A tale of two schools

The Star, May 23, 2013

In Bangladesh, a unique school that teaches English to children living in slum areas provides interesting lessons that we can emulate. SINCE we cannot expect much change in our education system in the next few years, let me present some observations of two different schools I’ve been to in recent months. Last April, I had the opportunity to participate in Teach for Malaysia Week at a school two and a half hours from KL.

TFM is a programme where Malay­sians who have just graduated from overseas universities go and teach in under-served schools throughout the country for two years. During TFM Week, various public figures were invited to talk to students in those schools and provide support to the “Fellows” teaching there. I thoroughly enjoyed my little stint at the school. Perhaps it was because I was lucky enough to get a smallish class of very lively 16-year-olds who were not afraid to shout out any answer to my questions, regardless of whether they were correct or not.

A great majority of the students were girls, which raises interesting questions about what happens to boys at that age. This is probably the reason why our universities are mostly filled with girls. We need to study why this is so. Otherwise, we are going to have girls far more educated than boys while society insists that they are still less equal. Any astute observer can discern what a recipe for trouble that is. I was also lucky in that the level of English of my class was fairly good.

I talked about travel and they understood a good part of it. Still, I wound up mostly speaking Bahasa Malaysia in the end because they were obviously more comfortable in it. One of my friends was not so lucky. He had a class whose English was no more than Year Six level, even though they were already in Secondary Four.

They were listless and uninterested, making it difficult to capture their attention. The school I went to, however, does not do well in the Ministry of Education’s rankings, even though the principal tries his best. One of the problems is the lack of interest shown by most of the students’ parents, despite all attempts by the school to schedule PTA meetings at convenient times for them. Parental interest is often pivotal to student performance but there is a limit to how you can get parents to participate. Hence, the stagnant results from the school.

Perhaps more innovative ideas are needed. I have just returned from Bangladesh where I had the opportunity to visit a unique school that teaches English to slum children. Started by 28-year old Korvi Rakshand with a mission to educate the poor some seven years ago, there are now six Jaago Foundation schools in Dhaka and Chittagong that educate about 600 children, all from the slums. The school uses the UK GCSE curriculum and currently has six levels of classes. The first 17 students are now the seniors, aged 14 but only in Year 3 because of the level they began at.

However, when I spoke to these kids, I found that not only was their English better than the Form Four students I met in Malaysia they also spoke with much more confidence. They answered my questions very easily and were not shy about asking me some. When I told them I write a newspaper column, they volunteered that they produce their own bilingual newspaper. Teaching slum kids is not easy. One early issue was kids disappearing because their parents had to move slums to look for work.

So, Jaago decided the parents needed employment in situ, setting up a garment-making training centre and workshop in the school compound. Some parents thus get to earn money and keep their children in class. Many kids were also absent, often due to illness. So, Jaago provides hygiene packs with toothpaste and soap, nutritious food once a week and operates a first aid centre for students and parents.

The result is that the kids love the school and their teachers and think of it as their second home because they feel safe there. Korvi Rakshand is one of those people who always finds solutions to problems. As there is a shortage of teachers for all the schools, they have started an “online school” where one teacher sits in the main school in Dhaka and gives lessons over the computer to the other schools “live”.

All that is needed is a good Internet connection and reliable electricity. Recently, they started a parents’ club where parents get together to talk about anything they want, not just about the school. I have to wonder how is it that a much poorer country like Bangladesh can come up with so many smart and successful ideas in education. And our relatively rich country cannot.