School Choice in Bangladesh
University of Sussex, Institute of Development Studies
affiliation not provided to SSRN
This report presents findings from a study of School Choice in Bangladesh, conducted in four districts of Bangladesh in 2008. The objective of the study was to analyse household choices around basic education by exploring conditions of school supply; preferences and aspirations around education; and schooling decisions and experiences, including the economic, social and political outcomes from education. The research was designed to take into account the impacts of gender, poverty, economic opportunity, religiosity, and human security as factors likely to affect decisions around educational investment.
Background: the changing demand for education in Bangladesh
The motivation for the School Choice in Bangladesh study was to inform education policy in a context in which the demand for schooling has been changing: enrolment in registered and official schools at primary declined in the first half of the 2000s, while at secondary level, expansion stagnated. Boys‟ enrolments in the official system declined most, and they appear to have been moving to different – and new - types of institution. Declining quality in the official system at primary is likely to squeeze out two groups: the poorest, for whom the low returns from poor quality education mean investment in school may not be worthwhile, and the rich, who can afford better education, should it be available. Fewer poor boys move to NGO schools than girls, and it has been suggested that madrassahs of a range of types are likely to have been absorbing these groups in this changing context. The potential political implications, such as the possibility of rising Islamic militancy among a cohort of young men from poor backgrounds, have directed attention to the question of how school choice is changing.
Global debates on School Choice
The study is situated within global debates about school choice. These have been ideological debates focused on the impact of wider choice in creating market-like conditions of consumer choice in developed countries. Evidence on the impact of school choice has been inconclusive in terms of impacts on student achievement and school quality, and a case against policies of widening school choice includes evidence that wider school choice can increase inequality. In the Bangladesh context, the school choice framework helps to frame analysis of important education policy issues, including: Diversification and expansion of education service provision Accountability and governance in education services Perceptions of quality in education provision, and Equity in provision and outcomes.
Methods and approach
The study adopted a comparative case study methodology, involving four contrasting communities. Large-scale nationally representative survey data was not used, and the approach focused on enabling an in-depth understanding of household decision-making processes around education. The strategy adopted was multi-disciplinary, multi-method and multi-level, approaching the issues at individual, household, community, school and regional levels. National data was used to understand the overall context of school provision. Based on this four villages in four distinctly different districts were selected to represent characteristics of a) extreme poverty; b) high insecurity, including environmental insecurity; c); economic opportunity and high growth; and d) above average religiosity. Research instruments were developed, pre-tested, piloted and finalised to study individual, household, community, regional and school characteristics in each.
The findings support national data in illustrating that school supply has expanded and diversified rapidly. After the phase of expansion of registered and government schools in the 1990s, a second expansionary phase started in the 2000s, when NGO and kindergarten schools, new hybrid schools and a range of types of madrassah emerged. The vast majority of students remain within the general stream registered institutions at primary and secondary, but a significant minority attend religious schools, and a smaller group, mainly the rich and the poor, attend other types of school.
The diversity and magnitude of school supply varied widely by area in the present sample, suggesting supply is likely to vary across the country. The distance between home and school emerged as the most important influence over school choice. The issue of distance contains within it concerns about children‟s security; the extent of these concerns vary widely by area, and are most acute for adolescent girls. Sexual harassment and even the abduction and rape of one schoolgirl were reported, signalling the significance of security in shaping school choice.
The study findings do not support the view that wider school choice raises quality, for two reasons. First, common indicators of quality do not suggest that newer entrants into education service provision are of higher quality than existing actors: established schools remain better-endowed in terms of teacher qualifications and physical facilities. Second, schools in areas with more diverse school supply do not appear to perform better on standard attainment indicators than those in areas with fewer schools. However, standard indicators of quality may not necessarily closely reflect the features of schools that people take into account when selecting an institution. The lack of meaningful indicators appears to be most important with respect to measuring governance, management and parental participation in schools. The quantitative and qualitative evidence are somewhat contradictory: on paper, registered and government schools are better governed and managed. Qualitative evidence suggests, by contrast, that parents may experience more accountability and participation in the newer types of schools, such as KG schools or madrassahs.
Qualitative findings also suggest wider school choice may have led to some competition and improved performance in a few contexts, as well as evidence that wider choice may lead to increasing socioeconomic differentiation within education, as richer households withdraw from schools attended mainly by the poor. These findings are primarily qualitative insights, however, and more needs to be understood about how competition between schools takes place in practice, and at national trends in the educational choices of the middle classes. Evidence of widening education inequality gains some support from the wide variations found in spending on school.
Preferences and aspirations
The study found significant normative change with respect to education. This included that a basic minimum of education was deemed necessary even among the poor. Livelihood and economic opportunities were important determinants of the strength of this norm and the level of education it implied as minimally necessary; this meant, again, that area effects were strong. There was also support for the idea of equivalence in investments in children by gender: up to primary, at least, there was very little evidence of gender differentiation in preferences and norms around education. Gender difference emerged at secondary, but more noticeably in the poorest areas, where early marriage and large dowry payments remained a crucial feature of household investment strategies around gender. Where international migration was a common livelihood option, the level of education deemed necessary for boys was that which was adequate to gain entry into that labour market; by contrast girls‟ education was seen in some contexts as enhancing marriage prospects. Madrassah and/or Arabic education were seen as particularly important for girls.
