Since 1971, Bangladesh has made significant economic progress. In terms of purchasing power parity per capita, it has overtaken Pakistan. Among the three most populous countries in South Asia, in 2020, India ranked first ($6,200), Bangladesh second ($4,900), and Pakistan third ($4,600). ). Nepal is the poorest (3,800 USD). Based on the lower-middle income threshold of USD 3.20/day, the poverty rate in India and Bangladesh exceeds 50%, and is above 30% in Pakistan.
Due to the Rajapaksa family’s chaotic style of government, the World Bank downgraded Sri Lanka from an upper middle income country to a lower middle income country, the status of all other South Asian countries. Despite the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka puts other South Asian countries to shame in terms of per capita income ($12,500) and poverty rate (just 11%). The obvious question, why does Sri Lanka outperform the rest of South Asia?
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Whatever else explains Sri Lanka’s superior economic performance, a crucial factor is having better schools, which means a better educated workforce. If this explanation is correct, it implies that to achieve Sri Lanka’s economic performance, other South Asian countries must achieve basic education levels as good as Sri Lanka.
Primary schools are the foundation of a child’s education. The most important objective of a primary school system is to enable all children to read and write the national language (regional in India and Pakistan). There are many other goals for elementary school, but they should not distract us from the importance of functional literacy and numeracy.
A relevant illustration of the importance of literacy and numeracy is Bangladesh’s garment sector, the only major sector in the Bangladeshi economy that is internationally competitive. Garment factories hire workers who, on average, have completed high school. According to a 2013 survey, of the Rana Plaza garment workers who survived, 90% had completed primary school. Of the workers, at least half had some high school education, and a quarter had a Grade 10 Secondary School Certificate (SSC). Among male workers, more than half had at least SSC level of education. These levels of education are well above the average in Bangladesh.
We may not be able to export agricultural products given the large population of the country. The same goes for mineral resources. The only resources we can develop with certainty are our human resources. Bangladesh can achieve a demographic dividend. However, to achieve this, we need to invest more in education and improve the educational attainment of the next generation workforce. Good quality education is the necessary input. Period!
Between 2000 and 2015, many countries, including Bangladesh, significantly increased primary school enrollment and completion. In South Asia, in 2015, around 95% of school-aged children were in school. In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, since 2015, around 80% of the primary age cohort has completed primary school. So far so good, but finishing primary school doesn’t mean a child can read and write (and do basic math). In many developing countries, reasons ranging from insufficient school budgets to civil war and corruption in school administration prevent children from learning. The problem of corruption is particularly acute in public schools.
The measurement of literacy can range from very simple to language proficiency among journalists and teachers who write daily. The UNESCO definition of literacy is the ability to write and read with understanding of a short simple statement. on their daily life. By this very low measure, the current adult literacy rate in Pakistan is less than 60%. In India and Bangladesh it is around 75% and in Sri Lanka over 90%. As the garment industry in Bangladesh illustrates, formal sector employers have educational expectations far beyond the Unesco definition of literacy.
In South Asia, the best comparative evidence available on the level of literacy of children at at least basic level 2 or 3 is the World Bank’s “learning poverty” index. The index estimates the proportion of children aged 10 to 14 who cannot read at a basic level. The index has two groups: 1) children who dropped out of school or never enrolled and are therefore assumed to be illiterate; plus 2) school children aged 10-14 but unable to read at a basic level.
For example, in Bangladesh, about one in five children aged 10 to 14 is out of school. Of those enrolled, the World Bank estimates that almost half are unable to read at the basic level of 2nd or 3rd grade. Adding the two statistics together, it is estimated that 58% of Bangladeshi children between the ages of 10 and 14 are “learning poor”. The learning poor rate in India (at 55%) is similar; in Pakistan (at 75%) it is much higher. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, only 15% are in a situation of low learning. Incidentally, the proportion of children aged 10 to 14 in West Bengal who can read Bengali is very close to the Indian average.
Compared to the Unesco definition of literacy, the Learning Poverty Index is a more realistic estimate of national performance in providing children with a decent foundation for primary school. Overall, in South Asia, the learning poverty rate is 58%. The learning poor rate in China is only 18%. In Southeast and East Asia (including China, but excluding high-income countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), learning poverty is estimated at 22%.
At the secondary level, the world’s largest benchmarking of national school systems is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Once every three years, PISA assesses the performance in reading, mathematics and science of large samples of 15-year-old upper secondary students in 80 countries. Most countries in Southeast and East Asia participate. At least in major coastal cities, China outperforms the average for high-income countries, as do Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. In Southeast Asia, most countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines) participate. Their results are lower than those of Singapore and East Asia, but other assessments indirectly show that Southeast Asian countries outperform South Asian countries (except Sri Lanka). In 2009, one Indian state participated in PISA. The performance was so poor that the state government vowed never to participate again.
What does this mean for politics and priorities? A conclusion from the garment sector in Bangladesh is that without a high quality school system from primary school to HSC, no country is likely to achieve a GDP per capita above USD 10,000. This suggests three imperatives for public schools.
First, primary education should focus on the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy. These skills are now lost in a long list of skills and other subjects. Second, a key part of the overhaul must be preparing and supporting teachers to teach these skills and to measure student progress in basic skills. Third, plans for universal secondary education up to HSC should be developed and implemented, focusing on consolidating and further developing basic skills, adding English language and basic science at secondary level .
Preparing goals and plans and overseeing their implementation should be a high priority for the government. According to the 2019 Annual Primary School Census, seven out of 10 primary school students attend public schools (or so-called newly nationalized schools). The share of children in non-governmental schools has increased over the past two decades, but the vast majority of children still attend public schools. Non-state education providers should be encouraged, provided they operate within the regulatory framework of government.
Who will solve the current shoddy “education pandemic”? The “vaccine” here is the elementary school teachers delivering the basics of literacy and numeracy. Public school teachers need better training. They must be empowered to provide educational services at school, instead of diverting students to private lessons at teachers’ homes or at coaching centers.
Individuals and business leaders can play an important role by influencing school management committees or taking inspiration from corporate social responsibility in other countries. Activities can be private philanthropies or generous on-the-job training. By private philanthropy, we don’t mean high-end English schools. A private provision of education can be a “low-cost” school model that exempts low-income families from paying school fees.
Shahidul Islam is an education policy researcher. John Richards is a professor in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, Canada.