Bangladesh has had tremendous success in attaining its education goals. Policy interventions such as public–private partnerships and subsidy programmes have been the driving forces behind this. According to the intergovernmental body World Bank, net primary enrolment in 2015 was nearly universal, at 98%, compared with 80% in 2000. Secondary school enrolment had increased to 54% in 2015 from 45% in 2000. Meanwhile, socioeconomic disparities have reduced sharply between the highest and the lowest economic classes at both primary and secondary levels. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has achieved what many developing countries have struggled to achieve: it has reached near gender parity. 

Such gains have undoubtedly allowed Bangladesh to accumulate human capital. They have made it possible to create pathways out of poverty through numeracy, literacy and skills. As part of the country’s grand vision, they are supporting Bangladesh to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. However, as the country marches towards its next major target, of becoming a middle-income level country, its education system needs to set new priorities. These should build on Bangladesh’s human capital creation agenda. The new agenda should focus on developing capabilities, with education services seen as the greater common good.

An approach to education that inculcates ‘capabilities’ will incentivise Bangladeshi citizens to become better jobseekers. They will be more employable, will seek more appropriate technical skills and will make better use of information. More importantly, this approach will instil knowledge and communications methods among people that enable them to better explore their life choices. In short, there must be a more comprehensive approach to education. 

According to the book Hunger and Public Action by economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, a capabilities-oriented approach will diversify the role of education. Such an approach means broadening the overall mindset, allowing citizens to choose freely and pursue less familiar lifepaths than their preceding generations. Zooming out, this approach will foster diversity of views to promote tolerance among people. It will enhance social cohesion and deconstruct inhibiting norms in society. 

Values in education 

Foregrounding social cohesion in education is a challenging task for a developing country like Bangladesh. Research on social cohesion and development by Michael Woolcock in 2001 (‘The Place of Social Capital in Understanding Social and Economic Outcomes’) suggests that unsustainable conditions like social marginalisation and social injustice will threaten the welfare of any economy. Hence, to foster social sustainability, a society needs to address the imbalances of power and wealth within itself. Values like human rights, gender equality and appreciation for diversity need to be assured through education. 

Bangladeshi policy stakeholders need to ponder a number of questions when thinking how to push education forward.

Bangladeshi policy stakeholders need to ponder a number of questions when thinking how to push education forward. Are the values mentioned above adequate in Bangladeshi society? How better to strategise? How to implement the strategies? What more is required to get all stakeholders, including policy-makers, practitioners and academics, onboard?  

Education in Bangladesh 

To understand Bangladesh’s education system, it is important first to understand the country’s characteristics. Bangladesh is a developing nation, largely homogenous and also a Muslim-majority country. It was born imbued with certain ideals of tolerance, justice and equality. The nation’s history has, however, seen political vicissitudes that have hindered the ideal formulation of justice and equality among its citizens. The country’s economic growth has ushered in new pathways for individuals to flourish but individual prosperity has not always transformed into collective wellbeing. Bangladesh has secular laws that should ensure equal respect and dignity for all its citizens. 

Against the backdrop of this legal apparatus, Bangladesh’s education apparatus must instil the ingredients for a cohesive society. There is good news here. The education landscape presents some good examples of enhancing human capital for poverty alleviation, to which both the government and civil society have contributed. The World Bank’s signature 2017 Global Findex Database reveals that Bangladesh has effectively nurtured grassroots initiatives that foreground inclusivity, catalysing growth in the economy. To build on these gains, emphasis needs to be placed on both the conceptual and the practical levels. What does this mean? 

If Bangladesh is to discuss social cohesion in education, it will need to infuse different values and products within its education sector.

Conceptually, there needs to be clearer broad-based definition of human capital for the Bangladeshi context. This will make it possible to harness a capabilities-oriented understanding of education. Practically, particular strategies and tools need to be deployed in the education process through training and capacity-building. 

If Bangladesh is to discuss social cohesion in education, it will need to infuse different values and products within its education sector. But what is the existing landscape?

Streams of education

Up to secondary level, Bangladesh has three streams of education, split into five sub-streams, running concurrently. These are: 

  • The government-facilitated national curriculum stream, which runs in English and Bengali mediums;
  • The Islamic faith-based ‘madrasa’ stream, which has the sub-streams of the government-regulated ‘Aliya’ board and the independent ‘Qawmi’ and ‘Hifz’ boards; 
  • The independent English medium stream, which follows UK, US, Canadian, Australian and other international curricula. 

In Bangladesh, different streams of educational institutions have emerged with particular histories and purposes. Enrolment in these institutions manifests in different classes within society, with each type of institution obtaining pupils from its sphere of reach. The class selection and characteristics of each type of institution turn the students into different types of citizens. This poses challenges regarding lifegoal outcomes and also deepens the fractures in the social cohesion process. 

Gaps in streams 

Bangladesh’s English medium schools, with Western-imported curricula, provide a worldview that does not necessarily engage with local issues. 

…is Qawmi madrasa education addressing the practicalities of life and livelihoods in today’s Bangladesh?

Meanwhile, the country’s faith-based madrasa stream, notably the Qawmi variant, specialises in religious and theological education. It is the education provider to a large number of devout Muslim citizens. A valid question relates to whether such schools, which aim to be the religious guardians of the country, can do so as enlightened Muslim institutions in a changing Bangladesh and world. Are they able to fit with and answer to the current fast-changing socioeconomic dynamics and scientific innovations? To put it differently, is Qawmi madrasa education addressing the practicalities of life and livelihoods in today’s Bangladesh? 

