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OP-ED: Should we offer more autonomy to schools?

  • Published at 08:03 pm May 29th, 2021
classroom education school

How we can restore and revamp the post-Covid education system

After more than a year of schools being shuttered, just when schools were preparing to welcome students back, the second wave of Covid-19 has unfortunately paused the reopening process. 

The Bangladesh government has done a commendable job in increasing the rate of enrolment in primary education, but school closures are putting a dent in those years of remarkable improvements. The school closures are also aggravating many aspects of student well-being including mental health, nutrition, child marriage, and more. School reopening will be challenging. To best understand what support schools need to reopen we must listen to the community and find localized solutions to mitigate the challenges.

Around 16 million students are enrolled in primary schools in Bangladesh, and approximately 40 million students are currently in the schooling system overall (based on primary school census), making Bangladesh one of the largest centralized education systems in the world.  

Last year and this year, the government issued a series of directives to local level officials, including head teachers, on the necessary preparations that should be taken before school reopening. Those instructions were comprehensive and timely, but difficult for some schools to execute given resource constraints. 

#NextGenEdu, a global learning network based out of Bangladesh to nurture communities of practice and curate, create, and share relevant content to advance the future of education, collaboratively arranged a webinar to listen to the voices of teachers who are mobilizing resources on the ground to reopen schools. From ramping up WASH facilities to mobilizing parents to taking online classes, teachers shed light on different preparations, inherent challenges, and the way forward to reopen schools. 

After hearing the insights from educators on the ground, a group of education sector professionals discussed the importance of reopening schools, considering the realities on the ground, and left some great insights for policy-makers as well as the broader education community to ponder and take action.

Moving beyond centralized instructions and guidelines

Could a one-size-fits-all directive work as different schools face unique challenges on the ground as they prepare for safe reopening? In this webinar, teachers shared unique challenges from their respective communities, for example an island in Kutubdia doesn’t have the required electricity, or the culture over-reliance on the mid-day meal to ensure attendance in schools in Asansol of West Bengal, or the unique mobility challenges in the scorching summer months surrounding the wetlands in Natore. 

As different communities have unique challenges and needs, a one-size-fits-all approach for school reopening clearly cannot accommodate the localized challenges on the ground. Local solutions for local challenges must be designed and led by local leaders.

One teacher mentioned that Covid-19 has been a major setback for academically interested students, as their curiosity has been seriously hampered. The teacher suggested a special counselling session should be curated for these students to encourage them to stay curious. Another teacher suggested that different strategies can be used with the families who face livelihood challenges. Such thoughtful suggestions should be heard, and resources should be duly allocated to address problems with targeted approaches tailored to the needs and culture of the community.

Schools and communities that are ready for their schools to reopen should be empowered to do so -- at least the government could experiment this on a small scale to understand what works and what doesn’t.

Activating community trust with key stakeholders

Necessity is the mother of innovation, and it was refreshing to see thoughtful initiatives emerging from the local level. In Ukhiya, “Mobile Mothers,” mothers with access to smartphones and internet, aim to raise awareness among parents by acting as a bridge between the school and community by disseminating any required information. Students generally come from the same community in rural areas and localized solutions have proven to be highly effective in keeping students on the track. 

Involving parents in the teaching-learning process is one of the most effective ways to encourage the education of school-children. With this in mind, more community solutions could be adopted by teachers and SMCs to ensure that parents are engaged in their children’s education.

Allocating resources beyond SLIP fund

Preparing schools for reopening requires resources. Although the government instructed schools to use SLIP funds, we must consider if SLIP funds are sufficient given the myriad challenges facing schools. Based on the needs of the localities, the teachers and school management committee must be given leeway to deploy resources, and these resources should be topped where needed. 

The government has taken pragmatic measures to ramp up WASH and different safety facilities, but proper maintenance of such facilities will surely require additional funding beyond SLIP. These concerns deserve due allocation in the national budget to ensure schools can maintain adequate facilities that support the safe reopening of schools.

Forging innovative partnerships

Some government primary school teachers from Cox’s Bazar appreciate the generous support received from the government and organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP), Room to Read, and Resource Integration Centre (RIC) for extending support during these challenging times. From distributing high energy biscuits to rice to story books to installing WASH facilities in schools, INGOs, NGOs, and multilateral agencies have contributed immensely throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Different community-led health interventions have also been leveraged to prevent gender-based violence (GBV) as well as child marriage through offering different counselling and wellbeing support to households. We are seeing many pragmatic efforts led by NGOs that can be synergized with government efforts, and schools can serve as the central platform to deliver those efforts more holistically. More importantly, the government should consider mainstreaming some of the efforts led by NGOs such as distributing sanitation kits to schools or delivering books to students’ homes through budgetary allocation in the new fiscal year.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented time, which also brings a great opportunity for us to reflect, adapt, and learn. The path forward is not easy. We must collectively design a new pathway to restore and revamp the education system, taking into consideration the expertise and ownership of local leaders. In this new reality, having an open mind to listen to the voices of teachers can introduce authorities to the nuances on the ground. This is a call to experiment and see whether empowering local leaders to reopen their schools can really prove to be beneficial for students.

Salman Sabbab is a Manager at BRAC Social Innovation Lab, and core team member at #NextGenEdu. Afsana Sadiq Atuly is the CEO at Family Axis Bangladesh, and a member at #NextGenEdu.

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