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Bangladesh has a remarkable primary education enrolment rate – 97.97%, but 18.85% of students drop out before completion. Drop-out rates are even higher in urban informal settlements, hard-to-reach areas, such as haor (wetlands) and char (riverine islands). BRAC is seeing significant improvements in drop-out rates through the implementation of its Bridge Schools initiative – specially-designed, accelerated programmes to bridge learning gaps and support children to complete primary education
Kanakchapa was studying in class 2 in a remote haor (wetland) region of Sunamganj, Bangladesh, when her mother died. Kanakchapa’s father had to juggle working as a day labourer and raising six children. Though Kanakchapa was still at an age where she required someone to look after her, she became a full-time guardian for her younger siblings. Eventually, she dropped out of school, while her father and elder brother worked to provide for the family.
“I used to look out the window and see my friends going to school. I wanted to go back to school, but I had to help my family. I did not have a choice but to drop out”, says Kanakchapa.
Giving children a second chance
Bridge Schools work with children living in marginalised situations who have dropped out of the formal-school system between classes 2 and 4. The model was first piloted by BRAC in Bangladesh in 2013, with 39 schools, and has rapidly expanded since, now engaging 59,433 students through 2,100 school sites. Closing the gender gap is a strong focus – girls who traditionally have less access to education – comprise more than half of the total student population. The schools are free for everyone and all necessary learning materials are provided. After completion, students sit Bangladesh’s Primary Education Completion Examination (PECE). Pass rates are impressive – 99.83% of students passed in the first cohort in 2016, and consequent years have borne similar results. To date, 30,428 students have graduated.
How are students identified?
Areas with the highest drop-out rates are identified through education reports published by the Government of Bangladesh, data collected from various organisations and internal insights. Staff then work with Upazila and Thana education offices to prioritise particularly vulnerable areas. Finally, field staff work with local leaders and people from the community to carry out door-to-door surveys. Based on a combination of all this information, Bridge School locations are decided.
The challenge starts in convincing parents to send students to school. After students drop out, they get used to a different life – one without a commitment to schooling. Days spent at home allow children to support parents with household chores, home-based businesses or farming, to take up responsibilities in cases of illness of aging family members, or like Kanakchapa to look after younger siblings while one, or both parents work.
Programme staff slowly build rapport with parents, motivating them by explaining the importance of education and reminding them that, while it may be easier to have their child at home now, education can greatly expand their future opportunities.
Completing primary education in 36-40 months
Each cohort in a Bridge School is composed of approximately 25-30 students between the ages of 8-12. To assess readiness, students sit for an aptitude test. Those who are assessed as having a competency level of class 1, start learning at the level of class 2, and those who are assessed at a competency level of class 2, enter at the level of class 3. This motivates the children to restart their education and capitalise on their earlier investment in learning.
Students in class 2 require 40 months to complete the primary education cycle and pupils in class 3 require 36 months. All students start with a four-month bridge course, which addresses learning gaps and refreshes basic knowledge from prior schooling. After the bridge course, student performance is reassessed to confirm progress. Schools then follow a syllabus based on the national curriculum and competencies. Workbooks and lessons are customised to accommodate the intense class schedule. Teachers receive intensive training, including pre-service and in-service courses. In-service training takes place initially one day per month, but the duration can change for higher class levels, depending on the need. Special training in Mathematics and English are provided at class 4 and 5 levels.
As in all of BRAC’s non-formal primary schools, Bridge Schools follow the ‘one teacher, one classroom’ modality, meaning all students in a cohort learn together. School timings are flexible and decided by the community, teachers are recruited locally and all classes include at least one child with a disability. Joyful learning is emphasised, through extracurricular activities and projects that encourage teamwork. Continuous formative assessment and a teacher’s one-on-one attention ensure children achieve desirable learning outcomes.
Alternative approaches to learning in times of crisis
Schools in Bangladesh have been closed since March 2020, so BRAC students, including those in Bridge Schools, have switched to home-based learning. However, they lack access to smart devices and the internet. To ensure they are not left behind, classes are delivered through feature phones, with teachers dividing the cohort into small groups of 3-4 students and connecting them through a conference call twice a week. In addition to regular lessons, teachers focus on psychosocial counselling and wellbeing, health and safety, and hygiene. The lessons are supported by learning through community radio and television. The goal is to ensure children are supported and their interest in learning continues, until conventional schooling resumes.
Remember Kanakchapa from Sunamgonj?
Although Kanakchapa is currently learning through phone classes from home due to the pandemic, her education is back on track through a Bridge School. She says:
“When Halima Apa approached my father to admit me into school again, I was so happy. When he finally agreed, I was even happier! I will complete primary school and continue my secondary education.”
Halima is Kanakchapa’s teacher. It was not easy for Halima to bring Kanakchapa back to school. She visited Kanakchapa’s home several times, met her father and spent hours speaking with him about his daughter’s education. Since Kanakchapa’s elder siblings had to work, Halima sat with the neighbours to figure out a solution. The neighbours were supportive and agreed to keep an eye on Kanakchapa’s siblings while Kanakchapa went to school.
All over Bangladesh, teachers like Halima are giving children like Kanakchapa a second chance at education through Bridge Schools. The model is ideal for any community with a high number of students who drop out at a young age. The BRAC Bridge Schools Programme for Out of School Childen in Bangladesh is an initiative implemented in partnership with Educate A Child, a global programme of the Education Above All Foundation.
Fahad Bin Touhid is communication portfolio lead for BRAC Education Programme.
BRAC started working in education in 1985. Its high quality, affordable, scalable schooling model has made it the world’s largest provider of private secular education. Its holistic approach to lifelong learning, addressing educational needs from early childhood to higher academic levels supported over 15 million students across five countries to graduate to date.