Education empowers, gives choices, and a voice to the disadvantaged; it also promotes health by teaching students about good health practices, and in these ways it helps to break down the poverty cycle. It is perceived as an instrument of economic growth, productivity, and enculturation of humanity (Maruatona, 1999). This explains why it is often assigned the task of being a pre-requisite for the development of labour, control of fertility, mortality, and fostering improved quality of life and increased life expectancy in both developed and developing nations (UNESCO, 1999). Education therefore has been recognised as a priority sector by all Governments since the independence of Bangladesh. In order to maintain a modern, scientific and effective education system, the Government continues to attach the highest priority to the improvement of the education sector– at the very least, in terms of stated policy and increasing investment in education (Ahmed and Nath, 2005).

Text by M Mahruf C Shohel


Education has long been understood as contributing to the development of human potential as well as social growth (Dewey, 1899). It also has been seen as a basic human right and as an integral part of access to political power and participation (Torres, 1990), and can therefore be considered as an act of socialising individuals for social competences. It is also widely held that education is one of the most effective ways of addressing poverty partly through increasing productivity leading to higher incomes for individuals and thereby reducing poverty (Oxfam International, 2000).

Education empowers, gives choices, and a voice to the disadvantaged; it also promotes health by teaching students about good health practices, and in these ways it helps to break down the poverty cycle. It is perceived as an instrument of economic growth, productivity, and enculturation of humanity (Maruatona, 1999). This explains why it is often assigned the task of being a pre-requisite for the development of labour, control of fertility, mortality, and fostering improved quality of life and increased life expectancy in both developed and developing nations (UNESCO, 1999). The World Summit for Social Development 1995 also highlighted the importance of education for social equity and social justice, in terms of the fight against poverty, in the creation of productive jobs, and in strengthening the social fabric to achieve human security. This summit emphasised the need for access to education through provision of literacy and universalisation of basic education and primary health care (UN, 1995).

Education therefore has been recognised as a priority sector by all Governments since the independence of Bangladesh. In order to maintain a modern, scientific and effective education system, the Government continues to attach the highest priority to the improvement of the education sector– at the very least, in terms of stated policy and increasing investment in education (Ahmed and Nath, 2005).

While it is well known that quality primary education is vital for the development of any nation, it is still far from being universally available in most developing countries (Colclough and Lewin, 1993; UNESCO, 2005; UN, 2007). In developing countries such as Bangladesh, many children have no chance to attend even low-quality primary schools. Dropout and failure rates are alarming; many leave semi-literate, soon to relapse into illiteracy. Given that the result of such failure is often an exclusion from social processes, the phenomenon of poor quality education is part of a vicious circle of unsustainability in a broader context of development.

Situated in the north-eastern corner of South-Asia, Bangladesh is one of world’s most densely populated countries, with about 140 million people crammed into system of river deltas which empty into the Bay of Bengal. The population growth rate is about 1.42% (BBS, 2007). Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in 1971 through a bitter and very bloody civil armed struggle from Pakistan. The dominant religion is Islam (89.7% people are Muslims) and the main language spoken by the people is Bangla (98% of the total population) (BANBEIS, 2006a).

Since independence, it has been beset by political and economic instability, aggravated by repeated natural disasters, including the widespread occurrence of arsenic in ground water. Development in this context has proved extremely problematic. Although rich in human resources, the country is currently characterised by widespread illiteracy, political chaos and underdevelopment. The majority of the population depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood, and live in rural areas in the fertile Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, an area swept by frequent cyclones, tidal surges, floods and river erosion.

In Bangladesh about 44.7% of the total population is estimated to live below the poverty line. The proportion of hard-core poverty (consumption of less than 1,805 calories by a person per day) fell from 30.7% in mid-1970 to 27.9% in 1991-92; the absolute number of persons in hard-core poverty has, however, risen because of the increasing population and is now estimated at thirty million. A key factor contributing to poverty in Bangladesh is levels of literacy, especially among women, which hamper government efforts to curb the population growth rate and increase labour productivity and efficiency.

The alleviation of poverty figures prominently in the development planning of Bangladesh, and it is seen to depend largely on faster economic growth. The Government has prioritised family planning programmes to reduce the rate of population growth, while it has prioritised literacy expansion initiatives to address human resource development, focusing on emerging industries as well as manpower export.

