Leave no student behind

If Bangladesh is to become an equitable nation, it cannot overlook educating its minority populations

People often face unequal status and facilities in rural Bangladesh, where some groups face more deprivation than others. The plainland Adibashis of Dinajpur district have been left behind. and this inequality is more for social reasons; some people are not only born in disadvantaged situations, they also have limited or no access to everyday resources. 

A leading NGO operating in that area called Gram Bikash Kendra (GBK) is dedicated to the minor ethnic groups, and has taken initiatives to address the problems of the disadvantaged Adibashi of that area. 

The organization found several challenges, including mainstreaming the Adibashi children who attend the government primary school (GPS) but do not have Bangla as their mother tongue. When they attend school at pre-primary or primary level, they can’t understand the Bangla language where it is the medium of instruction.

Therefore, they can’t follow the language of the teachers of the schools and the teachers can’t follow them either.

This is a big challenge for them. To overcome that, the organization has undertaken a two-step approach; during the classes in the GPS, they place one assistant to help the Adibashi students to understand the teacher's language in their language and then follow them. After finishing their routine school hours they go to another tutorial center dedicated to these ethnic group students where another group of Adibashi university students offers them a second round of sessions to enable them to learn the lessons properly. 

This two-step approach is unique in the sense that the Adibashi students can learn their lessons and become eligible to study in the higher classes with other students. 

Initially, GBK started operating in pre-primary schools for the Adibashi children. 613 students of 19 ethnic groups were there. The organization found that the parents of these groups are illiterate as well as working people. They were thus unable to tutor their children. Moreover, like their parents, the children were also of a mindset to get engaged in their parents’ pre-modern occupations. Indeed, this prevents the occupational mobility of these communities. 

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It goes without saying that education is the essential element for them to achieve upward mobility. 

For mainstreaming, Adibashi children started attending pre-primary class in all GPSs. But they can’t follow the teachers’ instructions. GBK found it a big problem and decided to support them with one ethnic teacher to assist them in the pre-primary class to understand the Bangla words in their language also. 

For example, mango is called Ul in the Santali language. Only in five Adibashi languages, there are books -- the rest of the ethnic groups do not have any books in their languages. 

The second problem was their lesson preparation at their home because in the school they can at best learn a part of it. Since they learn differently than the Bangla students, their learning is also slow. To prevent the drop out due to slow or poor learning, tutorial support after school was imperative without which they wouldn’t continue in the school. 

To address this, provision for a tutorial centre has been created for them where Adibashi college and university students were involved voluntarily, sparing two hours in preparing lessons for these students. Thus, this two-step approach evolved to keep pace with the practical needs of the students, which has created an opportunity for the Adibashi students to go for higher education and bring occupational mobility to their lives.

GBK has undertaken a project titled Organizing Diversified & Holistic Initiatives on Knowledge Acquisition for Rural and ethnic children (ODHIKAR) with the support of SHAPLA NEER -- an international development organization of Japan. The project has been designed with some uniqueness using a two-step approach as mentioned above. 

Nearby Adibashi students of Hazi Danesh University of Science and Technology are the voluntary teachers for these groups. These voluntary student-teachers spare some time from their day to educate the young students, who are not only motivated to go through the process but to enjoy the education as well. 

It was often found even as recently as a decade ago that ethnic communities were usually neglected by the Bangali communities as they had negligible or no access to different social institutions. Educational institutions, markets, local governments, and other committees all did not pay much heed to their needs. 

To include the ethnic representatives in the local government committees, a study was conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Social Research (BISR), where a clear way out was shown. But recommendations of the same study are yet to be implemented.

To triumph over all these impediments, the mentioned two-step approach is yielding good results. For example, now there is a very negligible dropout, their identity is registered in the school registers, and students are pursuing their education up to the secondary level with the aspiration to study up to the university level.

Dr Khurshed Alam is Chairman, Bangladesh Institute of Social Research (BISR) Trust. Email: [email protected]