Making Education Attainable for All: Why Bangladesh Needs Low-cost, Private Schools

Special Focus : Quality Education for All: Are Low-Cost Private Schools the Answer?
Access and Inclusion April 28, 2014

In 2012, over two hundred thousand students applied for admission to the prestigious Dhaka University.  Only 6,000 can matriculate, putting Dhaka University’s acceptance rate at under 3%.  One in 37 applicants was accepted (as a point of comparison—Harvard College admits about one in 17 applicants).  In recent years, dozens of private universities have sprung up in Bangladesh, sensing the desperate demand for graduate and post-graduate opportunities.  Unlike public institutions like Dhaka University, which are virtually free of cost, private universities routinely charge USD 1,200 per year, putting them out of reach of many families in a country where the average GDP per capita is USD 750. The competitiveness highlights both the educational aspirations of the rising youth, as well as the inadequacy of the current supply.

Yet most don’t even make it to the point of applying to university. In Bangladesh, the greatest attrition happens at the secondary school level—fewer than half of the nation’s youth enroll.  A full 80% of poor students (those in the bottom 40% of households, by assets) drop out by class nine.  Girls often drop out when they are married—two in three marry before the legal age of 18—and other youth may drop out to pursue income-generating activities.

While these “pull” factors are often emphasized, recently there’s an expanding focus on the “push” factors, namely cost and quality of education. Though school fees are usually reasonable, the expectation is that students will also bear a number of less obvious expenses—most notoriously private coaching or tuition.  A internal survey conducted by BRAC and Pearson surveying over 1,000 households found monthly educational expenses in Dhaka were around $50, and coaching accounted for over half of the cost.  The survey also found that households with a monthly income of $ 193 or less tended to spend $2 on monthly school fees and $33 on tuition ($35 a month), whereas households with an income over $257 spend $6 on school fees and a staggering $141 on private coaching ($147). Despite the high prices, a recent study on competence found that class 5 students tested only marginally better than their out-of-school counterparts.  Many other studies corroborate that while enrollment is high, learning outcomes remain a significant challenge across public and private schools.

I write this to contextualize the discussion on low-cost, private schools in Bangladesh, where over 98% of all secondary schools are privately managed.  There is clear unmet demand (and willingness to pay), great variability in quality, which leads to a high reliance on private coaching, and in many cases, prohibitive costs.  Low-cost, private schools could provide a high quality education, or even just a decent quality education, at a price affordable to lower-income families.  Both would be justified aims, given the current situation.

There is no magic bullet for getting this right, but BRAC has begun some innovative new approaches, including its new chain of Nobo Dhara (“new direction” in Bangla) schools, managed by the BRAC University Institute of Educational Development (IED).  Thirty years ago, BRAC’s primary school model evolved with similar motivations—the idea that for the same amount that the government was spending per children, much more could be taught.  BRAC adapted the national curriculum, introduced new teaching methods, built in constant teacher support and parent engagement, stripped out costs of desks and other furniture (kids sit on the floor), and now routinely matches test scores of government schools.  These schools are free, as is most primary education in Bangladesh.

Secondary school is more complex—the subject matter is more specialized and requires teachers with higher levels of qualifications. There is much less donor funding available, so financial sustainability will be critical for longevity and scale.  IED opened its first secondary schools (called “Second chance for the children of post-primary education, or “SCCOPE”) five years ago, primarily to provide an option to the graduates of BRAC primary schools who either did not matriculate to secondary schools or dropped out. Many BRAC primary school graduates in Dhaka now seek out the 33 SSCOPE schools.  Class is held for just four hours a day, enabling students to work while they study. All students pay a monthly fee of $ 4, and SSCOPE is heavily subsidized by donor funds.

With Bangladesh experiencing a “youth bulge” and growing educational inequity, BRAC decided to develop a self-financing model. This January, two Nobo Dhara schools opened in Dhaka.  Eventually they will include classes 1-12, with an average class size of 30. This year they only enrolled students in classes 1-3, and class 6, with about 100 students per class.  The monthly school fee is $19.  A few students, largely graduates of BRAC primary schools, have received scholarships from the school and pay a subsidized fee. Coaching is not forbidden but is discouraged, and the school management is developing strategies to engage teachers and students in productive after-school activities.  But given the ingrained emphasis on test scores, and normal reliance on coaching, it may take a few rounds of success before parents, students, and teachers accept that good quality schooling is really sufficient.

Accountability and quality of teaching is a priority for the school; the principals, who have former teaching experience, spend a large portion of their time coaching teachers.  IED’s experts are developing curricula that integrate worldwide best teaching practices, and there is significant onsite management and administrative support provided by IED staff. 

Since 1980, Bangladesh has already seen its adult literacy rate increase from 21% to 58%.  Almost all children enroll in primary school. As these students move forward, there is an urgent need to greatly enhance the supply, particularly of high quality options for lower-income families.  In Bangladesh and well as many other countries, low-cost, private schools are an important part of the solution that, if managed appropriately, could drastically increase access to good quality, secondary education.  BRAC looks forward to continuing to improve its Nobo Dhara schools and demonstrating that it’s possible to find a balance between financial sustainability, quality education, and affordable prices.

The author would like to thank Shakil Ahmed, Nashida Ahmed (Both from BRAC University, Institute of Educational Development) and Shazzad Khan (BRAC, Advocacy Programme) for their support in writing this article.