The industrial sector is currently dominated by the production of garments for export, which has created increased opportunities and greater economic independence for the predominantly female workforce. But working conditions are notoriously poor, there is little job security, trade unionism is discouraged and wages are low and unreliable. Social, cultural and religious factors determine that women are even more severely affected by poverty than men.

By expanding enrolment and improving quality of primary education, the Government expects to make a major contribution to a better-educated workforce in Bangladesh. The key to achieving high rates of economic growth and at the same time ensuring equitable distribution of these economic benefits is seen to lie in development and utilisation of the human resources of which Bangladesh has in abundance. It is widely felt that education can help to break through this vicious cycle of underdevelopment. Education ought to meet the material, intellectual and moral needs of the people in the country (GOB, 2000). Effective education should address the problems of literacy, create employment opportunities through better distribution of skills, spread useful health knowledge more widely, and have an impact on the economics of population growth at the individual level (Oxfam International, 2000). For example, a recent study shows that mothers with secondary schooling have half the average fertility rate (El Zayed, Stopnitzky and Khan, 2006).

The Bangladeshi Context: Problems Remain

The Bangladeshi State has made a strong commitment to education through ‘a constitutional obligation of providing basic education to all its citizens by removing illiteracy within a given time frame’ (Article 28, clause 3 of the Constitution). This commitment has been strengthened through the Government’s engagement in a number of international declarations (WCEFA, 1990; UNESCO, 2000), including the present target for the achievement of EFA goals by the year 2015.

Investment in education in terms of gross national product (GNP) is relatively low compared to other South-Asian countries (Haq and Haq, 1998), but primary education receives about half of the education sector budget. The budget set in June 2007 shows an increase in overall absolute spending on education, but there are issues to note: inflation accounts for all but 6% of the increase; the education sector still receives 13.5% of the Government’s budget. This has remained about the same since the mid-1990s, and lastly, population growth accounts for much of the increase. In 1971 the total population was around 45 million and there were around 36,000 primary schools which became government schools in 1973; in 2006 the estimated total population was 137 million and there are only 37,672 (BANBEIS, 2006b) government primary schools.

However, basic education remains a massive challenge, because the quality, range, and state of development of the education system is poor, to the extent that it is itself contributing to inequalities. The Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) emphasises education as a key to human development. Therefore it says in the section ‘Investing in People: Education’:

‘‘Deprivation from education itself is a key element of poverty. The number of poor people deprived of education is disproportionately high, and lack of education in turn limits their capacity to overcome poverty, thus creating a vicious and intergenerational cycle. Empowering people with knowledge and skills is the most vital component of human development for poverty reduction. Education and learning have thus become key elements of poverty alleviation. The education system in Bangladesh is not pro-poor; and the quality and content of education do not effectively serve the goals of human development and poverty reduction. There is general agreement that the number of institutions and enrolments have grown at all levels, but quality of education has deteriorated especially in institutions where the children of the poor families go.’’ (Planning Commission, 2005:125)

A simple way of acquiring a perspective on the education budget is to note that approximately £2 per annum per head of population is spent on primary education in Bangladesh. So while it seems the Government is working towards all children and adults having access to quality basic education, there is also clear evidence that the State continues to fail to provide basic education for all of its citizens through the formal education system. Of the 20 million primary school aged children, four million are out of school and another four million or more dropout before completing primary education. As a result of reforms, the enrolment rate has increased and gender equity has been reached but attendance and efficiency levels are average in primary schools, and many disadvantaged children still do not attend school (Jahan and Choudhury, 2005). There is also an exceptionally low average level of attainment among children that complete primary school (Hossain, 2006). A nationwide survey study of primary school completers shows that only 1.6 percent of the children acquired all of 27 competencies tested in the survey and half of the children failed to achieve 60 percent or more of the basic competencies (Ahmed et al, 2002).

Five years of primary education have been free since 1973 and compulsory for the 6-10 year age group since 1991 through the Compulsory Primary Education (CPE) Act in 1990, and so should be accessible to all regardless of economic status. However, education is not free in practice. There are still direct and indirect opportunity cost of education to the families. Average government spending on per student per year for primary schooling is Tk 730 [1] whereas average parent spending is about Tk 1,000 per year (Chowdhury et al, 2001). In some cases this is higher than a poor family’s total net income. The higher opportunity costs of labour to poor families also mean that their children going to primary school is not without cost to them.

