“It is important for all of us who work in education to ensure we are trying to provide the best possible quality in education, whether or not we work for private or public schools.”
Since 2008, Madiha Murshed has served as the Managing Director at Scholastica, one of the larger English-medium private schools in Bangladesh, which was established in 1977 by her mother, Mrs. Yasmeen Murshed. Currently the school has over 5,000 students. She is also the Executive Director at S.P.E.E.D, which is an adult training center for teachers and professionals in Dhaka. Madiha graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in May 2002 with a Masters in International Affairs, and a concentration in Economic and Political Development. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Development Economics from Harvard College in June 1999. IBT recently caught up with Madiha to get her take on the private schooling sector in Bangladesh and to learn about how Scholastica has kept up with the changes and developments in this sector.
Most people in our country consider an English medium private education to be a luxury. Why is this so? Would reducing fees help rebrand them as a necessity eventually?
Just like most countries around the world, our government provides public education at no cost. Many public schools are of very good quality, and do in fact provide a good grounding in English. It is important to differentiate between private schools and English medium schools, because as you know, nowadays there are some semi-private schools (MPOs) that teach in English too.
A separate issue is to talk about private schools in Bangladesh. Like other countries around the world, private schools in Bangladesh face certain cost structures due to which they have to charge a certain level of fees. It is true that these fees might not be affordable for many Bangladeshis. However, many schools including Scholastica have financial assistance programs or scholarship programs which allow us to cast a wider net, providing support to students who have a financial need. Also, I think the real issue is that the quality of schools—whether private or public—varies a good deal. It is important for all of us who work in education to ensure we are trying to provide the best possible quality in education, whether or not we work for private or public schools.
What’s your take on Scholastica’s journey as one of the top private schools in Bangladesh?
Having started in 1977, Scholastica is one of the oldest private schools and is currently on its 38th year. Right from the beginning, Mrs Murshed, my mother, broke a lot of ground and, as a result Scholastica had a lot of “firsts”, and in many ways it has been a pioneer in education in Bangladesh. Under my mother’s leadership, Scholastica was the first to introduce science labs, she was one of the earliest to arrange international trips for our students, and Scholastica was, I believe, the first private school to build its own custom-designed campus. In the last almost 40 years we have stayed abreast of changes and developments in private education in Bangladesh. To this day we still remain pioneers as I can name some recent things which we have done which we were among the first few private schools to introduce such as installing smartboards in classrooms.
How have things changed since Mrs. Murshed stepped down? What changes have you brought in after you took the helm?
There have been many developments and improvements over the years when my mother was in charge, and I have tried to carry on that legacy. It’s something that’s a part of the natural growth of any organization so it’s not about when my mother was in charge or when I took over; the school has been evolving every year. The school has expanded over the years, and the most important thing to see here is that we grew and institutionalized the organization by putting systems and procedures into place that would allow us to uphold a high quality while still being quite large. In the early years, decisions were being made by a small group of people, and now it has become an institution which has systems, policies and procedures. Now we have an ERM System, a handbook regarding service rules, different policies and procedure for different tasks and so on. Over the years we’ve also gained experience regarding what works and what doesn’t so we have our own education philosophy which gets incorporated into these systems and processes. The school is still run by many of the same peoplefrom the early days, and we valuetheir experience and wisdom, it’s just become more institutionalized. This is essential as this change will sustain it for the next 40 years.
How does the private tutoring culture affect Scholastica and the other private schools?
Private tutoring is a bane to education. It’s something that’s happening all over Asia and it’s very harmful. There are two common arguments for it. Firstly, that individual children may be struggling in school hence they need the extra help. Secondly, some parents think the teachers in school aren’t good enough. For the first scenario, when students need the extra help schools should be willing to provide it, which they do. It’s our responsibility to educate our children and if they need any sort of extra support it should be provided free of charge. We do that to the best of our ability in Scholastica. With respect to the second argument, again it’s the school’s responsibility to ensure that the teachers are teaching properly, and I can say that we do many things like training and performance management to ensure our standards of teaching remain high.
By making a space for private tutoring, you’re making schooling worse as some teachers may reserve their best efforts for when they will tutor privately. Our government has actually enacted rules to limit private tutoring. These rules will help to strengthen the quality of the education provided by our schools. I support the government in its efforts and wish we could eradicate this way of thinking, that private tutoring is necessary to do well in school. In fact, every year we have students who get excellent results in their public exams without the help of private tutors and relying only on our school teachers, so I know it’s possible! We work hard to raise awareness of this amongst our students and parents.
Another aspect I’d like to touch upon is that students need so much more than just studying, they need after school programs so they can develop other talents and if they get stuck doing private tuitioning then they won’t get to explore other avenues that expand their horizons and develop their whole personalities. I don’t mean to say studying is not important – of course good grades are extremely important, but students need to do more than only getting good grades. Our school curriculum is designed to ensure that students are given the support they need to do well in school, and in their public exams—students should spend their time beyond that in pursuing other hobbies and interests! That is what the ideal situation would be.
There’s a widespread notion that English medium students need to improve the state of their Bangla and their knowledge regarding Bangladesh. In this regard, have steps been taken to improve the Bangla curriculum?
I take that allegation very seriously and we do a lot of work in Scholastica to ensure our student’s Bangla is of a high standard. We are Bangladeshis, after all, and it is so important that our students speak Bangla well and respect their mother tongue. We’ve put in a lot of effort in terms of curriculum planning and making our teaching methods more interesting for students. We have been using NTCB books for a long time and continue to do so. In addition, with regards to our Bangladesh studies curriculum, we’ve been using books which were written by us for the past 3-4 years. They’re attractive and well researched and provide a better coverage of Bangladeshi history than our previous textbooks. Bangla literature is being taught in a more creative way, we’ve increased the number of periods dedicated to Bangla and we also have extracurricular reading programs and Bangla book fairs. Years ago our students weren’t reading full novels in Bangla and now they read two novels every year. In the course of their time in Scholastica, students will read about 10 to 15 Bangla novels, so our students are graduating having read Shorotchondro, Satyajit Ray, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Jahanara Imam and Tagore, among others. We’re trying to make Bangla fun so the novels they’re reading are entertaining while being age-appropriate. Afterwards, we don’t just have Q/A session and make students write essays, but students also get to engage in interactive activities, analyze the novels creatively, and do artwork inspired by the books.
There’s also the problem where students don’t realize what they might be missing out on if they don’t practice their Bangla and keep it up. So we send a lot emails to parents, hold awareness programs and we talk to them about reinforcing the importance of having a proper grasp of Bangla. And of course it goes without saying that we hold all kinds of events to commemorate important national days and Bengali events, we also conduct plays in Bangla. All of this will hopefully create greater appreciation and respect for the language among the students. These are all the ways in which we ensure that the standard of Bangla taught in our school is high.
What other ventures has Scholastica involved itself in?
Scholastica itself is a venture of Ascent Group which is run by my family and our senior management team. We’ve developed several other sister concerns. The first of these was our printing press which was established about 20 years ago to produce our exercise copies and textbooks and now it’s come into its own,working not just for Scholastica but for other institutions and organizations as well. We are also involved in textbook publication, and teacher training through SPEED, among other things.