Are We Doing Enough to Bring Back Dropout Students?

Raju – a sixth-grader student from the Moghbazar area, stopped going to school in 2021 after the end of the second lockdown in March. Though his family was financially crashed amidst the pandemic, they were eager to send their child to school. Yet, Raju joined a nearby hotel as a waiter and later became a laborer in a workshop. He may never return to school as a year already passed since he left school. Likewise, the pandemic resulting in the subsequent prolonged school closure has escalated a sharp rise in the school dropout rate in the country. Even before the pandemic set in, Bangladesh was struggling with a high dropout rate across primary and secondary education levels.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS) data, the dropout rate is the highest in secondary education (37.6%). Corresponding figures for primary and upper secondary levels are 34.8% and 19.6% respectively. The dropout rates further spiked due to the pandemic. The steady increase in the number of school dropouts has plunged Bangladesh back into a number of societal issues, namely child marriage and child labour. A survey by Save the Children International has revealed that almost 10 million children across the globe may never come back to school premises once the ongoing pandemic ends. It has also depicted that children in 12 countries are at a high risk of school dropout evermore whereas 28 countries are at moderate or high risk of dropout, and Bangladesh is listed among those.

During school closures, the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (MoPME) and the Ministry of Education (MoE), worked with stakeholders to provide a range of opportunities for the continuity of learning to reach as many learners as possible. Many initiatives are on the move from the government, to keep the students on track. Bangladesh government started telecasting high school level classes through “Shangshad Television” which is normally dedicated to telecasting the national assembly. However, it is estimated that more than 23 million households do not have access to TV whereas TV is a popular recreation medium for households and has become a source of education nowadays.

More than 200 classes in math, Bangla, English, and social science were broadcasted by radio for primary educational levels. These lessons, in line with the National Curriculum, were developed with the association of UNESCO. They started broadcasting in August 2020 through the state-run Bangladesh Betar and 16 community radio stations. Although household ownership of radio is low, less than 1% throughout the country, over 90% of households have access to mobile phones which can play radio programs. Lessons were uploaded onto various online platforms, such as YouTube, Google Classroom and Zoom so that students could watch and re-watch them in their feasible time. More than 75,000 online classes were delivered using social media and education portals. Many teachers, with the support of A2i, took the initiative to record lessons themselves and post them on social media platforms, setting up Facebook pages for these lessons at division, district, and sub-district levels.

Edu Hub was set up which gathered 25,000 pieces of content from all over Bangladesh, which was made accessible to teachers and students with the appropriate devices and facilities. In addition, the government has plans to develop a national mobile education platform through IVR (Interactive Voice Response) with toll-free calls. The process is underway to make it live for students. This technology can be accessed from non-smart phones as well, which means that it could potentially reach 95% of households with a device, including the 14 million children who receive stipend payments through their mobiles.

These initiatives potentially opened up opportunities for increased numbers of learners; although in households where there is only one mobile phone, access for students is likely to be limited. The National Response and Recovery Plan, developed by the Government, and strongly supported by UNICEF, outlines the areas that need addressing when schools reopen, to ensure that all children, including the most marginalized, return to school as soon as possible.

Despite all the initiatives by the government to reduce the dropout and continue the teaching and learning practices, some students like Raju still dropped out of school. In this regard, some interventions might be helpful for out-of-the-school children and students who are at risk of dropout.

Firstly, for impoverished students, a special incentive can be provided to prevent them from joining the workforce for money. The selection process for this incentive must be rational and limited to deserving candidates. A big no to child marriage and strict enforcement of law regarding this is a very timely need to prevent female students from dropout. Female students should also be granted a special stipend that may encourage them to join the school. Existing laws and policies regarding children i.e., child labor must be implemented. School infrastructures must be gender sensitive and inclusive for all. The capacity of the teachers can be enhanced by sufficient training along with preparing a flexible curriculum. Various interventions that were launched earlier, such as, the Mid-day meal can be re-launched after a thorough evaluation. Parents-teacher association should also be activated systematically. In the case of already dropped out students, vocational training can be provided which will be accessible for all. Last but not the least, these existing interventions should be scaled up through education based research to cope with the changes of the current world.

South Asian Institute for Social Transformation (SAIST), a research institute is currently working on such activity, titled “Effectiveness and Scalability of Programs for Children who are Out of School and At Risk of Dropping Out in Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh”, in consortium with the School of Arts, Kathmandu University in Nepal, and Paro College of Education, Royal University of Bhutan with the support of GPE KIX and International Development Research Center (IDRC). During this 31 months long project, SAIST is working towards addressing the scopes of scalability in the school based interventions to prevent dropouts and at risk of dropouts in the selected urban slums adjacent government primary and secondary schools of Dhaka City, Bangladesh.

However, in all these steps from government and other non-government organizations, community coordination is a must. Else, the question still remains- are we doing enough?

Landscape of Urban Research in Dhaka city

With a large population and few natural resources, a developing country like Bangladesh already faces many challenges. Since 1950, Dhaka has expanded from a small town to a massive metropolis with a 33.1% urbanization rate. The city currently has 16 million inhabitants as per latest statistics of BBS, and it is anticipated that, by 2035, there will be 31.2 million people living there.

Dhaka has started to experience a number of problems due to its expanding population and uneven urbanization, such as a high concentration of urban poverty, traffic jams, inadequate waste management, water logging, and inadequate public spaces. In the same way that it has produced several issues, it has also given rise to a variety of opportunities for urban studies.