In the National Education Policy 2010 the Government gave more commitments to education, planning to extend primary education from five to eight years by 2020. Specific strategies have been developed to address major identified problems like low enrolments- particularly of girls, low attendance and high dropout in primary schools (Planning Commission, 2005).

A Response to the Bangladeshi Context: The Development of Nonformal Primary Education

In addition, and of central importance in this thesis, Bangladesh has developed a nonformal primary education (NFPE) system. In setting its EFA targets, for example, the Government has prioritised nonformal education to eradicate mass illiteracy and for continuing education. It is planned that the targets for extending access to primary education will be met through the formal primary school system with the supplementary support from nonformal education, for the former dropouts, disadvantaged and non-starters (DNFE, 1995). NFPE is treated as complementary to formal primary education for these students, who also receive some practical skills, which they can apply in real life situations as and when necessary.

The objectives of nonformal education programmes run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are to reduce illiteracy; contribute to the basic education of children, especially those from the poorest families and remote areas; promote the participation of girls in education; empower women; and support the Government’s Universal Primary Education Programme. On the face of it then, nonformal education is a necessary and valuable part of a sustainable education system in a context such as Bangladesh. Studies show that the graduates from the nonformal system have a higher level of basic competency compared to their counterparts from other types of primary schools in Bangladesh (Nath and Chowdhury, 2001). Studies done by BRAC’s researchers also claim that the graduates from its nonformal primary schools acquired more competencies than those of their counterparts. However, findings from the different studies suggest that this claim should be treated with some caution (Shohel, 2010).

Nonformal primary schools are mostly established by NGOs. NFP schools operate mainly in areas not served either by government or private schools, essentially to meet the educational needs of marginalised children in the society. They usually follow an informal approach to suit the special needs of children from the disadvantaged groups (CPD, 2001). With high rates of non-participation and dropout in formal primary and secondary education and an overall low literacy level of the people, there is a huge need for nonformal and continuing education programmes to provide basic education for the citizens to achieve the target of Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) in the country.

Inclusion in education involves increasing access to, participation within and reducing exclusion from the local centres of learning for all learners and their families. Therefore, the primary objective of nonformal primary education is to prepare students to enter or re-enter the formal education sector. After completing courses from NFE programmes children are able to continue their education by enrolling in formal primary or high schools at the appropriate level. Different types of institutions provide primary education in the country. These include public or private primary schools, kindergartens, madrasas and NGOs’ nonformal schools. The formal system covers over 90% of all children enrolled at primary level and the nonformal system covers 8.5% (Chowdhury et al., 1999). The education programmes of NGOs not only provide basic education to their learners but also put emphasis on learners’ enrolment in formal primary or high schools at the appropriate level for their further education.

More than 800 NGOs run educational programmes across the country. Many of them are involved in running nonformal primary education programmes, but very few impart education for the full five-year primary education cycle. BRAC is one of the pioneer organisations which started nonformal primary education in 1985 and now covers the full primary cycle. Over the years it has extended its programme across the country. It presently runs 32,000 nonformal primary schools [2] across the country, based on a model of one classroom and one teacher (BRAC, 2006).

NGO-run nonformal primary schools differ from other non-government private primary schools. Non-government private primary schools are established by private initiative with the help of the local community. NGO-run nonformal primary schools operate mainly in areas not served either by the government or private schools and essentially meet the educational needs of the disadvantaged groups. They usually follow an informal approach to suit the special needs of children from the specific target groups. As mentioned earlier, NFE graduates transfer to the formal education sector for further education. Therefore, considering whether or not NFE is seen as addressing these deep-seated educational challenges, brings us back to the question – how can transition from NFE to the formal education sector be made more successful to more pupils?

Progression Through Schooling: A Less Simplistic Approach

Most studies suggest that poverty is the main reason for low educational attainment of children in Bangladesh. A literature review suggests that there has been little primary research into issues concerning the transition from the nonformal to the formal education system. A handful of studies, conducted so far, statistically demonstrate a high dropout rate across the country of NFP school graduates from formal secondary schools because of economic and social reasons (Nath, 2000 and 2002 and Khan, 2001 and 2002). However, other studies clearly demonstrate that BRAC primary graduates who typically come from poorer families acquire more competencies than those from formal primary schools (Chowdhury et al, 2001; Ahmed et al, 2002).