The desire for social status is an important factor shaping school preferences, and the social status considerations of local reference groups appears to have a significant impact on aspirations, again highlighting the importance of area effects. The widening of school choice appears to have been driven in part by demand among affluent and elite groups to mark distinctions between themselves and poorer households enrolling in government primary schools.
Parents appear to closely scrutinise and possess standards for teaching quality against which they judge school performance; although capacities to assess school performance varied, few seemed to entirely uninformed or apathetic about the quality of schools. Yet parents seem to lack opportunities or mechanisms through which to exact better performance when teaching quality falls short.
The apparent growth in preference for religious schooling appears to reflect a) the growth in supply of madrassah institutions of a wide range and type in recent years, many benefiting from private donations; b) change in official recognition and status of graduates of registered aliya madrassahs, now officially equivalent to general stream qualifications; c) the growth of demand for madrassah teachers accompanying the growth of the madrassah sub-sector itself; d) the impact of migration to the Middle East, which appears to increase demand for religious education; e) views on madrassah education as a source of religious blessings and social respect; and f) practical perspectives on aliya madrassahs usefully combining provision of religious with general education in a single site.
Schooling choices and outcomes
The educational opportunities of the present generation are considerably wider and deeper than was the case for their parents. They are more likely to enrol and to stay in school and to attend a wider range of types of school, particularly at primary, than their parents. However, over two-thirds in our sample still attend government primary schools, highlighting the significant limits to choice in practice. No significant gender differences could be identified in schooling choices - in itself a significant finding.
Nor could any particular patterns with respect to type of school chosen could be identified by poverty level; however, this is likely to reflect the sampling strategy and small sample size more than any real difference. Area effects appear to be strong, most notably in the levels of education households aspired to for their children.
School Choice in Bangladesh
Findings on the socioeconomic outcomes of schooling choice decisions were inconclusive, largely because the wider school choice available to households is relatively recent and the effects have yet to be fully played out in the labour market. One finding of note was that most men who were no longer in education reported their occupation as self-employment rather than agricultural activity, reflecting the growth of rural off-farm and non-farm economic activity. The level rather than type of education attained was the key determinant of women‟s labour force participation. Expectations of the level of education to be attained varied mainly by area, supporting the argument that area effects are strong influences of educational decisions, independent of poverty levels.
The study also explored outcomes in terms of socio-political attitudes of students emerging from madrassah compared to general stream schools. The findings are suggestive rather than definitive, of emergent attitudinal differences. These included an overall strong preference for democratically elected leadership, which seemed to be compatible with acceptance of other forms of rule (e.g. by experts or the military), but also a widely shared concern that democracy leads to raised levels of corruption. More significant differences emerged around citizen rights, in particular women‟s freedom to work, in which the views of madrassah students, particularly boys, were at distinct odds with those of general stream students, particularly girls.
The School Choice in Bangladesh study has documented social changes being brought about by changing attitudes and preferences, policies and market forces in basic education in four communities in Bangladesh. Given the homogeneity and centralisation of the basic education sector, other communities are likely to be experiencing many of the processes of change discussed here.
One finding with implications beyond the issue of school choice was that ease of access, incorporating parental concerns about the time, security, cost and effort involved in travelling distances to schools, remained a key consideration in education decision-making. A second finding was that accountability and participation are features of schools that parents consider in education decisions, but conventional indicators do not capture dimensions that parents appear to value.
With respect to school choice specifically, key conclusions to be considered with respect to policy development include that:
1. Wider choice may not lead to significant gains in terms of quality. This is partly because cost and access continue to limit effective choice. But it also reflects the challenges of improving accountability to parents, which may not be overcome simply by the existence of alternative schools.
2. Differences of quality appear to reflect differences of governance and management more than tangible indicators of physical facilities or teacher qualifications. This highlights the need for more meaningful indicators of governance and management, which accurately capture the dimensions of school performance valued by parents.
3. Middle class exit from the public system is a serious concern. The implications of middle class flight includes a likely further deterioration of quality as pressures on teachers from educated parents are removed; over the longer term, it is possible to anticipate a declining political priority for public education policy and financing.
4. A fuller understanding of the diversity and complexity of the religious education sub-sectors and the phenomenon of the apparently growing preference for religious education requires further empirical work and analysis. The experience of this study is that such work should be feasible.
5. Evaluating and understanding religious education choices may take into account recent evidence from CAMPE (2008) and others which suggests investments in and returns from madrassah education may be low. However, the choice of religious education may be a form of social progress for poor households who had gained no formal education previously.
6. Public policy needs to gain a greater understanding of the significance of the growth of private education, particularly at primary, with respect to critical issues of equity, financing and quality.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 96working papers series
Date posted: March 25, 2012
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