The first in a two-part blog series on Let Us Learn programme site visits in Bangladesh in February 2020.
According to the most recent census, around half of the population in Bangladesh’s Sunamganj District lives below the poverty line. Monsoon flooding in the district perennially cuts villages off from one another and makes access to schools difficult. We drive past bustling markets and vast stretches of rice fields, arriving in a sparsely populated village on the banks of the Shurma river. Welcomed by members of the community, we take off our shoes to pay a visit to a new community pre-primary education center established by Let Us Learn in partnership with Dhaka Ahsania Mission.
Community-based pre-schools are a critical way to expand early child education in this region, where only 30% of children attend a government pre-primary programme. In the community we are visiting, the nearest government school with a pre-school is 2 kilometers away, too far for young children to walk, especially during monsoon season, when the rising river is a major risk factor considering that most children do not know how to swim. While the river rose high last year, it did not overflow, and the school we are visiting was able to stay open the whole season. With support from Let Us Learn, community members here contributed their own land, resources, and water and sanitation facilities to establish and maintain the pre-school so that young children can learn closer to home. This community joins a group of 150 Let Us Learn-supported communities which established such centers in late 2018, serving 4,500 children who completed pre-school in 2019 and another 4,500 children (52.5% girls) who enrolled in pre-primary in these centers for the current school year.
From Sunday to Thursday, 5-year old children in this community attend class for 2.5 hours each day at the center. Classes follow a daily learning structure using the government curriculum of one year pre-primary education; the government provides the centers with the same teaching and learning materials used in government schools. The room has four corners for learning that the children can freely choose to access during a part of the class day. These corners include reading and drawing, block and movement, creative imagination, and sand and water. One facilitator is responsible for instructing the children; she shares that she initially received 15 days of training on pedagogy for her role and participates in both monthly and annual refresher trainings.
the nationwide percentage of children on track in early literacy and numeracy skills was close to 50% amongst those who had attended early childhood education and only 20% for children who had not
Because the center is close to their homes, parents are able to bring and pick up their children each day. Even with a nearby center, flooding during the monsoon season can still create challenges for children’s access, so UNICEF and Dhaka Ahsania Mission have helped the communities develop disaster risk reduction plans. Without this center, parents describe, the pre-primary aged children in the community “would all be out of school.”
There is an abundance of evidence showing that children who attend pre-primary education score higher on a School Readiness Index (see for example UNICEF, 2016) and tend to have better learning outcomes once they are in primary school. In Bangladesh in 2019, the nationwide percentage of children on track in early literacy and numeracy skills was close to 50% amongst those who had attended early childhood education and only 20% for children who had not (Figure 1). At this center, we learn that all children from the previous pre-primary cohort have mainstreamed into primary school – an amazing result!
“So how do you track whether the children are learning?” we asked the pre-primary facilitator. Children’s learning progress, per the government curriculum, is assessed every 3 months across 15 indicators with grades A to C. Children who score a C receive special support; they are paired with a high-performing student, a technique for which there is evidence of positive results.
In the context of COVID-19, with all schools and Let Us Learn centers being closed, the likelihood of enrolling in primary education for these children may be further jeopardized. During the pandemic closures, facilitators are continuing to engage the children and their parents with learning through 10-minute phone check-ins every two days. UNICEF is also currently working on a 3-month package so that these children can be prepared for primary school and to mitigate the risks that those children might not enroll in primary education.
Cirenia Chavez is a education research consultant with UNICEF Innocenti and Annika Rigole is a research monitoring and evaluation specialist with the education section in UNICEF’s headquarters Programme Division.