The issues concerning the progression and continuity from nonformal primary to formal secondary schools go beyond those of learning achievement and socio-economic condition of the students. There is a need to look into the whole learning environment within the school and the process of organisation of learning between the nonformal and formal education systems. For example, a report (USAID, 2002:10) says:

‘‘A critical feature of the formal school system- at least at the primary level- is the lack of input from the broad education sector, including parents, community leaders, and students, as well as teachers and administrators, at every level of the system.’’

Though over the years infrastructure and teaching staff have been expanded, access to education remains problematic and the quality of education delivered is less than satisfactory. As Robinson (1999:20) says:

‘‘Access to education remains inequitable, especially for the rural landless, urban poor, and girls. This is purely because the real cost of ‘free’ education to consumers is high. The time cost of having children at school may be considerable, and the direct private costs of education are high.’’

‘‘Internal efficiency of the school system is low, reflecting high dropout and repetition rates. It takes an average of 8.7 years of teaching to produce a single graduate of the five-year primary cycle. This efficiency reflects the low number of classroom hours, poor quality and absenteeism of teachers, and lack of system accountability. … The quality of education is still deficient; the curriculum lacks relevance, textbooks are outdated, teachers are poorly trained and supervised, logistical support is weak, and buildings are in poor conditions.’’

Regarding the formal education system, Hossain (1997:75) also notes that the ‘‘Bangladeshi school education system is left with an extremely centralized, non-participatory, non-transparent and bureaucratic educational administration, management and planning system. The system appears to be quite inadequate for the challenges of achieving the goal of education for all, including UPE [universal primary education], in Bangladesh.’’

Whilst poverty is a major factor in educational quality and equity, there are other factors at play. Bangladeshi society is a strongly patriarchal society. Therefore, in some cases poor families prioritise educating their sons over their daughters because boys have better employment prospects in the future to bring in money for the families (Hossain, 2006). On the one hand, as there are no state benefits in Bangladesh, boys are perceived as providers of financial support to aging parents. On the other hand, girls’ labour is often central to the household chores. Also from the parents’ point of view, education for daughters may seem less attractive than for sons because a girl’s education brings fewer economic benefits if she marries early and stops working, or if she ceases after marriage to have any economic contributions towards her parents (Hossain and Yousuf, 2001).

Apart from the financial factors, existing socio-cultural norms and practices discourage parents from sending their daughters to school (Papanek, 1985; Quasem, 1983). It might be argued that this ‘cultural poverty’ hinders community involvement and parental interest in promoting girls’ education (Khatun, 1979). Also the low relevance of education in life has been seen as an obstacle to educational achievement. Rural families prefer for their daughters to learn those skills which would increase the possibility of getting married into an economically and socially better off family (Quasem, 1983). An earlier study shows that middle class families view education as a favourable factor in increasing the possibilities for good marriage for their daughters, since education helps girls manage households more efficiently (Ahmed, 1978).

A comparatively recent government study of school enrolment shows that 91% of children from the most educated families are enrolled in schools whereas only 12% of boys and 7% of girls from illiterate families are enrolled in schools. Lack of physical facilities i.e. toilets, tube-wells, boundary walls, and so on discourages attendance of girls more than boys at school (Ahmed and Hasan, 1984). The government report also found that enrolment of girls is negatively associated with distance of school from home, because parents may be unwilling to allow girls to cross a major road or river on the way to school (Jahan and Choudhury, 2005).

The Historical Development of the Education System in Bangladesh

The education system of Bangladesh is a pluralistic and extremely complex one which comprises several sectors with different historical and pedagogical backgrounds including formal, religious, nonformal which need to be considered in turn (see Appendix-02). It is worth to mentioning here that Bangladesh has 11 types of primary schools (MoE, 2004). The complexity of the overall education system of the country currently contributes to inequalities and hinders national unity.

The following table summarises key characteristics of each stream of education and introduces the Bangladeshi State commitments to these streams, as well as key features of the current situation in Bangladesh.

