Bangladesh’s extraordinary development trajectory has established the country as a paragon of neoliberal growth – a remarkable feat for a young nation saddled with high poverty and extreme vulnerability to disasters. This momentum has been supported by major advances with regard to improving education for a more competitive workforce, following a longstanding policy emphasis on increasing access and attainment.

In recent years, the need for qualitative improvements has prompted a shift towards closer scrutiny of educational content and quality. However, the disruptive impact of the covid-19 pandemic has bent policy frameworks askew, both globally and in Bangladesh. School closures have exposed children and youth to massive losses in learning and grave social harms, renewing and intensifying challenges in access, content and quality. The pandemic has also triggered a wider social crisis, evoking deep reflections on the sustainability of neoliberal growth and education’s role in shaping social progress. The insights gained through the pandemic offer new policy directions and fresh impetus towards cohesive education that can support a sustainable future for Bangladesh.

Like in most emerging countries, Bangladesh’s policy approach to formal education has long centred on enhancing accessibility. This focus has led to almost universal enrolment in primary education, gender parity in access and significant rises in secondary and postsecondary school enrolment. Several initiatives have also been taken to remove socioeconomic barriers to accessing education. These include free distribution of textbooks under the national curriculum since 2010 and the production of books in minority ethnic languages since 2017. Bangladesh has also introduced education programmes designed to promote equitable access, including the Ananda School Programme, the Urban Slum Children Education Programme, the Child Domestic Worker Education Programme and the Pre-Vocational Training Programme.

However, alongside massive strides in securing access, worrying levels of knowledge and skills among students have gradually drawn attention. Questions about educational content and quality have therefore risen to prominence in policy discourse. Several national-level learning assessments conducted by the government have revealed weak numeracy and literacy skills among students, with only 25–44% of students in Grades 5–8 having command over Bangla, English and mathematics.

The covid-19 pandemic has brought massive disruptions to education around the globe, and, as reported by UNESCO, the shutdown of educational institutions in 144 countries has affected 1.2 billion learners as of 1 June 2020. In Bangladesh, the closure of educational institutions since 17 March 2020 has resulted in the loss of learning opportunities for 36 million schoolchildren. Such aggravated interruptions can have serious and long-term implications, especially for marginalised children whose foundational literacy and numeracy skills are already compromised.

In addition to the learning setbacks, school closure is also causing impoverished girls, displaced and differently abled children to suffer losses in social protection, health care, nutrition and psychosocial support. Moreover, studies by Manusher Jonno Foundation, UN Women and Plan International point to rising levels of child marriage, child labour and violence against children. This suggests potentially irrecoverable losses in education and irreparable damage to children’s lives.

Bangladesh’s response
Bangladesh has responded to this crisis with a robust set of infrastructural adaptations, involving the engagement of schoolchildren through various distance learning platforms, such as television, internet, mobile phones and radio. Pre-recorded lessons are being offered to primary and secondary students, as well as technical and Madrasah students, through electronic media platforms such as television. All these commendable initiatives can help maintain access to learning and ensure children retain knowledge and skills in the short term. Bangladesh’s decades of experience in providing education in emergencies and hydro-meteorological disasters such as cyclones and floods have facilitated an early response to the pandemic.

This history of adaptivity to disasters is an encouraging precedent in the current turmoil but it is also important to acknowledge that this pandemic is unmatched in both gravity and scale, separate from the usually location-defined nature of previous disasters. Therefore, education policy-makers ought to prepare longer-term policy solutions to the deep level of damage wrought by the pandemic, such as high economic costs and social isolation. The wide digital as well as social divides in Bangladeshi society have reopened socioeconomic and sociocultural gaps, reinstating access to and quality of education as policy priorities.

The covid-19 pandemic’s disastrous consequences for public health have necessitated countrywide shutdowns of educational institutions and social distancing measures that have severely constrained efforts to safeguard children. The virus has also demonstrated its potency as a vector of social discord, launching an ongoing assault on some of the fundamental precepts of social morality in Bangladeshi society.

