But as the year progresses, the situation changes in all 124 primary schools of Gowainghat; the classrooms lie empty, the teachers have no pupils to teach.
The students who should have been in school are found working diligently in the stone quarries.
“In Jaflong, no less than 70-80% of the students who enrol in school stop going to classes to work, particularly in winter,” said Mahfuzur Rahman, headmaster of Ballapunji Government Primary School. “They are mainly found collecting and extracting stones in the Piyan River.”
“We frequently visit our students’ houses to bring them back to the classroom, they rarely come back as most of them work for the stone quarries,” said Nurun Nahar, associate teacher at Ballapunji Government Primary School.
“The majority of the absentee students turn up for the final exams, but it is not much of an improvement as they barely pass the exams,” she added.
However, while the absence rate is extremely high, the drop out rate is impressively low.
The official student drop out rate at primary schools varies between 9% and 11%, which usually rises in Classes IV and V, according to Gowainghat Education Office.
The readmission rate in the same class varies between 4% and 6%.
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Students make sure that they are enrolled in school by making sporadic appearances throughout the year and appearing in the exams, but most of the time they are absent, said several school sources.
Poverty is the biggest reason behind this alarming trend, said Shahid Miah, education officer in Gowainghat.
“To support their impoverished families, these children stop going to school and start working,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “We are working to raise awareness in this regard; we have been meeting with their mothers to make them understand the importance of being regular in school.”
The situation has started to improve, he said. “Students are slowly coming back. We are hopeful that it will gradually become even better.”
‘Poverty makes us illiterate’
This correspondent went to Jaflong, Bisanakandi and Bholaganj – three border areas in Sylhet where the stone quarries are located – last week on a visit arranged by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum and funded by Terre des Hommes, an international child relief agency.
Most of the children that this correspondent saw working at the stone quarries or in the rivers collecting and extracting stones were aged between 8 and 16 years. Most of them were seen working with their parents.
Kamrun Nahar is one such parent. Her nine-year-old daughter Shila was working with her near Piyan River when this reporter approached them.
Asked why she was keeping her daughter from school, Kamrun Nahar snapped at this reporter. “Will school put food in our belly? If we do not work, we will have to go to sleep with an empty stomach.”
Shila wants to go to school, but she understands that she has no option. “I go to school once a week, sometimes once in two weeks – whenever we have some money saved up so we can take a break from working. I cannot go to school regularly. If I do not work, how will I eat?” asked the nine-year-old.
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Shila’s situation is what most children are going through in the region. In some cases, there are children who cannot manage to go to school more than once in a month.
In Bisanakandi, this reporter met Ashraful, 8, who is a boatman’s assistant in a tourist boat.
He said his daily earning is Tk50 after he works from dawn to dusk. “Some days are better when tourists give me tips,” the child told this correspondent.
He said he goes to school when he can save enough money to take a break from work.
Speaking to numerous child and adult labourers, this reporter learned that most of them did not cross the threshold of primary education.
Assraf Seddiky, assistant professor at the department of public administration in Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, conducted a study on stone quarry workers in 2014, where he found that 58.83% of the workers managed to study until Class V, while 33.33% were found to be illiterate.
Only 10.84% of the workers have studied beyond the primary level, some studying up to Class VIII. But none of the workers have gotten to Secondary School Certificate exams.
“People in this region do not know better than working at the stone quarries, because there are no alternative livelihood options available,” Assraf told the Dhaka Tribune. “Unable to pursue education, they remain detached from the rest of the country, let alone the world.”
He said the government must take steps to alleviate this situation, otherwise it would be extremely difficult to change these people’s lives.