Three steams Key characteristics and history Relevant state policies Current situation
Informal Human learning over millennia Mass awareness campaigns, advertising eg. family planning, environmental awareness Still dominant form of learning in Bangladesh (workplaces, homes, folk culture, religious congregation)
Nonformal Parental teaching; early religious schools; Apprenticeships Basic education (EFA); Increase school enrolment; Empowerment of women; Building human capital. NGOs dominate; State-NGO partnership
Formal Colonial history, Religious inheritance Gender equity; maintenance of an orderly though not comprehensive system of basic education, but insufficient and exclusive Very dominant and certificate oriented, centrally controlled

Table- 2.02: Key features of the three streams of education in Bangladesh

The Historical development of the Formal Education Sector

The formal education sector in Bangladesh has developed through long historical development and embodied local and colonial educational philosophy. Lord Macaulay’s Minutes (1835), for example, notes the particular value of ‘‘a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, But English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’’ (Thirumalai, 2003). The formal education system of Bangladesh is comprised of three parallel subsystems namely general education, English medium education and madrasa education.

Heitzman and Worden (1989:43) have well described the British legacy of formal education in Bangladesh. They state:

‘‘At the beginning of the nineteenth century a system of liberal English-language [formal] schools based on the British model was instituted in the region that now constitutes Bangladesh. The emphasis on British colonial education led to the growth of an elite class that provided clerical and administrative support to the colonial administration but did not develop practical skills or technical knowledge. The new elite class became alienated from the masses of the people who had no access to the new education system’’.

Today this process of alienation is even more extreme in the case of the English medium schools system. Through the British colonial heritage and the impact of globalisation there are some educational institutes and organisations that provide education through foreign curricula in Bangladesh. Among them English medium British education is predominant.

In parallel with the general education subsystem, there is a traditional and equally comprehensive and coherent subsystem, of great significance particularly in rural areas, which is known as Madrasa Education [3]. Interestingly the formal form of madrasa education system was also set up by the British colonial Government. The Government recognises Madrasa education as the equivalent of general education. There are also religious education sub-systems for the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Christians in different forms through different agencies.

After the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971, an Education Reform Commission was formed by the Government with eminent scientist and litterateur Dr Qudrat-E-Khuda as its chairman. An educational reform was about to take place in 1975 in accordance with the commission recommendations based on secularist, Marxist philosophy of education. The main elements of this reform are considered by many experts (i.e. Al-Muti, 1999) to have been modernising and effective in addressing literacy head-on. The plan of action suffered a set back due to the change in Government. The first National Education Commission of Bangladesh, advocated wide use of nonformal education methods to eradicate mass illiteracy from the country. However, no serious government initiative was taken in this regard until 1980. From 1980s the government, considering literacy as an essential input in national development, adopted a two pronged policy- universalization of primary education and liquidation of illiteracy. This led to the adult education programme described in next section.

The Historical Development of Nonformal Education

Unlike formal education, nonformal education has not developed within Bangladesh yet apart from adult literacy, pre-primary and primary level. However, in recent times, NFE has emerged as a distinct and complementary system to the formal sector of education all over the country, enlisting commitments and endeavours of the Government and a number of NGOs to increase access to education as well as develop human resources for creating a better trained workforce in Bangladesh.

The development of NFE has gone through two phases, which we could label as pre-liberation and post-liberation. Prior to liberation, the development of the NFE sector was the result of the activities of government and individual initiatives. Post liberation, the role of NGOs becomes much more prominent through direct funding from donors.

During 1960’s NFE programmes were introduced with an aspiration but later they became very political at state level as government initiatives. It comes out of a long history of literacy programmes, attempts to solve the problem of mass education with few central resources and investment from the state and donors’ fund. Though NFE programme has the potential to promote education and development for the disadvantaged population of the country, and in some cases really does meet local and community needs, it varies according to issues such as service quality, community involvement and participation.

Current modes of nonformal education in developing countries were mainly derived from the ideas of ‘development’ which dominated international discourse in the 1960s. Development was widely understood as a process of economic development as well as certain aspects on political freedom like civil rights or equal rights to participate in society. In economic terms, development was understood to be ‘sustainable increase of living standards that encompass material consumption, education, health and environment protection’ (World Bank, 1991:31). But development also meant ‘the more equal distribution of power among people’ (Roberts, 1984). NFE was seen as a process which helped to bring about a more equal distribution of power.

