Three upsetting news items

Young childrenSoyel Rana

Three pieces of news have upset me.

1. Around 41 per cent of the country’s population aged between 5 and 24 remained outside formal education last year. They were not students at that time, that is the year 2023, in any educational institution. The number of children and youth who were outside the ambit of education, was over 26.2 million (2 crore 62 lakh).

The Bangladesh Sample Vital Statistics of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) was published on Sunday.

You may say that not everyone needs to study up till 24 years. Secondary and higher secondary education is enough for many. The matter of concern is that in 2020 the rate of dropouts in this age group as 1.71, but this grew to 9.36 last year. That means we have fallen back around 6 times our 2020 achievement.

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2. Almost half the students of Class 3 cannot properly read all the letters of the alphabet and words. And 40 per cent of the Class 4 students can’t read common words. Large numbers of students struggle with reading. Around 76 per cent of Class 3 students and 70 per cent of Class 4 students cannot read Bangladesh properly. These figures appeared in a study run by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).

3. In a matter of 4 years, the number of students in the secondary schools of the country has fallen by over 1 million (10 lakh). Many of them have gone on to vocational institutes, madrasas and English medium schools, but that number won’t exceed 400,000. That means the decrease is around 600,000 in the secondary level.

According to official records, 97.97 per cent of the children in Bangladesh enroll in school. And 2 per cent do not. Then around 13 per cent drop out. We have improved in this area, but the dropout rate is alarming. One in eight children cannot complete primary education. That is shocking! This is worrisome from the quantitative angle. What about the qualitative angle! Seven out of 10 children in Class 3 or 4 cannot read properly – this is a harsh eye opener!

According to the BBS survey, there are 39,964,005 (3 crore 99 lakh 64 thousand and five) children of the 5 to 17 year age bracket. Of this, the number of working children is 3,536,927 (35 lakh 36 thousand 927). And the number of child workers from 5 to 13 years of age is 1,776,097 (17 lakh 76 thousand 97), that is, 4.4 per cent of the total number of children.

These figures deflate our pride. How will it be possible to eliminate child labour by 2025 and bring the number of child workers to zero?

A documentary series on Netflix, ‘Tales by Light’ is utterly disturbing. The first part of the series begins with the plight of children in Bangladesh. Dhaka children are working in a balloon factory. They work in factories making aluminium lights, glass. They are bare handed, making utensils on a hot spinning wheel. They are rummaging in the city garbage dumps, collecting plastic bottle and such. It is not possible to sleep after watching this Netflix series.

Child workers are labouring in our homes. They hang behind the precarious vehicles like ‘tempos’. You will find children working in clothing stores during Eid, being used to scramble up to the cramped two foot high space above the ceiling to bring down items stocked there. At the book fair there are children selling flowers. A child was selling peanuts at the Dhanmondi Lake. I asked him why he was selling nuts. He said, he earns 300 taka a day selling nuts. Will he be able to earn 300 taka a day if he passes his SSC?

Are your not pained by the figures that appear in these reports about Bangladesh’s studies and children? Do you not feel like calling out, give importance to the education sector, increase investment, step up monitoring, increase efficiency, bring an end to corruption and incompetence? Eradiate lack of planning, failure to implement plans. If you increase investment in the education sector, that will return in multiple dividends. We will not have to send workers to work in the scorching heat of the Middle East deserts. We will be able to send skilled managers and professionals overseas. And those working in the country, will do so with advanced skills. As it is, physical labour will be phased out from this world and all work will be done by robots and AI. The people who lose to the machines, will not be able to control the machines. Yet we have kept 3 million children engaged in labour. And 26,200,000 (2 crore 62 lakh) persons drop out from educational institutions before they are 24 years old!

Incentive must be provided to bring children to school. There must be stipends for the children. There must be midday meals for all. Midday meals lead to a significant increase in student attendance and absence goes down to nil

I call upon the policymakers:

1. Ensure that all children of the country go to school. Disabled children, children in remote areas, must not be left out.

2. Ensure that all children complete their secondary school education.

3. School children must learn. If a student learns how to read and write, how to do math, learns how to speak well and use the computer, the smartphone, then he or she can use their own potential to establish themselves, to contribute to the country, to civilisation. If a Class 3 or 4 child can’t read, we must realise we are stuck in pitch darkness. We need standard education.

4. There must be an adequate number of teachers. They must be recruited properly. There must be no corruption. They must receive their salaries and allowances properly. They must be qualified and trained.

5. The schools must be well equipped and decorated. From computers to the washroom, everything must be in top shape.

6. Incentive must be provided to bring children to school. There must be stipends for the children. There must be midday meals for all. Midday meals lead to a significant increase in student attendance and absence goes down to nil, we see in a Prothom Alo report.

7. Child labour must be brought down to zero.

In the case of education, exert all efforts to primary and secondary education. All children up till the secondary level must be brought under the ambit of education so that after 10 years they well b able to emerge educated in standard education.      

* Anisul Hoque is managing editor of Prothom Alo and a writer

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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