s political leaders.

It was a long process, but Finland has succeeded in establishing what is considered a model in the education sector and continues to improve their model to stay at the top.

Now, coming back to our country, we need to understand our shortcomings to decide what approaches would be best in introducing and implementing a reformed curriculum.

Financing of the primary and secondary schools deserves the most attention when it comes to curriculum reform. As per UNESCO, 4%-6% of a country’s GDP should be allocated for education, whereas in Bangladesh, only 1.76% is reserved for the education sector. The proposed budget for the fiscal year 2023-24 includes a substantial increase of BDT 7,000 crore.

A significant portion of the allocated budget goes into teachers’ salaries and the provision of textbooks, leaving a meagre amount for infrastructural development. Without proper infrastructural facilities, it will be challenging to provide basic education, let alone endorse an entirely new system. Furthermore, infrastructural plans carried out by the government tend to lack comprehensiveness. Setting up a computer lab would be of no use if a stable internet connection cannot be ensured in an area. The government should prioritise holistic approaches over unsustainable actions.

Other expenses such as transport and stationery are not borne by the government and are difficult to bear for impoverished families. While it may not be feasible to provide all kinds of stationery to students, it might be worthwhile to provide very basic supplies such as pens and notepads, so that education for children does not seem like a burden to parents.

Misappropriation of funds should also be thoroughly looked into during budget reviewing, especially regarding the provision of mid-day meals. Students are provided less than what the funds are allocated for during meal times.

The role of being a school teacher is not seen as a career that the brightest minds would want to work on. The teacher-to-student ratio in Bangladesh stands at 1:30, whereas the ideal rate is 1:20. To improve this ratio, being an educator needs to be a more lucrative career prospect. Teachers should be given higher remuneration and more liberty when it comes to class delivery. It is illogical to expect highly qualified individuals to look at the role of an educator at the primary and secondary level as a potential career path if they are not compensated for their hard work.

Teaching school children is no piece of cake, and it is no light matter that they carry what they learn in school for the most part of their lives. It is quite the irony that the very people who build our foundation in education are the least paid in society. Teachers should also receive training regularly to be able to cater to the needs of the students. Each student is unique, and teachers, being their second parents, should be able to provide a safe zone for learning.

Implementing the new curriculum will be a lengthy process, and it is safe to say that it will not end by 2025. To ensure that the teachers and students are making progress in the system, the government could follow a similar tripartite approach where the government will regularly take feedback from both teachers and parents, as well as monitor what is happening inside classrooms. More importantly, feedback should be incorporated into further reforms, gradually advancing towards a system that enriches all three parties in the tripartite.

 

 

Children will need significant attention from both teachers and parents if they are to transition comfortably into the new curriculum. The challenge here is that a large portion of the parents remain poorly educated and their children are at risk of lagging behind if they do not get sufficient guidance from parents.

Finally, it is undoubtedly commendable that the Ministry of Education is focusing on providing the next generation with education that will enhance their mental and physical well-being, along with developing responsible global citizens. But that raises an important question – will having standardized subjects up until grade 10 be the right way to go about it? This does seem like a very long time before a student can opt for a discipline that genuinely interests them. Arguably, the new curriculum is repeating the mistake of forcing down traditional subjects onto students. Education is an endless journey, and the curriculum needs to be revised and updated regularly to truly improve the education system of our country.

It is definitely not an easy path, but the destination is not unreachable either. Human capital development requires future generations to think long-term, communicate freely, act for the greater good, and collaborate. The recent education reforms aim to move beyond memorization, promoting mental and physical health, and cultivating strong, independent individuals capable of navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution, contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals, and advancing Bangladesh’s Vision 2041.

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