The provision of healthcare facilities, sanitation and hygiene, food security and nutrition, maternal, neonatal, and child nutrition, as well as the prevention of non-communicable illnesses and newly emerging and reemerging infections, are all under crisis in the urban health sector. Only roughly 3.06 doctors are present per 10,000 inhabitants, which is a very low proportion. Lack of equitable and high-quality educational access, a dearth of technical education, and high educational costs are the long-term issues of Dhaka's education system. Effective and equitable education service delivery is nevertheless hampered by urban poverty and spatially uneven service distribution. Five million children are not in school, largely because of poverty. Not only Dhaka, but all cities in the country, are afflicted by issues such as a lack of economic dynamism, governance failure, severe infrastructure and service shortages, insufficient land administration, vast slums, and social upheaval.

As a result, the urban research sector must address social issues, sustainability challenges, the provision of inclusive services, and gender-responsive urban services. Government organizations, national research institutions, INGOs, NGOs, public and private universities, and donor organizations all work on various urban problems in an effort to develop sustainable policies and, as a result, find solutions to these issues. Bangladesh also needs to increase the scope of its urban studies to contribute in the creation of sustainable cities.

Scaling Science for Education and Necessity of Scalability: The Case of Meena Cartoon

Scaling refers to the expansion or improvement of a program by the use of innovative and practical techniques. With the passage of time and changes in national and global context new challenges arise. In order to face these challenges, it is essential for practitioners and professionals e.g. researchers, students, evaluators, and policymakers to adopt new and innovative approaches; scaling is one of such strategies. A question that might arise is “why scaling science is necessary for education?” Meena cartoon, for instance, created by a team of UNICEF in early 1990s, is a popular educational TV program where the importance of primary education for all, why girls should be enrolled on schools, etc. issues were shown.

It helped in many ways ensuring primary education for all along with many other learnings for children. Now that the goal of universal primary education has been achieved, several new problems have arisen in the education sectors which need proper attention. For instance, the magnitude of drop-out students is still very high in the South Asian region. So the creators of Meena Cartoon can consider to modify their contents or prepare new ones with advanced technologies. These contents can introduce the programs which the government is offering for the out-of-school and at-risk dropping out students, such as after-school programs, non-formal education programs, enrolment campaigns, financial support to families, programs for disabled children etc. Nowadays, almost every household has access to a television and there is a good chance that it will be helpful for the dropout students and students who are out of school. So, scaling science for education is crucial to come up with innovative ideas that can help to build effective educational initiatives. As we do not need every school and every teacher to ‘reinvent the wheel’, all we need to do is to scale up the locally effective education innovations that already exist. Scalability in the education sector can also ensure effective learning and a wide range of robust, replicable outcomes.

Understanding the urgency of scaling up the current educational interventions, South Asian Institute for Social Transformation (SAIST) with the support of GPE KIX and IDRC (International Development Research Center), is focusing on teachers’ ICT based skill development in the study areas to make the in-class lessons more enjoyable and effective for the students. SAIST is also focusing on different pedagogical interventions that will induce fun learning for the students.

Child marriage as a precondition to school dropout in Bangladesh

The highest rates of child marriage among girls in South Asia were seen in Bangladesh and Nepal. Both Nepal and Bangladesh have a direct connection between secondary school completion and child marriage when it comes to educational achievement according to a UNICEF report in 2019. The report indicates that efforts to prevent child marriage have advanced more rapidly over the past ten years, particularly in South Asia, but they are still moving far more slowly than is necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ending child marriage by 2030. Many research on education and child marriage repeatedly demonstrates that having more education is generally linked to later marriage and childbirth across a variety of circumstances. A report by Human Rights Watch shows that in Bangladesh, women with primary, secondary, and higher education were, respectively, 24 percent, 72 percent, and 94 percent less likely to marry at a young age than women with no formal education supports the association between lack of or poor education and child marriage.

A study found that programs and policies for education should prioritize keeping girls in school until the ages of 13 or 14, when they may be switching from primary to secondary schooling and are most at danger of child marriage.

In Bangladesh, parents worry that keeping their girls in school would make it harder for them to find suitable spouses and that education and marriage were seen as a trade-off for their daughters. Several underlying issues, such as poverty, gender norms, and others, have an effect on this process.

Preventing child marriage requires co-ordination of multiple stakeholders along with government in taking various initiatives and scaling up existing education system to prevent the dropouts. Creation of readily available digital marriage records across the country as evidence of marriage. At the primary and secondary levels, free education must be guaranteed. All students must get a uniform education, and the required measures should be made to identify the problems and implement the right corrective measures.

“Okkhor Hok Shakti” (Let letters be the strength): A workshop conducted by SAIST to reduce the reading and writing gaps for children

Due to its comprehensive nature, teaching constantly needs consistency from every angle. The Covid-19 induced lockdown, which has been in effect since March 2020, has hampered the learning process for children. For almost a year, teachers and students were unable to attend classes in person. Another factor is that during this time, many female students were married off due to the lengthy school closure. Parents were uncertain whether or not the schools will reopen. As a result, many male students were forced to work in order to support their families in crisis.

Following the Covid-19 lockdown, teachers faced a lot of difficulties providing the children with proper education. Students have almost completely lost how to accurately read and write. Students found it difficult to adapt to the new syllabus and study materials upon returning to school due to a long study break. This caused a considerable gap in education which has been addressed by the government and other stakeholders in many ways. Still, such learning loss and gap affect children many of the children are struggling to return to school. Some of the students might still attend school despite the adversities but are on the verge of dropping out due to many pressures.

Keeping this in mind, SAIST organized a teacher’s training program with students in the Dhaka Uddan area, Mohammadpur, Dhaka to reduce the learning gap in reading and writing capacities. A day-long workshop addressing the reading and writing capacities which were named “Okkhor Hok Shakti” (Let letters be the strength) took place on 24 May 2022. 30 students and teachers joined the workshop. “Knowledge mobilization in the Dhaka Uddan area was engaging and productive”, said the participants.