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Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

A friend’s child has gained a place in a top — ranking school in Sydney. Naturally, the parents are overjoyed. They (and the kid) have worked very hard to achieve this — and now there lies ahead of them a serene, sound and successful future. At least so they hope, and they are relieved.

Securing the opportunity to attend a good school and ensuring good education for their children has always been so critical for parents that it gains an extra-high priority in their list of responsibilities. Parents worry and sometimes go through traumatic experiences to find a suitable school for their children. The degree of anxiety varies with the fierceness of the competition faced.

Memories of anxious moments leading up to entrance exams and waiting for the results still horrify me. It started cruelly early; to get to the H.S.C level we had to cross three tense hurdles — to enter primary, secondary and higher secondary schools. I can only imagine a much tougher competition now and I empathise with suffering parents and students, who must be going through more pain and higher anxiety than in our time, to pick up a place in their preferred schools.

Sometimes, however, this can depend on ambition. How good is a school, how much better does an education system has to be (for us to want it for our children)? For some parents, elite private schools have the answers. In addition to well developed and perhaps advanced curricula, reputable private schools enforce discipline and promise a safe pathway to the network of success. But they are expensive and out of the average-income earner’s reach.

Who competes for a place in well-regarded government schools? Parents want the best education they can provide for their children. This aspiration, however typical it is of parents, imposes distinctive ranking even among government schools. The metropolitan middle class would agree that the race to obtain a place in a good school is getting tougher no matter where one lives.

The entrance exams used to accommodate supply and demand is universal and may be a fair method. It is unfair, however, that some students have access to expensive tutoring and training which improve their entrance exam scores. Leaving aside gifted and talented students who would succeed regardless, it is a fact that the more resources and opportunities you can provide for students the better will be their chance of a good educational outcome.

We would love to give everyone a fair chance in education or in life, and even though politicians browbeat voters during election campaigns with “equal opportunity” or “access to education”, it isn’t coming soon.

Besides, elite schools have always been there and they will continue to exist. With their long-established pedagogical excellence they serve a nice market and showcase high achievers. Take Eton College (and there are others – e.g. Harrow) as an example: as well as being an exclusive and esteemed institution of superior reputation, it has a long list of high achievers (you can look it up on Wikipedia), including a sizeable number of British PMs.

Our cities have a number of desirable elite schools. They have produced renowned personalities. Places in these schools are keenly contested, even among well-off and talented students.

Accepting this reality poses a few queries: does schooling at selective elite schools instil a sense of exclusiveness, affecting individuals’ (but specially leaders’) understanding of issues that the mass may be facing? Does access to exclusive and advantaged education add to an already bulging elite class, who perhaps already enjoy unfair advantage and power? And are others resentful? Or do they hold an envious grudge for what they cannot have?

These issues are particularly important since school years are the most formative in a person’s life. Learning, attitudes, beliefs and understanding developed during school years are likely to influence one’s future decision making. It is only normal for students to feel that they are above others after gaining access to exclusive schools.

Notwithstanding visceral scorn for politicians, the delivery of social opportunities is vital. If a society always allows its leaders to be chosen from a subset of privileged people, then it may suffer enduring consequences, as that subgroup acquires the mindset that it has the right to rule and others have a duty to obey.

This is relevant for all countries — developed and developing, established or fledgling democracies — by fostering exclusiveness nations run the risk of being led by politicians/dynasties who are wealthy and privileged. It raises concern about the concentration of power within a small elite group.

That said, it is impossible to create and live in a classless, casteless, race-less society that is without any ‘isms’, prejudice or discrimination. So arguing for one schooling system over the other, in spite of their lasting impact on young peoples’ psyche, is pointless. Moreover, diversity in a society is a strength.

Despite my success at the entrance exam for a private school, my mother chose to send me to a government school. Years later when I questioned her decision, her response was that she did not want me to feel particularly privileged or exclusive (I think the real reason was affordability).

What will I do for my children? There is a possibility that my children could attend private schools (secretly, I too am awestruck by the plush and the promises), if I can afford the fees. And of course, I also want to be exclusive.

P.S. UNESCO’s 2012 Education For All Global Monitoring Report, published in October, has telling statistics for Bangladesh (commentators including bdnews24.com’s Executive Editor Afsan Chowdhury have analysed the findings). A few quotes from the report: “Investing in education and skills is not just important for individuals – to ensure they can escape working in poverty, it is also good business. The Republic of Korea went from being poor to wealthy in just thirty years, partly by upgrading the skills of the whole population and matching skills supply to demand. In 2011-2012 Bangladesh allocated almost two percentage points less than the previous fiscal year, ending at a mere 12.4 % of total budget or approximately 2.2% of GDP for education “.

Initiatives in politics have become utterly transactional as leaders are under pressure to return the favour to the lobby groups/donors who support them, but we remain curious to know what leaders (at home and globally), and specially future leaders stand for? We need them to articulate a vision of the future, which entails something meaningful for national and individual life.

An attractive vision would include something for everyone; it would accommodate materialistic ambition, altruistic mission, upward mobility and safety nets for the disadvantaged. Above all, the best vision would include a plan to invest in education and skills of the people.

Then educational inequity will not be an issue.

Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.