Syedpur, Bangladhesh - "I want to be a teacher when I grow older and help poor and sick people," says Devasmita Sarkar, a lively 10-year-old girl who attends a primary school in northwestern Bangladesh.
Like many children, she is inspired by her time in the classroom and hopes that school will bring her a bright future. But in Bangladesh, despite an impressive 98% enrollment rate for primary schooling, youthful hopes are often dashed by low levels of teacher–pupil interaction, poor teacher training, and high dropout rates.
The Government of Bangladesh and its development partners recognize the need to improve the quality of primary education so that the high enrollment rates are matched by retention and achievement levels. To do this, the government is putting US$1.161 billion into the Second Primary Education Development Program, which began in 2003. The program is supported by 10 bilateral and multilateral development partners, which together provide the remaining US$741.5 million in funding. This international support is coordinated by ADB as the lead agency. ADB is providing US$108.1 million for the initiative, which is cofinanced by nine other international development agencies.
The thrust of the program is to address shortcomings in the system that lead to poor achievement. Levels of literacy and numeracy are often poor, even after 5 years of schooling.
Dropout rates average 12%, and about 25% of students who try for a scholarship fail the qualifying examination. Not so in Devasmita's school. Almost all the students from her school who take the primary scholarship examination manage to get a scholarship.
Many of the poor primary school results are due to the low levels of contact between teachers and pupils, with Bangladesh's double shift schooling system resulting in contact hours that are 30% below the international average. Around 90% of primary schools teach in two shifts, catering for two separate groups of pupils every day, using the same class rooms.
Before the program was introduced, Devasmita's school was the same: the first group of pupils would attend school from early morning until midday, and the second group from early to late afternoon.
"After we changed the two shift system to one shift, students' grades began to improve a lot mainly because we now spend more time on each pupil," said Mirza Johura Akhter, head of the Nayabazar Government Primary School in Syedpur Upazilla under Nilphamari district.
With 24,000 new teachers recruited under the program, more schools are moving to a single shift system. A further 21,000 teachers will be engaged by the end of the program.
The program also seeks to address gender inequalities in the teaching profession, so a majority of the new teachers are women. The goal is to have women fill 60% of all primary school teaching positions.
In Devasmita's school, two new teachers have been added, along with two extra classrooms. Toilets and other facilities have been upgraded and new textbooks and teaching materials have been purchased. Other schools have seen similar improvements.
Equally importantly, intensive training is being provided to about 95,000 teachers, including the new teachers. About 320,000 trained staff, including head teachers, are also undergoing refresher courses.
"What are helping teachers are frequent and constant in-service training programs that improve their basic competencies, particularly literacy and numeracy," said Akhter.
At her school, a trainer visits several times a week to discuss teacher problems and provide guidance on teaching, the preparation of notes, and the use of teaching materials.
The program is also putting major emphasis on improving school completion rates, especially for poor children who are often taken out of school early by parents who see little value in formal school education.
"Because people here are poor, many are not aware of the importance of sending their children to school," said Bhupesh Ranjan Roy, Upazilla Education Officer in Syedpur, who oversees primary schooling in Nilphamari district.
Since it began, attendance at the Nayabazar Government Primary School has increased from 75% to 90%. It has also resulted in parents being more involved in school activities.
Outside the classroom, teachers have been able to find the time to encourage cultural and social activities such as singing, drawing, dancing, and sports.
"We encourage our pupils to get involved in many activities…and even to discuss social issues like air pollution and children's rights," said Akhter, adding that schooling needs to be interesting, going beyond simple textbook learning.
Thanks to the Second Primary Education Development Program, students now receive more attention from their teachers, who are also better trained to teach in ways that makes learning more interesting. Parents, too, are more involved in their children's education. No wonder more and more children are completing school, getting good grades, and winning scholarships.