Industry Desk: The education sector in Bangladesh had been riding out the headwinds of the coronavirus pandemic when it encountered another setback as devastating floods swept through the country’s northern region in 2022. Under these circumstances, students across the country and the education authorities face an uphill task to make up for the unprecedented learning deficit in the upcoming year.
After three whirlwind years precipitated by the pandemic, officials now hope to resume academic classes in full swing in 2023 in a bid to steady the ship and restore a semblance of normality to the education system.
However, further challenges lie ahead as the authorities look to implement a new education curriculum, find ways to thwart question paper leaks and address the complications in printing free textbooks for students in 2023.
Looking ahead, experts believe teachers and education administrators must be more active after the travails of the last three years. Teachers need to be trained further with a focus on overcoming the gap in learning for students, they said.
HOW TO BRIDGE THE LEARNING GAP
Students were outside the classroom for a long time during the pandemic. The government had to shut down educational institutions early in 2022 amid a rapid surge in COVID-19 cases.
Later in May and June of the same year, students in the northeast were hit hard by severe flooding. More than 5,000 educational institutions were closed, impacting at least 600,000 secondary pupils.
The secondary and higher secondary certificate exams were eventually held seven months behind the usual schedule due to a combination of floods and the pandemic. In an effort to cope with the situation, the authorities scaled down the syllabus, the number of subjects, and the allocation of marks for the exams.
As students lost their textbooks and other educational materials in the floods, the government had to provide them again before they sat for the SSC exams. The SSC exams were held on Sept 15 instead of Jun 19.
Students in the Sylhet region suffered the most. Among all nine education boards, the Sylhet Board of Education fell behind on the pass rate and the number of students with GPA-5.
Education officials are optimistic about making up the lost ground through undisrupted in-person learning going forward.
Arun Chandra Pal, the exam controller of the Sylhet Board of Education, hopes to put the woes of the pandemic and floods behind in the new year.
“We suffered a lot. The students were under tremendous mental pressure. We’re trying to get back the students who dropped out of schools,” he said.
“We want to ensure 100 percent attendance by students in the upcoming year. Our education officers in the districts and upazilas are working on it while the administration is cooperating with us as much as possible.”
The Ministry of Education has taken up various initiatives to bring stability to the education system after it was upended by the pandemic.
“The SSC exams in 2023 will be held at the end of April. As students could not attend their classes properly in 2021 and 2022 due to the pandemic, the SSC exams in 2023 will be held on an abridged syllabus,” said Tapan Kumar Sarkar, president of the Inter-Education Board Coordination Sub-committee.
Academic classes will resume in full swing in January to allow the authorities to set the 2024 SSC exams on the complete syllabus, he added.
After a long pause, students spent a lot of time in the classroom last year which helped alleviate some of their mental stress and prepared them to be more active in the upcoming year, according to experts.
It would be tough to address the learning gap of the students, said
But Fahima Khatun, former director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, acknowledges the inherent challenges in addressing the learning gap. “Ninth graders can make up any gaps in their education in grade ten, but that’s not possible for students in other grades. Therefore, we should also focus on the key learning issues that students missed out on last year alongside whatever is planned for the next year.”
Overcoming the learning gap caused by the pandemic will be a great challenge for both students and teachers, according to MA Mannan, former chairman of the University Grants Commission.
“This is because there are no shortcuts in education. The students’ learning process was hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and the floods and many of them are graduating to the next level with some deficiencies. Therefore, we must ensure that those gaps are filled. Those responsible for academic administration, in particular, should look after it. But teachers should place the utmost emphasis on this issue. Otherwise, this deficiency can’t be addressed.”
“Education is like a ladder. You have to climb every rung of it. The learning gap among students should be overcome now or else their entire education will flounder. There will be no continuation in their education and eventually they will face different problems in later life,” said the former vice chancellor of Chattogram University.
As such, the government should incentivise teachers to go the extra mile to help students plug the gaps in their education, according to him.
IMPLEMENTATION OF NEW CURRICULUM
Ahead of its full implementation in 2025, the government initiated a pilot project where 62 schools followed the new curriculum for grade 6. The programme will be expanded to more schools across the country next year.
The new curriculum will be introduced in grade one at primary and in grades six and seven at secondary school. The education ministry plans to put the new curriculum in place in phases to ensure interactive learning instead of solely relying on memorisation.
If implemented ‘properly,’ the new curriculum will help address the crisis that has plagued the education sector in the last few years, Fahima said. She, however, felt that education administrators are not fully prepared to take on the task.
“Online training isn’t enough as we know that teachers in rural areas are not tech-savvy. The authorities monitor the implementation and measure the output through workshops. They couldn’t do much of that in 2022, and that’s why it could be a challenge. Even then, providing online training to all teachers will be a good idea.”
The government backtracked from piloting the new curriculum in grade one in 2022 due to a lack of preparation. Therefore, they changed the decision to introduce the new curriculum in grade two and will implement it in grade one only.
“We couldn’t pilot the programme in grade one for different reasons. Though the new curriculum will be implemented in grade one, we’ll monitor some schools that carry it out. Based on it, the new curriculum will be implemented in the second grade in 2024,” said Prof Moshiuzzaman, a member of the National Textbook and Curriculum Board.
He believes there will be more challenges to implementing the new curriculum in the year ahead.
“Parents are reluctant to accept it [new curriculum]. Teachers, too, have developed a comfort zone for themselves after working for a long time [following the traditional curriculum]. They think they may not be able to work after the changes happen.”
“Teachers and educationists feel that it is evident from the pilot programme that a change is needed. The existing system isn’t working. We have thousands of students obtaining GPA 5s but they can’t answer a question properly. Employers are complaining that a person with a postgraduate degree can’t do simple tasks.”
The government cannot provide long-term training to the teachers as they are large in numbers, he said. “Thus, we plan to use digital platforms for training alongside the traditional face-to-face sessions to help teachers. We’re also developing teachers’ guides for each subject.”
“If digital training isn’t enough, teachers can seek assistance from an upazila master trainer. There’s no scope to say that they haven’t internalised the training and won’t be able to do the task. We won’t give them that scope.”
Whatever problems teachers confront in the new year will be addressed again through training, according to Prof Moshiuzzaman.
SCOURGE OF QUESTION LEAKS
Leaking of question papers for public exams was a common phenomenon in Bangladesh and a bane of the education administration in the recent past. However, the malaise seemed to have abated during the pandemic, when exams were held on an abridged syllabus.
There were murmurs of question paper leaks, but never any concrete evidence. It led all wings of the education ministry to confidently state that there was ‘no scope for question paper leaks’.
Against this backdrop, the question paper leaks during the SSC exams in 2022 were a big blow to policymakers. Four tests in the SSC exams under the Dinajpur board were postponed while question papers for six subjects were scrapped in the aftermath. Some other incidents of question leaks were also reported.
Educationists have certain reservations about the existing question dissemination system, which some government officers also share. They said they were trying to find an effective way to distribute question papers without the risk of leaks.
TROUBLESHOOTING NEEDED IN PRINTING FREE TEXTBOOK
Uncertainties swirled around the process of printing and distributing free textbooks in 2022. In an effort to buck the perennial trend, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board plan to float tenders for printing textbooks at the beginning of 2023.
Students will receive the textbooks printed on low-quality papers in the upcoming year as the tender process was delayed in 2022.
Printing of primary textbooks is in full swing after the authorities provided assurances to printers about resolving their issues, said Prof Moshiuzzaman. “We hope at least 80 percent of the books will be distributed on time. But we had to compromise on quality as we had no other option,” he said.
He also hoped there would be no such complications in the printing process in 2023.
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