Mursalin Kabir, a child of only 11 years, attended three admission tests in the first two weeks of January. After completing his Primary School Completion exam from a primary level kindergarten school, Mursalin was trying to get admission in grade six of a good secondary school. Unfortunately, he did not make it. His pale face, tired and disappointed look, highly unusual for a boy of such a tender age, is a tell-tale sign ofthe psychological torment and pressure he went through in the past couple of weeks. He didn't even agree to talk to us.
Mursalin's father Arman Kabir says, “There are only three well-regarded secondary schools in my neighbourhood in Uttara. But my son did not qualify in the admission tests where at least 75 students compete for every seat. This is why I enrolled him in this school although it's very expensive and not government-approved.”
Mursalin is not alone. This year, this unauthorised secondary school in Uttara (whose name will not be disclosed to prevent any undue attacks on the institution) has admitted 550 students in grade six. Like Arman Kabir, many parents are opting for unauthorised schools after finding no place for their children in government-approved ones.
However, Bangladesh Education Statistics 2016 tells a different story. According to the report, the teacher-student ratio in the secondary level is 1:41 which indicates that there are sufficient secondary schools in the country. However, this ratio is misleading. It does not reveal the crisis faced by the country's secondary level students in densely populated cities like Dhaka.
In Dhaka, there is shortage of quality educational institutions. Moreover, there is a severe shortage of space in the recognised ones. In addition to these limitations, the number of secondary level students in Bangladesh is staggeringly high. In Dhaka city alone, the number of secondary level students is 199,892,whereas there are only 450 government approved secondary level schools for almost two hundred thousand students. Such a dearth of recognised educational institutions creates extreme competition in school admission exams every year. These admission exams ensure that only a few lucky students with marginally higher scores will have the chance to get admitted to approved institutions.
On the other hand, most of the unauthorised schools enrol students without any prior admission exam. They are also flexible in that they enrol students who have a poorer academic performance. Many of these schools publish flashy advertisements promising guaranteed A+ for “inattentive”students.
Special care and residential facilities for derailed students, which is almost absent in mainstream institutions, is also a major marketing factor of these schools. Lured by these advertisements and rejected by recognised schools, thousands of parents enrol their children in unauthorised schools. Rozina Begum, mother of four children and the wife of an expat worker, had to admit her eldest son Shahinul Islam in one such unauthorised, residential school.
“My neighbours and relatives used to rebuke me for my spirit. I loved to organise cricket and badminton tournaments and I used to lead the youngsters of our neighbourhood in all these activities,” shares Shahin. What Shahin didn't like at all is the idea of going to school regularly. Time and again, Shahin's school teachers from when he was studying in a government boy's school, reported his absence in the classroom to his mother. However, when Shahin's school teacher spotted him smoking cigarettes with his friends in the school playground, Shahin was expelled. He was in grade seven.
Instructed by her husband living in Saudi Arabia, Rozina admitted their son to a madrasa. However, Shahin could not cope with the strict rules and unfamiliar syllabus of the madrasa.
Finally, Rozina enrolled him in an unauthorised residential school in Uttara. “My son was about to go astray. I admitted him here so that he can be attentive and learn discipline by staying in a hostel. But the expenses are too high. I am struggling to afford his tuition, coaching and hostel fees,” explains Rozina. “If I make a late payment, the school authority threatens to expel my son,” she adds.
Due to the absence of monitoring by the government, most of these unauthorised schools have commoditised education to an extreme level. Many have affiliated coaching centres where they force students to study all the subjects in the name of improving their academic performances. For instance, parents like Rozina and Arman have to pay BDT 8,000–10,000 monthly just for the coaching centre. The hostel and tuition fees are also far higher than any government-approved institution. For her son's education, Rozina has to pay BDT 30,000 every month. On the other hand, before enrolling his son, Arman had to pay three months' tuition, as well as coaching and hostel fees in advance. This set him back around BDT 100,000. “The school authority forced us to buy everything from the school, from uniforms to notebooks, pens and school bags. The expenditure here, I think, is a hundred times more than a government school,” shares Arman.
However, schools where Mursalin and Shahin study are not the only ones exploiting helpless parents and students. According to an unofficial study conducted by the students of the Institute of Education and Research, there are at least 1,300 unauthorised secondary schools in Dhaka, which is three times more than the number of authorised secondary schools.
When asked about such exorbitant fees, one of the directors of an unauthorised school argues, “Government-approved schools receive funds and resources from the government, which we don't. We have to ensure better facilities and care for our students because we get less meritorious students. We also have to unofficially pay approved schools so that they register our students as their own in public exams.” His statement reveals a misconduct which has become a common practice among many secondary level educational institutions. Through an external category, education boards allow an approved school to register a board exam candidate who is physically challenged or too impoverished to continue regular academic activities. Unauthorised schools take advantage of this provision.
Despite the burgeoning of these unauthorised institutions and their widespread corruption, none of the relevant government offices have any information on them. According to Shahidul Khabir Chowdhury, Secretary, Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, Dhaka, “The schools you are talking about do not exist in our papers.” The same was reiterated by the officials of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE) and Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics. Such indifference has given unrestricted opportunity for people who want to make fortune by exploiting parents and students.
To stop such malpractice and exploitation, Dr Sadhon Kumar Biswas, former Deputy Director of DSHE and author of the book “Laws, Rules and Codes on Bangladesh's Secondary Level Educational Institutions”, recommends a detailed survey on unauthorised institutions. “Unauthorised schools flourished due to the growing demand from a growing number of students. It will not be wise to shut down all these schools as thousands of people are relying on them. Again, keeping them beyond the purview of government monitoring by refusing their existence will also be self-destructive,” says Dr Biswas.
According to his suggestion, the government should conduct a two-pronged survey; one will focus on the institution's resources, administrative system and infrastructure, while the other will focus on teachers' quality, teaching-learning environment and students' performance. He argues that once the government obtains detailed information, it can recognise and rehabilitate these institutions. Until and unless Bangladesh's education offices start to track and monitor these exploitative unauthorised institutions, a vast majority of the country's students will remain hostage to corrupt practices and a second-rate teaching-learning environment.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.