No doubt, Bangladesh has gained momentum in several development indicators and marching ahead to be a least development country within this decade. Aligned with the development endevours, the importance of good governance and public participation in public finance management has also increased to many folds. But some schools are on the view that the speed of the development and quality may drop if the financial management – that trigger all the development functionalities- is improper. In line with other prioratised development activities, the primary and mass education programmes at the local level hold a significant position as a priority sector in terms of public expenditure. In harmony of its research targets, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) has conducted social audits lately in Thakurgaon (Thakurgaon Sadar Upazila) district. The study aimed to collect an accurate and reliable estimate of the needs of the citizens at the grassroots level regarding primary education in terms of quality of education, provision of infrastructure, inclusiveness of education system and management, and identification of challenges and development opportunities. The social audit encompassed the active participation of administrative officials, government representatives, civil society members, representatives of different communities and other stakeholders, aiming to gather valuable insights and perspectives regarding primary education at local levels.

Aiming to unveil the outcomes of the social audit and reveal the perspectives of the local representatives, a sub-national dialogue titled ‘Education Scenario in Primary Schools: Measures that need to be taken’ was held on Friday, 16 June 2023, at Eco Social Development Organization (ESDO) Auditorium, College Para (Govindanagar), Thakurgaon. The dialogue was initiated by CPD, with support from the European Union, in partnership with Eco-Social Development Organization (ESDO) and in collaboration with Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh.

Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, Convenor, Citizen’s Platform and Distinguished Fellow, CPD, moderated the dialogue session. He said, ‘In order to foster progress within the country, it is imperative to focus on human resource development. It can be achieved through a strategic increase in budgetary allocations towards the education sector’. He opined the job market is failing to recognise and provide employment to students as they lack practical knowledge, and their competency solely relies on their possession of certificates. Therefore, it is crucial for us to prioritise the development of fundamental education, particularly primary education. Additionally, the accuracy and changing nature of the curriculum is another pertinent concern that needs to be addressed.

In his opening remarks, Dr Md. Shahid Uz Zaman, Founder & Executive Director, ESDO, mentioned that multiple data sources have consistently indicated that the global pandemic has had a severe impact on the education sector, with the primary education segment experiencing the most significant consequences.

Mr Towfiqul Islam Khan, Senior Research Fellow, CPD, delivered the keynote presentation. He highlighted that the literacy rate in Thakurgaon is approximately 4 per cent higher than the national average mark. However, in terms of internet usage, the rate in the district is below the mark and around 13 per cent lower than the national standard. Moreover, the region is inhabited by numerous tribal and underprivileged communities. Financial constraints limit many families to bear education cost and, instead, involve their children in income-generating activities to financially contribute in the family income. He also mentioned that primary schools still lack complete infrastructure for students.

He recommended increasing the number of classrooms in all primary schools, teacher recruitment and their proper trainings. He also urged to provide adequate resources for extracurricular activities, ensure digital learning materials in all the classrooms, construction of boundary walls and separate toilets for girls and boys in every primary school. He also suggested establishing libraries and playgrounds, addressing the needs of students with disabilities and mitigating learning loss as much as possible that happened due to the COVID-19 outbreak globally.

Appreciating the recent initiatives, Chief Guest Mr Ramesh Chandra Sen, MP, Chairman, Standing Committee on Ministry of Water Resources, said, ‘Thakurgaon has transformed into a city that prioritises education, communication, and electricity, and there is no shortage of these resources’. He also pointed the notable improvement in the qualifications of primary school teachers. The lawmaker said if they effectively implement their teaching methodologies, Thakurgaon might swiftly progress toward becoming a learning district of exceptional educational quality.

Mr Ramkrishna Barman, Additional District Magistrate, Thakurgaon, was present at the dialogue as the Special Guest. He pointed out the tendency to pressurise children. He also mentioned people’s reluctance to send their children to schools and said, ‘As parents, we need to change our mindset and recognise that receiving education from the primary level is necessary in the long run’.

Advocate Arunangshu Datta, Upazila Chairman, Thakurgaon, as the Guest of Honor of the event, said the principal of a school should not be burdened with additional tasks such as data collection and surveys. ‘If data collection is necessary, separate positions should be created specifically for that purpose. These additional responsibilities divide the attention of the school’s head, preventing them from properly focusing on monitoring the school’, Mr Datta said.

Mr Belal Rabbani, Ex-Principal, Samir Uddin Degree College, as a Distinguished Speaker of the dialogue, highlighted that affluent parents are inclined to choose kindergartens for their children due to lack of trust in public primary schools as regards quality of education, leading to a widening disparity.

Mr Profulla Chandra Roy, Headteacher, B. Akhra Govt. Primary School was also present as a Distinguished Speaker. He said the syllabus at the primary level undergoes frequent changes but lacks longevity. New programmes are introduced without fully implementing the revised curriculum, he opined.

The discussants tabled several issues during the open floor discussion. To prevent children from dropping out of primary education due to financial constraints, the government or civil society organisations should implement an education incentive programme, they proposed. This programme can aim to provide support to indigenous and poor families by offering a valuable incentive. The incentive may include 20 kilograms of rice a month for their children enrolled and attending school regularly. A proposition was put forth to introduce mid-day meals and hire additional staff to handle accounting and maintain cleanliness in the primary schools of the district.

Mr Md. Mojahidul Islam, Independent Consultant, addressed the issues raised in the open floor discussion. He assured the outputs resulting from this dialogue will be presented to the policymakers and authorities concerned.

Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, CPD and Core Group Member, Citizen’s Platform, in his concluding remarks, said, ‘Pre-primary education should be given importance’. He also opined it is natural that a starving child will have a decreased ability to focus on learning. Unfortunately, there is a lack of budgetary allocation for Universal School Feeding in the current budget, while various pilot programmes were taken in the past to run the feeding programme.

The dialogue reflected citizens’ needs, expectations, and inspirations from the primary education sector. In an unequal society, the catalyst for further disparities lies in the inequality present within the realm of education. It is imperative to adopt proactive measures to prevent the spread of this influence from the very beginning.