In 1980 the Government launched the first mass education programme across the country, with a highly ambitious aim of creating 40 million literate people in the age group of 11-45 years. For this reason TK 4 billion had been allocated in the Second Fifth Five-Year Plan (1980-85). 10.4 million books had been printed for this programme. An additional district commissioner (mass education) had been appointed in every district and a mass education organiser had been appointed in each union [4]. A training programme had been arranged for 517 education officers and 167 thousand teachers to implement the programme. For this programme three books were used – lekhaporha, borhoder boi, borno porichoa– as primers of the mass literacy programme (Latif, 1984).

Political instability had the effect of interrupting this program for six years after 1982, although it was reintroduced in February 1988 as a pilot programme in 27 upzilas, and as a result 550 thousand people became literate by 1991 (DNFE, 1996). Initially under the Ministry of Education and subsequently under the newly created PMED, The Integrated Nonformal Education Programme (INFEP) was implemented during 1991-97, aiming at developing an infrastructure in the NFE sub-sector (DNFE, 2000).

In 1985 BRAC introduced nonformal primary education (NFPE) for children aged 8-11 years. BRAC targets the children of poor and illiterate households who have never been to school or dropped out before completing grade III. The main objective of the programme was to provide basic education to its targeted children. The course duration of the programme was three years where the learners would get education equivalent to grade III. It had been expected that after completing the courses most of the children would transfer to grade IV in formal schools for continuing their study.

A particular focus of attention in NFPE was girls’ education. It was understood that as women were the largest powerless group in the country, they stood to benefit from any process which promotes a more equal distribution of power among people. BRAC claimed that women within their micro-credit programmes demanded access to schooling for their children, especially for girls.

The failure of formal schooling to ensure that all children and young people both enter and complete a basic cycle of education highlights the importance of developing educational provisions that offer a more diverse set of learning opportunities for all. The discourse is one of meeting ‘multiple and diverse learning needs’ through multiple arrangements, the diversification of delivery systems and alternative modes of participation. The conceptualisation is essentially one of how to transcend the limitation of the formal school system through new and enhanced nonformal provisions. The Government of Bangladesh view is that nonformal education is a tool to increase opportunities for second chance education for the people who have dropped-out from schools or never been to schools.

The Government’s Third Five-Year Plan (1985-90) aimed to reduce the gap in education between rural and urban areas. It emphasised extending infrastructural facilities of primary schools to accommodate 70% primary-school aged children and also keeping them longer in school (Planning Commission, 1985). The Government enacted the Primary Education Act 1981 and established the Directorate of Primary Education. The Government passed the Compulsory Primary Education Act 1990. In 1992 the Primary and Mass Education Division (PMED) was established to eradicate illiteracy within a stipulated timeframe from the country as well as to promote and oversee countrywide implementation and expansion of primary and mass education.

The Government’s nonformal education projects support the development of NGOs’ efforts for expanding and improving NFE programmes for young adults, especially females and the disadvantaged. Through implementations of NFE programmes, NGOs follow the existing practice of community involvement for selecting target groups, arranging physical facilities for learners, employing educators (teachers) from the community, and creating a management committee from community members for the centre of learning. They also involve the community in developing and revising the curricula as well as learning materials for NFE programmes (DNFE, 1996; 1998; 2000).

The Government began to put emphasis on the nonformal system to make basic education available and accessible to the poor and disadvantaged through innovative delivery systems. In 1991 a three-year experimental project had been run named ‘Integrated Nonformal Education Programme’ (INFEP) under the Forth Five-Year Plan (1990-1995). Apart from developing an infrastructure in the NFE sector, the main aim of this project was to extend nonformal education through public and private initiatives in parallel with the Government’s UPE programme. INFEP was extended until 1997. In 1995, the Directorate of Nonformal Education (DNFE) was established within the Primary and Mass Education Division to implement nonformal education on a wide scale (DNFE, 1998).

NGOs have been taking a leading role to run nonformal education programmes for children, youths and adults.  They play a unique role in Bangladesh to provide access to basic education through nonformal education programmes. They contribute about 8.5% of the gross enrolment statistics in primary education (Chowdhury et al, 2002). Therefore, community-based nonformal education approaches seem to hold promise as an alternative means of providing basic education.

Many nonformal graduates go on to enrol in appropriate grades in formal schools. For instance, graduates from BRAC and other NGO schools go to mainstream primary or high schools to continue their education. After completing eight years of schooling in UCEP (Underprivileged Children Education Programme) schools, they either go to a government vocational institute, or to the Bangladesh Open University to study at the ninth grade. The link between the formal and nonformal education system is gradually being more firmly established. An assumption being tested in this thesis is that the rigid approach of the formal system has a great deal to learn from the innovative approach of nonformal education, with the characteristics outlined above.

