Some of the recommendations included in Bangladesh's education policy
— which was formulated in 2010 but has not yet been legally enforced — pose daunting challenges for church-run institutes and could end up seeing some shuttered, Catholic educators say. The decision to extend children's primary education from grade 5 to grade 8, and make secondary education cover grade 9 to grade 12, threatens to squeeze them financially while creating massive infrastructural headaches, they say. "Upgrading schools requires money, infrastructure and extra teachers, which is why the order to implement the rules has been followed at quite a slow pace so far," said Holy Cross Father Hemanto Pius Rozario, the principal of Catholic-run Notre Dame College in Dhaka. The priest said some of the nation's Catholic schools have added classes for children in grades 6-8, but no colleges that teach grade 11 and grade 12 have added classes for the two preceding academic years. "There is no real education law, so for some time now we haven't suffered any pressure due to not having implemented the policy. But this could become a serious headache for us in the future," Father Rozario noted.
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Christians represent a tiny minority in Bangladesh, where they account for less than half a percent or roughly 600,000 people in this Muslim-majority nation of 160 million. Most are Catholics. Yet they have received high praise from Muslims in various sectors of society for their vital contributions in the fields of education, health care and socio-economic development in past decades. A number of church-run schools and colleges regularly rank among the top educational institutes nationwide
in terms of academic excellence, extra-curricular activities, and discipline. The church runs one university, 12 colleges, 579 secondary and primary schools, and 13 vocational training institutes in the country, according to the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board (BCEB), which falls under the auspices of the Catholic Bishops in Bangladesh. Altogether, they are responsible for teaching nearly 100,000 pupils a year, mostly Muslims. Meanwhile, the Catholic charity Caritas runs about 1,000 pre-primary schools for the poorest and most disadvantaged families. It receives funding from the European Union. Guests and teachers release balloons during the first Alumni Gathering at the church-run Notre Dame College (NDC) in Dhaka on March 2. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com) Progressive policy
A state-sponsored commission formulated the national education policy eight years ago after significant research, discussions and feedback from stakeholders. This came two years after the 2008 national election, which saw a 14-party Grand Alliance led by the Awami League (AL) win a landslide victory. Prior to being elected, the AL, one of the nation's two major parties, had made reforming the education sector a cornerstone of its electoral manifesto. The policy embodies, at least on paper, a series of progressively minded pledges and reformations that align with the country's secular constitution, which promotes liberalism, harmony and inclusiveness, analysts say. The policy, the sixth of its kind to be introduced since 1974, is still considered one of the best, most practical and most progressive policies the country has seen, and the AL stuck with it when it was reelected in 2014
. The recommendations included the aforementioned overhaul of the sector from pre-primary to higher education levels, and greater regulation of the education system observed at Islamic schools, known as madrasas. It called for primary education to be made compulsory from grade 5 to grade 8 and requested that a common curriculum be drawn up for students of those ages, while making core subjects like English and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) mandatory. The guidelines state that more creative and nationalistic subjects should be introduced to dilute the dominance of rote learning, instill a greater sense of patriotism at an earlier age, and promote knowledge of the country's history. It also suggested radical changes to the way students are evaluated and tested to focus more on their creative capabilities than their power of memory while also highlighting the importance of better teacher training. Church educators have decried the recent boom in private tutoring
, which they say disadvantages students from poorer families who deserve a better basic education. State meddling
Another bone of contention for church-run schools is whether to adopt a state-funded scheme to pay teacher's wages that has been used in government-run and private schools since 1985. According to the policy, the government would appoint teachers and award them certain benefits under a system known as the Monthly Pay Order (MPO). But church elders have balked at this. "Under the MPO system, teachers could effectively double their salary," said Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of the BCEB. "But it also means the government would interfere in the management of the institute, including the formation of its governing body and the appointment of teachers. "So the dilemma we face is, do we accept it to keep our teachers happy and sacrifice our independence, or just flat out refuse it," he told ucanews.com. Many church institutes say they are already struggling to attract well-qualified teachers, especially those in rural areas. Gomes said some have raised their salaries above what a government school would offer and added more long-term benefits like a provident fund. Others are forging links with Catholic Cooperatives to ease their financial burden. "The problem with raising teachers' salaries is we can't charge students over a certain amount for their tuition fees," Gomes said. The policy also mandates that a head teacher must have at least 12 years' teaching experience and possess a bachelor's degree in education. "Admittedly we have a shortage of priests and other religious figures who would qualify for that, even though there is no question about their ability or performance," Gomes added. "The church and various religious orders have always given high priority to ensuring those members who run such academic institutes are highly skilled, academically, so they are run properly." Alfred Ronjit Mondol, the head teacher of St. Joseph's High School in Khulna City, which has about 1,800 students and 37 teachers, said two teachers recently left for better salaries elsewhere due to funding shortages. Fighting over enrollment
The government introduced an online enrolment system for institutes of higher secondary education in 2012 based on the grade point average (GPA) students obtain after grade 10. This effectively did away with entrance exams and meant that, provided the student's grades were good enough in previous years, all they had to do be enrolled was pay the entry fees. The government said the old entry system paved the way for widespread corruption
. Wealthy or well-connected parents were allegedly able to book placements for their children by paying bribes amid rampant competition for the best schools. However, three church-run colleges in Dhaka — Notre Dame, Holy Cross, and St. Joseph's Higher Secondary — that are among the most coveted schools in the country refused to accept the system, billing it unfair. They claimed the new enrolment process deprives students of the right to prove their "true merit" through a proper assessment and admission test. Finally, the three colleges filed a petition with the High Court seeking permission to ignore the system and the verdict allowed them to continue following their own admission process. Father Rozario told ucanews.com this remains a source of tension with the government but as of now the colleges are still protected by the court's ruling. He said there is still a lack of understanding about the mission of Catholic schools insofar as what they aim to achieve. "Our education is based on values and ideals, to help students to become good human beings," he said. "We aim to enlighten both their minds and their hearts." "Many outsiders, including government officials, find it hard to believe that we provide this service benevolently and devoid of profiteering," he added. Backdoor lobbying
Church officials say they have been lobbying the government and contacting the Vatican for years in a bid to reach a compromise on these issues. "When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited the Vatican earlier this year she was asked to intervene and help find a resolution," Gomes said. The church has since sent a 10-point proposal to the Education Ministry for consideration, he said, adding Hasina was instrumental in relaying this. "The government recognizes the great contributions church institutes have made, so we expect a positive response," Gomes said. "Maybe this won't solve all of our problems but we hope it gives us enough breathing room to keep offering our services and good work here in the future."