Pandemic-induced setbacks
Bangladesh Peace Observatory has documented incidents of abandonment by family members and/or colleagues associated with covid-19 infection, harassment/assault and forced eviction resulting from social stigma around infection, as well as social stigma towards medical professionals and refusal to bury. Such incidents strike at the core of social values, including family unity, comity between neighbours, compassion towards the sick, respect towards caregivers and honour for the deceased. This trend thus exposes the moral decay in core social institutions. It also runs the risk of obliterating social harmony in the middle of this overarching ethos of social isolation. Children are generally highly perceptive as well as susceptible to social cues from a very early age, which may leave lasting impacts.

The scale of the pandemic has also revealed the pervasiveness of social inequalities: according to the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling, Bangladesh’s poverty rate is likely to rise from 20.5% to 40.9%. Even with the economy reopening since 1 June, experts at the Economic Development Research Organization have predicted that the pandemic may cause 16.5 million people to fall below the poverty line, of whom 5 million may descend into extreme poverty.

Entrenched societal gender biases have also exposed women and girls to increased gendered harms and violence, as various studies affirm, including by Manusher Jonno Foundation. Furthermore, the crisis has deepened existing fissures in Bangladeshi society. Disinformation and hate speech are on the rise and minority groups are being subjected to increased marginalisation and discrimination, as indicated by findings from UNDP’s Rumour and Intolerance Monitor.

The covid-19 crisis points to unmistakable insights into the ways in which social tensions sap relationships and colour politics. It also, however, hints at ways for Bangladesh to reenergise and build on the social strengths that are central features of national identity. Social cohesion education can address the unsustainable social conditions that threaten collective wellbeing and exacerbate social tensions. Such education can ground the values that bind society across group divides, upholding pluralism, equality and justice. This gives education a key role in fostering social cohesion.

As the widening ruptures in the social fabric become clearer during this crisis, the covid-19 moment also holds the promise of a more resilient and sustainable future. Variously dubbed as a potential “great reset” and an opportunity to “build back better,” the crisis offers a decisive break from unsustainable practices and a chance to collectively rethink the terms of social progress. For social cohesion education in Bangladesh, the opportunity is twofold: the impetus for reconstructing unsustainable social structures pairs with the forthcoming curriculum review in 2022. Together, these are uniquely enabling conditions for rebuilding education as a pillar of social cohesion.

Addressing existing ruptures
Education can fulfil this role by inculcating cohesive values among children through, for instance, educational materials like textbooks. This is integral to the social purposes of education, which go beyond building a competitive workforce. In addition to the economic purpose of developing students to improve individual and collective living standards, education has important humanistic, civic and social justice purposes that advance nation-building. Thus, looking to the future, an especially promising path is education reform that builds on explicit, Bangladesh-anchored approaches to citizenship curricula that draw on Bangladeshi cultures of interreligious appreciation and harmony alongside a historic commitment to balance and mutual respect among communities.

An important starting point in conceptualising such reforms can be found in studies on social cohesion within Bangladesh’s education system. A 2019 review by the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue at Georgetown University, US, analysed National Curriculum and Textbook Board textbooks based on social cohesion criteria. It identified important areas where textbook reforms could support the central goal of promoting social cohesion and, less positively, address social tensions that the covid-19 crisis has accentuated. The study examined 22 textbooks selected from the 2019 national curriculum, covering the subjects of language/literature, social science and religion, across Grades 3, 5 and 7.

The language textbooks revealed an emphasis on the majoritarian ethos – that is, the Muslim–Bengali experience. They tend to obscure the ethnic and cultural diversity of Bangladeshi society and there is an exclusive focus on an Islamic worldview. Hence, there is limited scope for learning to appreciate diverse cultures and religions.

The social studies textbooks miss opportunities to advance central social cohesion objectives. They portray minority ethnic groups as peripheral to Bangladesh’s historical narratives and social life.

