A learning experience

NGOs in Bangladesh have made non-formal education a trailblazing success story by employing ingenious teaching methods tailored to the needs of the underprivileged

Published: Wednesday 30 April 1997

A learning experience


mohammed Zafar Mian passed his senior school certificate (ssc) examination last year and wants to be a banker after finishing his higher studies. The other members of his family are, however, illiterate. Zafar has four brothers and three sisters. Two of his brothers are rickshaw-pullers and his father ekes out a living by selling rice at the local market in Beyutha. "If it were not for the (non-formal) school here, I would be just as illiterate as my brothers. I would have gone astray like the other children," reflects the sixteen-year-old.

Zafar and thousands of other children like him can dare to dream of a better future today thanks to the efforts of the 400-odd ngos working across Bangladesh to bring education to the poor.The efforts started in a modest way in the 1980s when ngos working with the urban and rural poor in Bangladesh began making forays into the long-neglected field of education. Among them were the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (brac) and the Gono Shahajjo Shangstha (gss). With adult illiteracy at an abysmal 58 per cent, the move could not have come sooner.
Joint initiative Faced with the awesome task of educating the nation, in 1990, the ngos involved in major education programmes formed a coalition called the Campaign for Popular Education (campe). The idea was to foster co-operation among the ngo s, the government and the people in developing a mass movement encompassing both formal and non-formal education (nfe) programmes aimed at eradicating illiteracy from the country.

campe appears to be heading in the right direction. Its programmes are providing education to more than three million students across the country. Innovative methods are employed by the ngo s to provide quality education at a low cost and at the same time ensure high rates of attendance, retention and success.

brac was one of the first ngos to start large-scale non-formal primary education (nfpe) programmes in Bangladesh. Set up as a relief agency in 1973, brac began its educational programme in 1985 with 22 experimental schools. Today, it is by far the largest single non-governmental educator with around 34,000 schools and more than 1.2 million pupils.

The gss , formed in 1983, joined the efforts for promoting basic education in mid-1987. Since then, its education programme has expanded to about 250 centres for both rural and urban children. Only 9.4 per cent of households in the slums of Dhaka had schools within their reach. gss, therefore, decided to concentrate its efforts on providing meaningful and enjoyable education to slum children, most of whom work for a livelihood.

Other ngos based in Dhaka like the Centre for Mass Education in Science, the Terre des Hommes Street Children Programme and the Under-Privileged Children's Programme, also have their own nfe programmes targeted at street children, working children and others who cannot attend regular schools.
Innovative measures Soon after the World Conference on Education For All, held at Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, the Bangladesh government passed a Compulsory Education Act. In 1992, it made rural primary education free for girls up to grade eight and launched the Compulsory Primary Education Programme in 68 out of 460 thanas (subdistricts) in the country. A year later, it was made a nationwide programme. A new division called the Primary and Mass Education Division was created under the Prime Minister's secretariat to strengthen the management of non-formal education programmes.

The government has also undertaken several measures like providing a stipend for girl students to combat the problems of low attendance and high dropout rates. It started the satellite schools project in 1992, with the opening of 62 experimental schools. The project was aimed at bringing schools to the doorsteps of learners. Usually, a locality with a very low literacy rate, high population density and a problem of access to schools is chosen to set up a satellite school.

Both the nfpe programmes of the ngos and the satellite school project of the government recruit female teachers from the local community, paying them a modest allowance. The curriculum in each of these schools varies. The brac curriculum originally covered Bengali, mathematics and social science. But, by 1987, it was clear that many of the nfpe school graduates planned to continue in government schools where English is compulsory. The current brac curriculum, spanning grades one to three, therefore, includes English in grade two. The emphasis throughout is on practical health and social issues that are likely to be encountered by a typical brac pupil. Activities like field trips, singing, dancing, drawing and story-telling, are an integral part of the curriculum.

Like brac, gss also follows a child-centred learning approach, which is quite innovative in Bangladesh where the formal primary schools follow a rigid, teacher-centred curriculum. The gss curriculum aims at encouraging children to participate in discussions, draw pictures and become independent readers and writers. Children become independent writers within eight months of joining a gss school.

Participatory approach
To facilitate a close teacher-pupil relationship, both brac and gss use only one teacher to teach all the subjects to the learners and emphasise group activities in their schools. The teacher-student ratio is also kept much lower than the government schools: while the latter have an average ratio of 1:65, brac schools have a ratio of 1:33 and gss schools 1:30. In every class, four groups of eight learners each work on different activities simultaneously. Thus, while one group learns arithmetic, another learns Bengali, the third does creative work and the fourth group is involved in games.

Non-formal education can be effective when it is related to other kinds of social development activities including alleviation of poverty through income generating activities and improvement of health. That is why the ngos are more effective than the government, which has undertaken purely non-formal education. The work of the ngos with the people helps them motivate parents to send their children to schools.

The community plays a crucial role in other ways as well. For the gss schools, the community has to donate land for the school building. Local people are also involved in house-to-house survey of children, which is undertaken before a school is set up. Monthly parent-teacher meetings are also held to ensure interaction between the school and the community.

Further, the education that the children get from the ngo centres can be applied immediately in their income-generating activities. If, for example, there is a fisheries' project or a plantation project in the village, both the parents and the children will be involved in it. The education provided by the ngo centres helps them do their work better. Children help their illiterate parents with reading, writing and calculations. They are also helped by the ngo textbooks, which cover topics such as poultry, fisheries, nutrition and health.

With all their innovations, the ngos have been able to provide cost-effective education to the poor. Independent cost studies have confirmed that brac and gss costs for schooling, about Tk 840 (us $20) per annum per child, are less than that for the government's formal education programme. The ngos hope that the nfe programme will ultimately influence the formal education system.

The gains of the education programmes have been many, but the going has not been easy. There was opposition from many quarters, not the least from parents who did not see the need for educa tion, especially for girls. However, things have changed now as most parents are convinced of the benefits of education.

There are obvious limitations in the present ngo programmes. In most organisations, there are no mid-level staff between the coordinator and the field supervisor. The period of training is also too short to help a teacher internalise the teaching-learning process. Another problem is the lack of resource materials.

A number of small ngos have taken steps to introduce the newer innovative models, such as those of brac and gss, in their schools and to this end have sent their staff to the respective organisations to undergo training. ngos, however, would need sustained cooperation and support from the government to make their efforts a greater success.

A M Sharafuddin is a freelance journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

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