A webinar organised by the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) sometime before the placement of the national budget on June 3 focused on allocation for the education system devastated by the ongoing pandemic. Without massive investment, neither the education system can restart nor can it hope for making up for the lost learning. Already 14 months have passed without schooling.
Participants in the webinar have rightly suggested opening schools at different times, not at a time. It came up in the discussion that in places like Kutubdia (coastal town) and Khagrachhari (hilly area), less than one person among each 10,000 has caught the disease. What is paid no attention to, though, is that the villages in this country, except the recent surge in the Indian variant in a few border areas, are free from the pathogen's attack. This argument for opening village schools put forward quite a few times through this column has gone abegging. In villages children play and roam about in company with their peers. So there is no logic for keeping educational institutions closed there.
It is a fact that village students are discriminated against even in normal times because of poor facilities and low quality of teaching staff. Also parents of the majority students in villages are not solvent and educated enough to take proper care of their children's studies. Such a prolonged lay-off will do them the greatest harm of all. Many of the male children will be compelled to supplement family income and others not needed to do the drudgery will spoil themselves passing idle times during their long exclusion from the learning process. It may be worse for girl students as indicated by the rising trend of child marriage.
Only a fortunate few pupils in villages, whose parents can afford digital devices or tuition fees for tutors will be spared total dissociation from education. Even this will lose steam because of the lack of formal recognition of their achievements through evaluation, assessment and awarding of certificates. When cut off from the academic routine, it is difficult to sustain attention to studies.
Here was a real chance of narrowing the teaching gap between students of villages and urban centres. If teachers were wanting in required qualification, university students from rural setting who mostly serve as tutors for students in Dhaka and other cities could be assigned to the task. The time has not run out yet for launching such a programme. A corps or brigade of teachers and tutors from university students (some of whom have completed studies) can be built at the village or union level under each upazila, which in several groups would perform in-person teaching for students ---also in small groups --- of a village at a conveniently open space preferably under trees.
Admittedly, it is most challenging to make up for the learning losses. The webinar has rightly drawn the policymakers' attention to the need for pouring in additional money to the government's usually low education budget. In England the authorities have announced a £720 million package for helping English children to catch up. The teachers' union there has demanded more.
To make up for the lost time, the government there has proposed in-person teaching for students, particularly children moving up to year 7, who need such help most, during the summer vacation. According to the Education Endowment Foundation in Britain, children can make up to four months of academic progress provided highly qualified teachers supervise small groups of students.
There is no need for waiting for school to open in villages in Banglasdesh, this can be started right away with willing university students ---many of those have completed their studies and are looking for employment --- who tutored in urban centres and are now staying in villages. Now the question is if the education ministry is willing to do the ground work and allocate sufficient fund for the purpose. A moderate amount of honorarium would have helped the unemployed tutors a lot.
Four recent UK studies, according to the BBC, suggest that such tutoring is particularly effective for primary pupils to acquire large gains in literacy and numeracy. The arrangement for high-quality tuition for the disadvantaged under a national tutoring programme (NTP) in England reaffirms the commitment for helping the children to catch up fast. In case of Bangladesh, perhaps the secondary and higher secondary students would benefit equally well.
However a developed nation like England's highly advanced education system has attractive digital contents for free distribution among pre-primary, primary and secondary students. Pearson is one such organisation working with such contents. The math and literacy sessions are funny, entertaining and easy to comprehend. Notwithstanding such toolkits, English children lagging behind have been recommended to take one-to-one tutoring.
The foundational learning deficiency for students up to age 7 can harm an entire generation when they grow adult. Had there been well-devised attractive toolkits for young learners in Bangladesh at this stage, they would surely on their own make up substantially for the learning losses during the pandemic. In the absence of such contents and developed digital infrastructure, one-to-one tutoring is even more appropriate for recovering the pandemic-time loss.
A recent study finds that only 2.0 per cent primary students and 3.0 per cent secondary students attended the classes on TV. Students find such lessons unattractive and maybe the uncertainty over opening of educational institutions due to a further spike now and another likely wave of the pandemic in July, as predicted by experts, makes a strong case for such an arrangement for village students. A long lay-off is oppressive and depressing.
No wonder, the British government has also paid enough attention to the psychological and emotional needs of students. The Pearson Clinical assessment is mindful to address this problem by developing resources and distributing some of those free of charge for key special education needs (SEN). It proposes to support teachers, parents/carers and children.
Bangladesh should have made a panel of psychologists and psychiatrists to develop materials in order to encourage growth of positive attitudes among students. Video files on Breath and Body, meditation, physical exercise and engagement in creativity such as painting, recitation, dance, music etc; made and distributed among students could help them get over the boredom and anxiety. Such video files should be prepared in order to stem the young learners' mental depression.