The religious textbooks, each focusing solely on one of the four major religions in Bangladesh, proclaim the superiority of the faith tradition in focus. Some content is explicitly or implicitly derogatory towards certain religions. Moral teachings in these textbooks derive only from particular religions and lack common, unifying themes.

Across the different subjects and grades, biased gender norms appear recurrently, interspersed by some instances of gender tokenism. Similarly, social inequality is recognised at various junctions in the texts but is not developed as part of a social justice narrative. Thus, the present composition of textbooks reveals a potential to exacerbate social tensions – but thereby also presents scope for improvement from a social cohesion perspective.

The reform agenda
The pandemic threatens to deepen social ruptures by exacerbating existing fault lines among groups and communities. On the other hand, the ensuing upheaval has produced unprecedented momentum to reshape the agenda for social progress. Therefore, policy-makers have both the opportunity and the challenge of taking proactive steps to tackle the sustainable transformation of the education sector. Our research findings point to several steps that could ensure that the education system enhances social cohesion in Bangladesh, strengthening collective resilience to crises such as the current pandemic. Observations from both textual analysis and subsequent policy engagement activities on this issue include the following:
1. The immediate adverse social impact of the pandemic can be addressed through deliberate teachings that reinforce critical social values through the technological platforms being used for education during the pandemic. Religious sources, interfaith approaches and both faith-based and secular morality can be drawn upon in producing such teaching materials.
2. The upcoming curriculum review in 2022 should foreground a more explicit focus on social values in the curriculum. As a priority, humanistic virtues should be framed in universal terms, both to address the pandemic’s impact and to develop a broader moral narrative around social crises.
3. The 2022 curriculum review offers the opportunity to revise textbooks through a consistent lens of socially cohesion. Mandatory education on cohesive values should be included, along with nuanced reflections on social tensions in Bangladesh. Textbooks can provide opportunities for interfaith and intercultural learning.
4. Building on and beyond ongoing efforts to expand digital access to education, the forthcoming curriculum review could introduce pedagogical changes to limit unequal losses in learning caused by the digital divide. Textbooks could thus include more content for self-directed learning and assessment, developing independent thinking and self-evaluation skills.
5. New training programmes for teachers and textbook writers can focus on raising the quality of cohesive education. Recruitment policies can also be aligned with social cohesion objectives. The teachers’ guide to be produced in 2021 based on the new curriculum can offer an early start on improving teaching for social cohesion outcomes.
6. Effective partnerships between schools and other social institutions should be encouraged with an explicit view to augmenting social cohesion. This can include, for instance, supporting youth organisations that serve progressive social goals and facilitating youth engagement in social platforms for dialogue and positive action.
7. In budget adjustments necessitated by the covid-19 emergency, programmes for minorities and disadvantaged children should receive priority.
8. The government should consider supplementary support to teachers from minority backgrounds and those involved in multilingual education.

End remarks
The importance of innovative and lasting policy solutions to covid-19 pandemic’s impacts on Bangladesh’s education sector must be reiterated. This will require first and foremost a nuanced, evidence-based appreciation of the current strengths and weaknesses of the education system. Current policies and practices are still premised on “normal” conditions, but these are critically challenged in this unprecedented time. While the pandemic’s devastating impacts put at risk some of the achievements of the education sector, the disruption also offers opportunities for policy-makers and other stakeholders to reflect on how education, as a public good, can contribute meaningfully to the making of a cohesive and pluralistic Bangladeshi society.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Aisha Binte Abdur Rob is a research associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), BRAC University, Bangladesh. She is a social science researcher. She is currently engaged in a research collaboration between CPJ and the World Faiths Development Dialogue of Georgetown University, US. She pursued her graduate studies at the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University, UK.
Sudipta Roy is a research associate at the World Faiths Development Dialogue located at Georgetown University. He is a sociologist. His research focuses on religious and cultural dimensions of risk praxis and socio-cultural policies. He is a Fulbright Fellow. He has received the Mellon Innovating International Research grant, an American Institute of Bangladesh Studies fellowship and the Santosh Jain Memorial award. He pursued his doctoral studies in education policy at Indiana University Bloomington, USA.