The Current Situation

This history of formal and nonformal education in Bangladesh helps to show the main stages in educational development, and how basic education is delivered through these two parallel systems. As an alternative system, nonformal education is strengthening the basic education sector in Bangladesh.

Despite these extensive efforts, there has never been a time when all school-aged children go to school. Furthermore, overall quality of primary education has remained poor. Heitzman and Worden (1989:44) mention that:

‘‘Recognising the importance of increasing enrolments and improving quality of education, the Government made universal primary education a major objective of its educational development plans, which focused on increasing access to school, increasing teacher training, and revising the primary curricula. As a result, the share of primary education by the mid-80s increased to about 50% of the public education expenditure. Although enrolment in the entry class rose over time, the ability of the primary education sector to retain students in school and increase the literacy rate did not match government goals. Throughout the system a high annual dropout rate of 20% existed in 1988. Studies suggested that no more than 10% to 15% of those attending primary schools retained a permanent ability to read and write’’.

About 77% of primary school-aged children were enrolled in high school and less than 30% of the children aged 11-12 qualify the criteria for basic education (Chowdhury et al., 1999). Although the enrolment rate was higher for boys than girls in recent past, the gender gap has been reduced recently. The gross enrolment ratio of girls is higher than that of boys in some areas.

Enrolment rate at secondary level is less than primary level. About two-thirds of secondary school-aged children do not go to school. In 1993 the Government started the Female Secondary Stipend Programme for girls to popularise secondary education among them. A World Bank (2003) study shows that this policy has encouraged rural girls to enrol and remain in high schools. However, even though high school education is free for girls, low income and poor household parents are not interested in some cases to send their children to high school because of direct cost plus opportunity costs e.g. helping the family at home in farming, household work and other income-generating activities. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has made good progress in recent years on various indicators (enrolment, completion and attendance rate and gender gap in enrolment) of primary education. It has improved the girl-boy ratio from 40:60 to 49:51 over the last 20 years. Although the two important MDGs of 100 percent net enrolment rate (NER) of primary school aged children and 100% primary school completion rate many not be achieved by 2015. What is also unclear is how far pupils from nonformal schools are successful when they make the transition into formal secondary school.

In Bangladesh, community-based creative nonformal primary education programmes became an alternative to formal primary education. They also developed a transition route to enable out-of-school and dropout marginalised children as well as working children to enter into the formal system of schooling. But formal schooling is not practical for the disadvantaged children of the country and does not help them to break the cycle of poverty as well as maximising their potential. Therefore, the important question here is: What kind of education would best combat childhood poverty and support children’s rights and personal development?

The transition process is fundamental to the continuity of education. Whilst never losing sight of the importance of progression within a student’s educational career, we must ensure that the progression occurs with the minimum of disruption to the student. The transition from Grade-V (primary school) to Grade-VI (secondary school) is an important time for all students concerned.  It is vital that this period runs as smoothly as possible, enabling the students, whatever their futures, to choose well and to settle quickly and easily in their new school system, thereby enhancing their opportunities of success in secondary school. Success in secondary school has obvious implications for a developing country like Bangladesh.

The process of human development and learning are interrelated. Children from economically deprived families in Bangladesh and other developing countries do not have access to the variety of medical, social and income support programmes that exist. Many children living in poverty have been seen as being negatively affected in their educational participation and achievement. When policy develops and is implemented in schooling it undermines children’s right to a basic education and fails to provide them with proper access to a better life. But when dealing with very poor households, especially those in which children are most likely to share responsibility for household duties or earning for the family we need to consider that they have to work to meet their basic needs. Thus the dilemma is the possible conflict between children’s need to survive economically and their right to an education.

Considering the State’s support for basic education for all, the main challenge widening access to education moved from motivating parents to invest their time and money for educating their children, to making it possible and productive for the parents to benefit from education. In Bangladesh, formal school has failed to provide access and quality for children from economically and socially deprived families. This contributes to dropping out from school and sending them to work rather than achieve basic education which is a human right. Generally children do not leave school merely for employment. They go to work after dropping out from school because of exclusion which is related to discouragement, disgust or inability to pay school fees and indirect costs of education by being at school (Kabeer et al, 2003).

