Such measures would entail a whole lot of things – policy, teachers’ training, government action and so on. Does the GEEAP report have specific pointers or guidelines in this regard? How could all this be implemented?

It has the general idea of what I have been saying. About Bangladesh, I can say from our experience of working on these kinds of things in India for 20 years now, what really matters is how it is implemented. The teachers by themselves are not going to necessarily step out of the system. The message needs to come from top down. They need to be trained.

One thing is that it is not actually that hard to test kids. The NGO Pratham in India has these tests which they use and which do a pretty reliable job of diagnosing which kids are really not in grade level. It takes 5 or 10 minutes. In 10 minutes you can tell if a child can only read haltingly or can only recognise letters. And then you don’t assume he is in Class 5. You assume he is in Class 1.

The second thing what makes me optimistic (if the government is going to put its weight behind it) is that older children learn faster. It turns out that a fifth grade student who is not at that grade level, but is given instruction and help, will catch up faster than a second grader who has a gap. The fifth grader has the maturity to learn quite fast. It is matter of focusing on that and implementing it.

We did a study in UP India where we find that 50 days of focused teaching for a half a day does more than a year of catching up. So it is not impossible to do it. It just needs the commitment to do it. Right now, suspend the syllabus. We don’t care about learning geography or about China or whatever. We need to learn how to read, we need math, we need fluency and then we pick up from there, focusing attention on a specific set of instructions which are set down not ambiguously, but unambiguously to the teachers, saying that is your job now. I think that is achievable.

Online classes were an alternative, but naturally in a country like Bangladesh only a privileged percentage could avail that during the pandemic, thus accentuating the already existing inequities in education. Can we take away any lessons from this pandemic period where we can address these inequities? The rich-poor divide in education only serves to widen the divide in society as a whole. Can education, if fixed, make a tangible difference?

All the evidence is that it can make a difference. People estimated that the impact of a year of an additional education is 7 or 10 per cent. That means your lifetime earnings every year is higher by 7 per cent or 10 per cent. This is an enormous number and means an additional year of actually delivered education. The problem is that in the education system, the teachers pretend to deliver, the students pretend to learn, but it doesn’t actually happen.

We learned many lessons from the pandemic. One thing is about some version of online education supplement of what is taught in school has the potential of being egalitarian. This is quite an old idea. There was radio teaching in Nicaragua in the late 70s in math. There was an impact evaluation of that by the World Bank that showed there were major gains in learning just from exposure to the radio. It doesn’t have to be hi-tech. It can be radio, it can be text messages.

Most people in Bangladesh have phones, not smartphones, but they can get text messages. Radio is easily available, very cheap technology. Using radio, using TV, using all the other things – text messages, whatever you can. It doesn’t have to be smartphones or laptops or tablets. The evidence of tablets is more mixed that you would imagine. There are evaluations -- one laptop per child, they don’t find that much. I don’t think one should make assumptions. We should be open-minded about what technology means. It doesn’t have to mean laptops. It could be radio.

During the pandemic, some of the countries, Cote d’Ivoire and many countries in West Africa produced 250 different lessons on radio. They focused on radio. There is diversity of experiments and you should try to figure out what is feasible, what can reach the largest number of people. Those are useful supplements. When they come home from school, they can still learn from a radio. Those are useful they can be learned from radio or TV. This is much more likely to reach a lot of people because a lot of families have them.

I think maybe the one lesson I would take away from the pandemic is that there is actually scope for doing many things, not using just the conventional education system with school being the centre. School is important partly for socialisation. It’s very important for kids to be with other kids, education is important and all of those things. But for children falling behind, could there be radio classes, could there be TV classes and would this actually help them catch up? Could there be text messages with little puzzles in them coming to their parents or their elder brother or someone? All of these things might work. One of the things we insist in this report is that we need to be open-minded and to experiment and evaluate the experiments and not start with the premise that it has to be this technology or that way of doing things. It is neither -- let’s do everything one way or only traditional schooling. Rather we should be experimental.

The extended school closure has affected the girl child in Bangladesh. School closure, economic hardships and the prevailing uncertainties have increased child marriage rates manifold. Can you share your thoughts on education for the girl child, something of which Bangladesh had been so proud given the high enrollment rates?

I guess at this point I am mostly saying that reopening schools and making them attractive are the questions to be addressed. Take the children who have already got married and try to bring them back to the school. We should not give up on them. It would be criminal to give up on them. So priority has to be given to persuading the community to act and bring them back to school. If you are now 14 and you have not been in school since you were 12, and you feel like you have lost all connection to it, it’s going to take some effort to convince you that school is going to be rewarding for you. So part of what I was saying before, is making education at the level of the child. That also addresses this issue. You can be a 14-year-old, you stopped learning at 12 and now let’s say you got married and just have no connection to the education system for two years. At this point, what would it take to make education actually accessible to you? It is not that you can just switch back to where you were. Something else has to be done, whatever that this.

So can you help us see some light at the end of the tunnel in this rather bleak situation?

I think there is light. I can’t give it to you, but if there is commitment, there is light. The commitment has to come from the policy makers.

Thank you Prof Banerjee.

Thank you. It was my pleasure.

*The Bangla version of this interview will appear in the Prothom Alo print edition on Sunday.

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