Bangladesh's educational institutions were closed for the longest period of time in the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts believe that even though students have been promoted to higher classes last year, they did not get the scope of learning that they would have otherwise. The Business Standard spoke with Brac University Professor Emeritus Manzoor Ahmed to understand how students can be supported and guided to make up for this learning loss.
Schools across the country had been closed for around two years during the pandemic. What was the extent of the learning loss?
The extent of learning loss has not been assessed in Bangladesh, specifically. We should have conducted a rapid assessment of all classes at least in terms of basic skills. Educationists have said many times that we have lost two school years due to the pandemic and our children could not learn anything after the schools closed. Remote education did not work well for around 80- 90% of children.
A child who was in class one at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 has now been promoted to class three. But this child did not learn anything in the last two years and is not ready for class three, they lack the competency in reading and writing expected in class three.
Our own observations, (supported by UNESCO and UNICEF studies conducted in some low-income countries,) show that a child, promoted from class one to class three, is not ready for class three lessons. But the government plan appears to be to go on with delivering the lesson for class three following the regular [pre pandemic] syllabus.
An Education Watch study, with data collected last December, from a sample of students from 21 upazilas in eight divisions, shows that when the schools reopened in September last year, the government didn't have a guideline for how the lessons should begin.
Teachers were on their own, some started lessons from chapter one for the class, while some started in the middle. And this was the third quarter of the year. Then in the new school year of 2022, the children got promoted to the next class. And the schools remained closed again in January-February due to the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Teachers went on teaching the lessons unbothered about whether the children learned anything.
There is no doubt that there has been a major learning loss. The UNESCO, World Bank and Unicef published a survey in March and found that a major learning loss has occurred, particularly in low-income countries and for the children of families at lower income levels.
They are recommending that governments take steps to make up for the loss; otherwise, it will spell trouble for the children and the education system will suffer. We are in the same situation.
Now we have to work out a learning recovery and remedial plan. It is necessary and urgent. At least a year should be devoted exclusively to a remedial mode to help children recover their losses. Schooling has now been disrupted for the third year running. We need a two-to-three-year recovery plan before returning to a regular class routine.
What are the strategies we can adopt to make up for the learning loss?
We need a four-point plan. The first thing is a simple and rapid assessment of students in each school on their foundational skills.
What is this assessment? If we consider primary education, we need to see where they stand in Bangla reading and writing, and maths at each grade level. These skills allow them to become self-reliant learners and eventually enable them to follow lessons in other subjects. At the secondary level, the foundational competencies are Bangla, English, Maths and Science.
The rapid assessment will show that everyone will not be at the same level. The second step is to divide students in each class into three to four groups according to their skill level and give them lessons according to their ability. This is the core of the remedial plan which has to continue for most students for a year or longer.
It is worth considering extending the current 2022 school year to June 2023. After a summer vacation in July-August next year, the school year may be shifted permanently to the September-June calendar, which has many advantages, as educationists have pointed out.
The third step is to help teachers. Who will do the job of assessing students, ability grouping and carrying out the remedial lessons? Teachers will have to do it. The government will have to provide teachers with tools to do the rapid assessment and guide them about grouping students, and then conducting the lessons on the foundational skills.
The National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB), National Academy for Primary Education (NAPE), and the National Academy for Educational Management (NAEM) need to devote their attention to these tasks to help the teachers – providing assessment tools and the remedial learning materials, on-line support, and to the extent possible, in-person orientation. The Directorates of primary and secondary education and the Education Boards need to support this effort.
The fourth step is to form working groups comprising education authorities, education NGOs, local government bodies, and school managing committees at each district upazila, union, and school level to help carry out the recovery and remedial plan. Schools will need to provide extra lessons outside the class for many students, will have to employ volunteer para-teachers, and parents and communities need to understand and support the recovery and remedial plan.
Children who have dropped out need to be brought back to school. Local authorities and NGOs have an essential role in all these tasks. Additional resources will have to be provided to schools and the working groups for these activities.
Unfortunately, we do not know if there is a recovery and remedial plan. The government does not seem to have a coordinated plan. If there is a plan, the two education ministries are not sharing what that plan is with the public. It appears that they are concerned about arranging the public exams and going back to the 'normal' routine of teaching the usual syllabus, regardless of whether the students are ready or not.
The education institution of Bangladesh saw the largest period of closure. How could this have been avoided?
There is a debate about whether schools should have been closed for such a long period of time. There could have been different measures for different geographical locations according to the severity of the infection rate. The government's concern was the safety of children and teachers.
What has happened has happened. We were in an unnatural emergency, and learning losses could not have been avoided. The challenge now is to recover from the losses and to be better prepared for any such emergency.
What are the long-term implications of the learning loss?
Many international bodies like UNESCO, Unicef, World Bank and Global Partnership for Education are saying that this two-year-long learning loss can lead to a catastrophe for a generation. If this loss cannot be made up, the students will continue to fall behind at every step in school and eventually in their lives.
Without recovery and remedial steps, in every class, they will lag and it will be cumulative – the higher classes they go to, the greater they will lag. This is how it can be a generational catastrophe.
Look, these children will sit for the examination and they may pass the examination. They will memorise for the tests in their coaching classes and from guidebooks, and somehow, many of them will pass the exam. The government also wants these students to pass. But the problem is that they will not learn.
The problem is not new. This problem existed before the arrival of Covid-19. Many students got GPA-5, but we do not know what skills and knowledge they possess. National Student Assessment results have shown the majority of students cannot read, write and count at a functional level after completing five years of primary education. The problem has become more serious due to learning loss and without a recovery and remedial plan, it will only increase in the coming days.
Our human resources will be without the basic competencies, thus more of them will be unskilled and incompetent. It is a looming danger for an aspiring higher middle-income country. It will have a negative impact on the dream we have of building a prosperous society.
What should be done now? First, the government will have to accept that we are in a great problem - that we have a learning loss and that we have to recover from it. Then we have to develop a plan and go ahead with its implementation. A denial or under-estimating the problem and rushing back to the 'normal' routine will land us in greater trouble.
The government is going for curriculum reform and is trying to pilot it in schools. There was a pre-Covid plan to revise the 2012 curriculum and the preparation had begun in 2019. The government has delayed the piloting due to the pandemic; the piloting has now begun and the goal is to roll the new curriculum out in 2023.
Designing a new curriculum is only the first step of curriculum reform. The test is in implementing it in the classroom. Teachers, schools, and above all, the children have to be ready for it. It can be said that the 2012 curriculum did not work, because it could not be implemented in the classroom.
Our children are affected by learning loss and under stress mentally and emotionally. So are the teachers. All of the capacities of the concerned agencies, such as NCTB, NAPE, NAEM etc. should now be focused on learning loss recovery and remedial measures. Putting the curriculum on the back burner for the time being and helping students recover their losses will place our teachers, schools and the students in a better position for the roll-out of the revised curriculum. Past experiences with curriculum reform and implementation support this proposition.