In the Bangladeshi social and educational contexts, there are countless examples in which the right to education is ignored by various groups of people within the community and also from outside. Those examples led me to wonder how we can help students from disadvantaged groups maintain a sense of hope, pride and connection to school during the critical adjustment period. The focus of my research is not only reducing dropout but ultimately helping the marginalised to succeed in secondary school and carry on in education. Therefore, my research focused on providing rich context-bound information (Creswell, 1994), with an underlying belief that situations are complex and hence must be portrayed from the individual’s context, rather than focusing on a narrow field (Bogdan and Biklen, 1992). Thus the emphasis should be on listening to the voice of marginalised people, as well as understanding and interpreting the varied meanings that the stakeholders, who are closely involved in the process of policy-making, are constructing.  From this process has emerged a series of insights about the challenges of education, with the potential to improve the educational opportunities available to some of the most marginalised young people in Bangladesh. For making changes in marginalised peoples’ lives, we need transformation in all parts of the ecological systems of their lives. As Bronfenbrenner (1979:41) says:

“A transforming experiment involves the systematic alteration and restructuring of existing ecological systems in ways that challenge the forms of social organization, belief systems, and life styles prevailing in a particular culture or subculture.”

The outcome of this complex and intensive research process is a demonstration of the complicated combination of factors which affect success in school transition. There are links among the factors i.e. community culture and values, social class, gender, death experience, access to information and resources, and prior school experience. Stereotyping of students’ social identity by teachers and NGO workers emerges as a key factor, because it determines so much of a student’s day-to-day pedagogical experience.

There are grounds for optimism here, because of the enormous difference that teachers can make to students’ experience of schooling, if they adopt a more educative and facilitating role. Elsewhere, I have suggested (Shohel, 2010) several ways in which teachers might begin to make the changes required, and I have also identified changes that will be necessary on the part of other key stakeholders including NGOs and policy-makers. I am optimistic about the future of the education system of Bangladesh, and hope policy-makers will consider recommendations from different research studies for further development in the field of education in Bangladesh. Thus, policy-makers will take initiative for the changes as Rasheda K. Choudhury (2006:Online), an educational activist, says with a very optimistic voice:

‘‘The people of Bangladesh with all their resilience, productivity, and innovativeness have proved beyond doubt that the country has all the potential to move ahead if strong political will combined with good governance structures, democratic practices, and pragmatic strategies are in place’’.

By carrying out different studies on education in Bangladesh, I have gained a deeper understanding of the lives of marginalised children in their contexts. In this article, I want to emphasis that the challenges of education for a marginalised individual student are not just temperament and ability of that specific individual, nor is it peer acceptance and support, teachers’ quality and services, school policy and environment, the economic and social backgrounds, the community functions and social norms, the State policy and supports; but rather a combination of all these factors.

[1] Taka (Tk) is the name of Bangladeshi currency. £1= Tk 116.

[2] The comparison of the number of BRAC schools with formal primary schools is misleading. A BRAC school constitutes one teacher, one classroom, based on one grade with 33 students. But a formal primary school constitutes a minimum of 3 teachers, 3 classrooms, based on 5 grades with many students.

[3] It is so-called ‘Islamic Education’ which is based on Muslim theology, although in reality it is not based on Islamic pedagogical approach at all.

[4] Union Council is the lowest level local government administrative unit.


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Image used from: “10 years old Dipa and 12 years old Laboni study in class 2 at “Unique Child learning Center”, Mirmur-Dhaka, Bangladesh” by GMR Akash – UNESCO. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons –,_Mirmur-Dhaka,_Bangladesh.jpg#/media/File:10_years_old_Dipa_and_12_years_old_Laboni_study_in_class_2_at_%22Unique_Child_learning_Center%22,_Mirmur-Dhaka,_Bangladesh.jpg

Text by M Mahruf C Shohel

Dr M Mahruf C Shohel is a Lecturer in Education and International Development at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, Aberystwyth University, UK. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgowand an Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester, UK. In 2007, Mahruf was a Guest Lecturer at the University of Helsinki, Finland. In 2012, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Innocenti Research Centre (IRC), UNICEF Office of Research, Florence, Italy. He achieved an MSc in Educational Research and a PhD in Education from the University of Manchester. Dr Shohel has been writing extensively on education and development in the context of global south.