Education in the 2022-2023 budget: small mercies and dashed hopes

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Children who are struggling to keep up with their lessons and are looking for support, such as tutoring or special lessons, to bridge the learning gap caused by the pandemic will not be happy with what is on offer in the proposed national budget. . File photo: Anisur Rahman

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Children who are struggling to keep up with their lessons and are looking for support, such as tutoring or special lessons, to bridge the learning gap caused by the pandemic will not be happy with what is on offer in the proposed national budget. . File photo: Anisur Rahman

Educators and concerned citizens have demanded a significant increase in public allocation for the education sector, as well as decisive action for quality and equity measures in education. So far they have been disappointed, their hopes dashed yet again in the national budget for the financial year 2022-23 proposed to parliament. Arguably, the proposed budget at least allows schools to stay open and functioning while facing the extraordinary challenges for the economy to recover from the fallout of the pandemic, further aggravated by the war in Ukraine. Shouldn’t we be grateful for the small mercies that at least keep schools functioning in the face of major adversities?

Children who have dropped out of school during the pandemic, boys and girls who have joined the ranks of child labourers, girls who have become child brides – who need help getting back into class – may not totally agree. Those still in school, struggling to keep up with their classes and looking for support such as tutoring or special classes to bridge the learning gap, will also not be happy with what is on offer.

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Of the total budget of Taka 678,064 crore for FY23, the education sector allocation is Taka 81,449 crore, or 12% of the total, compared to 11.9% for FY22 In terms of GDP ratio, it is 1.83%, lower than the outgoing fiscal year allocation. This is one of the lowest in the world – well below the recommended minimum of 4-6% of GDP and 20% of the national budget.

The problem is as much about lack of funding as it is about managing resources and defining priorities and strategies to make the system work better. Educators have called for an education recovery and recovery plan to help 40 million students make up for losses suffered due to the pandemic, which is entering a third school year. UNESCO, Unicef, the World Bank and others have warned that for countries like Bangladesh, this situation portends a generational disaster unless effective corrective action is taken.

The finance minister’s budget speech promises a series of initiatives for “science education and the development of educational infrastructure”. He goes on to talk about a list of accomplishments, mostly within the current pattern of spending to keep education operations going. Mentions were made of teachers recruited, books distributed, allowances paid, ICT equipment installed in schools, TVET training expanded and initiatives to introduce blended learning, combining lessons with distance and in person. He suggests that the distance mode complementing classroom instruction will be the main compensatory approach to learning losses. It smacks of the status quo which underestimates the seriousness of the situation.

Evidence from other countries as well as studies by Education Watch and others in Bangladesh show that much more systematic and focused attention to recovery and renewal is needed. Poor learning outcomes – like more than half of children unable to read, write and count after five years of primary education – was already a pre-Covid problem. The pandemic-induced decline in education has amplified the problem.

Our children face an extraordinarily difficult challenge of learning loss, and they need help. Educators have pointed out that children who were in Class V at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 are now in Class VII, skipping two school years and largely unprepared for their new lessons. They suggested a recovery and remediation plan with four key elements: a rapid assessment of students’ basic skill levels; a catch-up plan of at least two years for students to make up for losses; technical and financial support for teachers and schools to implement the catch-up plan; and a working group involving parents, communities and NGOs in each school to support and carry out the recovery-remediation plan.

The budget statement and the allocations indicated do not suggest the urgency of a major plan for the recovery and relaunch of education. As far as is known, the academies have not proposed specific budget lines for such a plan. They must now adjust their spending plan to support these urgent activities. They should find a way to include and support non-DFO schools in the recovery plan; more than a quarter of primary school students and up to a third of secondary school students (even excluding Qawmi madrasas) attend non-government supported schools. The plight of these children cannot be ignored.

All of this may mean suspending or slowing down some planned activities, such as rolling out a new school curriculum. Educational agencies, including the curriculum and textbook council, NAPE, NAEM, and principals, should focus on implementing a recovery and remedial plan. A successfully implemented recovery plan will lay the foundations for the implementation of the envisaged curriculum reform. It is generally accepted that the ability to implement the program in classrooms has been the problem and will remain the problem.

Beyond the urgency of recovery and relaunch of the system, a longer-term perspective is needed. There is still no national plan for access and completion of secondary education for all young people, an education goal under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The government is committed to providing a “children’s budget” as a tool for managing and controlling public resources to meet the basic survival, growth and development needs of children. No such document was available from the Ministry of Finance.

A one-year budget cannot solve the myriad problems in the education sector. But it can signal the direction of change and the seriousness of the goal if the authorities can decide what to do. The preparatory work has to be done by the education authorities – the two ministries and the three divisions of the education sector. For the children’s budget, the Ministry of Women and Children has a major role to play. It should advocate for larger budgets with credible plans and programs that would address public concerns about the quality, equity and inclusion goals of the education system. This discourse should have continued through an open dialogue with civil society and within the framework of a medium-term education sector development plan discussed and prepared in a participatory manner. Transparency and participatory dialogue have not been hallmarks of budgeting and broader priority setting, but it is never too late to start.

Dr Manzoor Ahmed is Professor Emeritus at the University of Brac, President of the Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN), Vice President of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) and member of the International Advisory Board of the Yidan Education Prize Foundation.

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