A group of young students during their daily lessons at a faith-based Islamic school, a Qawmi madrasa, Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 2018 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

To answer this question, reflection from the faith-based madrasa world is needed. Moreover, a dialogue between all stakeholders is needed to ensure that effective education can come out of the Qawmi madrasa stream. 

At the same time, Bangladesh’s government-facilitated national education stream has its own set of challenges. Its prime objective has long been to be relevant to the local context. And yet it has come under pressure to open up and to ensure that local knowledge is reflective of global realities. It also needs to ensure that education enhances critical thinking. In other words, forward-looking Bangladeshi citizens must also be able to see themselves as citizens of a larger world. 

Thus, each education stream in Bangladesh has its strengths and weaknesses. The task at hand is to allow the strengths to speak to the weaknesses. A path of conversation here will allow everyone to learn together. 

Curricular intervention

The first order of business in Bangladesh is to reform education through smartly designed curricular interventions. Such interventions must ensure appropriate representation of a diversity of nations, cultures and genders. For the English medium curricula, systematic research here is scant. However, research shows that there are notable shortcomings in both the national and the madrasa curricula in this regard. 

A 2020 collaborative research study, published by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, has some noteworthy insights into the madrasa stream in Bangladesh. For example, the madrasa stream falls short in its depictions of women, failing to portray women’s lives in a way that fits with 21st century realities. In addition, cultures from around the world are depicted using an Islamised lens on history. 

It is important to note, however, that all education streams in Bangladesh are to reflect diversity, inclusion and citizenship. In 2019, Bangladesh embarked on a painstaking journey to reform textbooks within the national curriculum. The reform strategy benchmarked goals against representations of diversity informed by humanities and social science. The reformed textbooks are to have broad representation of women. They must also incorporate a diversity of cultures from within Bangladesh and around the world. The reform curriculum is being designed so that all religious and ethnic communities are represented. It promises to ensure a scientific, technology-friendly, humanistic, compassionate and tolerant worldview. In other words, it aims to inculcate the spirit of Bangladesh’s founding values. 

Beyond the curriculum 

Education sector reform goes beyond curricular amendments. Teachers represent another core element of the system. Teachers must understand the value of the content because they will be the ones imparting it. Teaching and learning guidelines should be well defined, with clear objectives and outcomes. These guidelines should be accompanied by pedagogical tools to ensure that different kinds of outcomes can be achieved. To transmit values of social cohesion, learning has to be experiential and engender inquisitiveness. 

Bangladesh’s reform approach should be incremental. Learning by doing, seeing and experiencing will gradually reduce the dependency on conventional book-based rote learning and traditional assessments. Each stream can prioritise learning that is grounded, experiential and civically engaged. Only then will the education process link the knowledge of self to community needs. It will also highlight the value of empathy.

For Bangladesh, now is the right time to intervene through experiential-civic learning models in different streams of education.

International good practice shows that students develop a deep sense of community embeddedness, engaged citizenship and voluntarism through experiential forms of learning. Studies such as Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed show that there is more citizen engagement with the public space and good when education institutions adopt guided initiatives of learning. For Bangladesh, now is the right time to intervene through experiential-civic learning models in different streams of education. With more such interventions, Bangladesh can quickly enrich all of its education streams. 

The design of these cohesive civic learning interventions needs to occur within a liberal arts-driven approach to education. The sciences—social and otherwise—must play a role in curricular design and in formulating tools of teaching and learning. Emphasising cohesion requires imagination, to make it possible to integrate Bangladesh’s history with current-day needs, present the complexities of life in a humanistic manner and mould an informed citizenry. Bangladesh’s education policy aspires to enable both imagination and the integration of knowledge. It also envisions a rightful place for minorities and marginalised communities along with the creation of a skill-set to uphold their dignity.   

Invest in tomorrow

As Bangladesh looks towards the next few busy decades of progress, education reform will be more complex than just increasing access. The major question will be, what is being deployed as the education product? How will teachers and learners engage with one another to live in pluralistic ways? If learner-centric, humanistic education is to guide the way for Bangladesh, this will require a reorientation of institutions. More importantly, it will require breaking of the existing hierarchies surrounding policy-makers, administrators, teachers and students. 

For better students, invest in tomorrow. This will entail teachers seeing themselves as facilitators, and not the ultimate vessels of all knowledge. Education will have to be seen as a socialising force, one that bridges students, teachers and the community. The task on the shoulders of Bangladesh is to delve into its history, to learn from the values of its sages, saints, philosophers and community builders. What indigenous examples are there of interreligious harmony and interethnic cooperation?


Cover photo ©️ Emdad Bitu 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu 

Dipu Moni
Dipu Moni is the Education Minister of Bangladesh. She is a doctor and a politician. She is also a Member of Parliament of Bangladesh. She was the first female minister of foreign affairs in Bangladesh and South Asia. She headed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights in the Bangladesh Parliament. She pursued her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, USA.
Samia Huq
Samia Huq is professor and Dean of General Education at BRAC University. She is an anthropologist. She is a research fellow at Centre for Peace and leads its collaborative project with World Faiths Development Dialogue at Georgetown University. Her research areas include secularism, radicalization, religious revival, social movements, gender issues and democracy. She pursued her doctoral studies in anthropology from Brandeis University.