Background and Context

Bangladesh can claim remarkable success in terms of a number of important socio-economic indicators, which gives its post-independence journey an important distinction. Several factors have shaped and contributed to this, with both state and non-state actors playing important roles. As is known, Bangladesh is committed to attaining the SDGs by 2030, where access to quality education is an important marker. Bangladesh was ranked 101st according to the Sustainable Development Report 2023, with an overall score of 65.9 out of 100. The country achieved or was on track to achieve 30.9 per cent of the SDG targets. In the case of 41.2 per cent targets, however, it has registered limited progress, and in the case of 27.9 per cent targets, the situation has indeed worsened. As may be noted in this backdrop, Quality education (SDG 4) is one of the two goals (the other being Responsible consumption and production – SDG 12) with respect to which Bangladesh’s progress was assessed as ‘on track’.

While Bangladesh’s middle-income graduation in 2015 and its upcoming graduation from the group of least developed countries in 2026 signify notable socio-economic progress, the dual graduation also poses formidable challenges for the country going forward. Nowhere are these challenges so prominently manifested as in the area of delivering quality education. Indeed, a major overhauling of the education system will be required if the country is to be geared towards sustainable dual graduation by addressing the formidable attendant challenges and if it is to reap the potential opportunities. Also, Bangladesh has set an ambitious goal to achieve upper middle-income country status by 2031 and the vision to become a developed country by 2041. These transitions will call for an education system that is fit for purpose and is able to meet the demands of the country’s developmental aspirations.

Higher productivity and strengthened competitiveness will need to be the key drivers of Bangladesh’s future journey. In this backdrop, the role of quality education cannot be overemphasised, particularly since it lays the foundation of a competitive and modern economy. The need to give priority attention to quality issues in education has gained heightened importance and traction also in view of the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic of the recent past on the education sector of Bangladesh in general and primary education in particular.

The education sector of Bangladesh is of formidable size, comprised of some 150 thousand institutions, 40 million students and more than one million teachers. Approximately 19 million students are at the primary education level, and 12 million are at the secondary level (including students of government-recognised madrasahs). Development of the country’s basic education is guided by the Compulsory Primary Education Act 1990, EFA National Plan of Action (NPA) I and II, National Non-Formal Education Policy 2006, National Education Policy 2010, National Skills Development Policy 2011, The Eighth Five-Year Plan and Vision 2041. To strengthen basic education, several programmes have been implemented over the years; Primary Education Development Programme – PEDP1, PEDP2 and PEDP3. PEDP4 is being implemented at present.  Indeed, a major objective of Bangladesh’s education sector programmes is to achieve Goal 4 targets of the SDGs by 2030.

Over the past decade, impressive success has been achieved in Bangladesh’s education in terms of enrolment and attainment of gender parity. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) was 110.5 per cent and the Net Enrolment Rate (NER) was 97.6 per cent.  However, the dropout rate is high, at about 14.0 per cent at the primary education level (Bangladesh Education Statistics 2022). Recognising the importance of early childhood education, pre-primary education was made compulsory in 2015 for one year prior to entry into primary school. A two-year pre-primary education was introduced in over three thousand primary schools from January 2023.

There can be no disagreement that while access to education is a right of citizens and an obligation on the part of the state, quality of the imparted education continues to remain an enduring concern in Bangladesh. What takes place in classrooms and other learning environments is critically important for the well-being of the children, their prospects as adults and their future employability. In this sense, primary level education plays a key role in laying the foundation of the future life of the child. A host of factors are important in this context, including access to and delivery of quality education, appropriate infrastructure, presence of qualified teachers, availability of up-to-date teaching materials, proper nutrition and health of children and a conducive learning environment for children’s overall development.

The present Policy Brief focuses particularly on the issue of delivery of quality education in Bangladesh at the primary stage since, as was noted, education at this particular level builds the foundation for education at subsequent levels. If children are deprived of quality education at this level, they can not be expected to overcome the challenges they face at the subsequent levels. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that primary education makes or mars the promise, potential and prospects of the child as an adult. This is more so for the children from the left behind and disadvantaged groups because only education can give them the opportunity for a better and more fulfilling life and social upward mobility.

Realising the aspiration of quality education for all is a challenge that will need to be addressed through targeted actions and interventions. The leave no one behind spirit of the SDGs implies that no children ought to be left behind and left outside as far as the delivery of quality primary education is concerned.

Regrettably, growing income and asset inequalities have emerged as major barriers to achieving universally acknowledged standard of primary education in present day Bangladesh context. Evidence suggests that children belonging to the marginalised groups and living in remote and geographically disadvantaged areas are falling behind in educational attainments compared to their peers. The background documents prepared for Bangladesh’s 8th Five Year Plan recognise the challenges facing the disadvantaged groups: ethnic minority groups, tea garden workers, cleaners/sweepers (belonging to Dalit community), landless peasants, transgender community, commercial sex workers, environmental refugees, traditional fisher folk, artisans, chronically ill poor people, rural poor, women, homeless and unemployed people and their families, persons with physical and mental disabilities and poor female-headed households in char, haor, coastal areas, hill tracts, tea garden areas and urban slums. There is no denying the fact that children from these groups are likely to face more difficulties compared to those belonging to more affluent and advantaged groups, as far as quality primary education is concerned.

Experience shows that inequality, vulnerability and educational exclusion are often closely linked. While the government has been trying to widen access to and improve the quality of education, there are many structural factors which undermine the efforts and perpetuate intergenerational disparities in educational opportunities. Hence, there is a need to address the particular difficulties faced by the children from LNOB groups in accessing quality primary education.

These will need to be addressed and redressed with appropriate interventions. Inclusive infrastructure, greater access to education and equal opportunity to quality education are not merely reflections of a progressive and equitable society; these are also drivers of such a society. Quality primary education triggers social inclusiveness and economic development, reduces inequalities, and ensures that every child is able to reach her/his full potential.

In the context of education, the left behind groups refer to individuals and communities who encounter significant and additional challenges in accessing quality education. These challenges originate from access to limited educational resources, infrastructure that is not-education-friendly, presence of discrimination, and various socio-economic obstacles which hinder ability of education-seekers to engage with the education system fully and on equal footing. All these undermine the capacity of children to take advantage of even the available opportunities.

Published: May 2024