Nobel laureate economist Abhijit Banerjee has said the pandemic has presented an opportunity to reset education provision to ensure that children in the same class are able to cope with the academic demands like the rest of their peers.
"We have seen before [the pandemic] in most countries, for example India and Pakistan, that there are huge differences in students' learning levels in the same class. Some children in Class III have a Class III level, while some are at a Class I level or less," he said during an interview with The Business Standard's Editor Inam Ahmed on Wednesday.
"The pandemic may have exacerbated these differences. Those who had help with their studies at home have progressed, while those without it may have given up," Banerjee said.
His comments come at a time when Bangladesh's education sector is facing perhaps its biggest challenge following one of the longest school closures in the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Banerjee, co-chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), which is working on recommendations for the education sector in the post-pandemic world, said it was time to shift focus from completing syllabuses to ensuring that all children are equally-equipped to learn the same lessons.
"If a Class III student with a Class I learning level is promoted to Class V, it will be impossible for them to learn the syllabus. They can't even read properly; how can you teach them history or general knowledge? If this continues, there will be no hope for the child, and they may opt to drop out," he said.
Backing up Banerjee's assertions is a World Bank report from earlier last month which said 76% of children will not attain the minimum reading proficiency at the end of primary school due to school closures.
And the dropouts are another worry. While there is no concrete number of school dropouts in the country due to the pandemic, many believe the figure to be quite high.
Banerjee thus said the first priority in the post-pandemic world was to identify the education level of each pupil.
A 2020 report by Unicef showed that the highest rates of school dropouts in Bangladesh were observed in the upper secondary education.
But for Banerjee, the major area of concern at the moment is the 13-14 year olds.
"We saw in India, children [13-14 years old] working in shops or bazaars. Asked why they weren't going to school, they said they can't do anything in classrooms, so they wouldn't go. Some of them haven't studied for two years and know they will fail if they return now. Those children need to be encouraged," he said.
He also said there was a real fear of humiliation.
"They fear they may be told that 'you can't say you are 14 and you can't read or write.'"
Banerjee stressed the need to give children the confidence to go back to schools.
"They need to be encouraged and told that schools are open to help them get back to their previous level or even exceed that.
"My personal opinion is that if you tell them you were in Class V and now you will learn Class 7 materials, after not studying and losing the habit of studying, they won't come. This is nothing but a humiliation for them," he said.
So, should they be re-tested?
For this, the economist cited the example of a test taken by an NGO in India. "It takes 5-10 minutes. Once you do the test, you have a broad idea of what level a student is reading at, whether they can recognise numbers and letters, and how good they are at maths.
"After this, you can identify the children who are lagging behind and come up with special arrangements for them. If you don't do that, there's no value in the education being given to them."
He also urged finding a way to bring all the children to the same level, saying that teachers had a crucial role to play in this regard.
"Teachers need to be given that responsibility. For instance, they can be told that for the next three months their main job isn't to finish the syllabus, but to ensure that all the children can read fluently and do basic maths," he said.
Banerjee said for this to happen, there must be a concerted effort from both the authorities and society.
Asked if this had been done anywhere before, he gave the example of a randomised control trial in two districts of Uttar Pradesh. "Using half the school days for teaching the basics, the children progressed to the appropriate level and some exceeded it by two years," he said.
"We need to think anew about how to provide learning opportunities to children," he said, stressing the need for finding each student's weakness and focusing on that.
Banerjee also said the current five hours of schooling would have no value if the children lagging behind weren't empowered to catch up with the rest of their peers. "If the children cannot even understand the syllabus, what's its point?"
A recent Unicef report showed that in low- and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures had left up to 70% of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53% pre-pandemic. Bangladesh has attempted to address this gap and then some.
Late last month, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) developed a strategy which would not only recover learning losses, but also enhance the skills of students in other areas.
Prof Md Moshiuzzaman, member (Curriculum) and acting chairman of NCTB, told The Business Standard at the time that the focus of the new strategy was not only to recover learning losses, but also increase the students' capacity to learn.
Its success is yet to be seen, but the first task at hand is to bring the students back to the classrooms.
On incentivising education to do so, Banerjee said instead of assuming what children want, it needs to be researched further. "Children are given food to attend schools. In India, children are sent food to their homes so parents send them to schools in turn. But maybe that is good for someone who comes from a disadvantaged background. What about others?
"What if they are given opportunities to play? What if they are given a cricket bat or a football? Would that work? We need more research on this."
Ultimately, he said, right now the schooling system's major failure was lack of enthusiasm among children in attending classes and thus the future must be chalked with a different path.
Banerjee also insisted that education needed to be looked at not only for its economic value.
"We are all citizens. It is our right. We must learn, understand and judge," he said, adding that education's benefits were manifold.
"In Ghana, there was a high-school scholarship for girls. Afterwards, there was only a negligible rise in their incomes. But their children grew up to be more educated and healthier, among other benefits," he said.
He said lack of education was one of many reasons for poverty, but it wasn't the only one.
Schools across the globe closed in 2020 following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. At the peak of the crisis, Unesco data showed that over 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries were out of school.
A World Bank report showed that Bangladesh was going to face one of the worst impacts due to the learning losses faced by 37 million children.
"In March, we will mark two years of Covid-19-related disruptions to global education. Quite simply, we are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children's schooling," Robert Jenkins, Unicef chief of education, said at the time.
"While the disruptions to learning must end, just reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children's mental and physical health, social development and nutrition," he added.
The interview was part of a programme of Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), which was co-hosted by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, UNICEF, and the World Bank.