The Recurring Power of a Flexible System of Schools
Locally responsive and adaptable approaches to education are both more easily scalable and more resilient in crises.
By Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh and Safi Rahman Khan
This piece was originally published in RISE (Research on Improving Systems of Education). It has been reposted below.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for school systems to be prepared to adapt to altered circumstances around the world—from infectious diseases to severe weather, from sea-level rises to conflict. Yet school systems are typically rigid in their structure: brick-and-mortar buildings in locations that suit systemwide planning rather than localised needs; traditionally trained teachers providing standard courses of instruction; students expected to be in class on a long-established schedule. BRAC’s experience teaching more than 14 million students in Bangladesh over close to four decades has taught it to embrace flexibility as a core element of its school system. Reflecting on the evolution of that flexibility offers insights that we hope can benefit education globally, as much has evolved even since COVID-related school closures were lifted.
Working with communities from the start
BRAC’s work in education began in the 1980s when 40 percent of Bangladesh’s primary-age children were not in school, half the students who enrolled dropped out, and only 30 percent went on to complete primary education. BRAC responded by creating an extensive, highly flexible network of one-room schools with teachers recruited and trained locally. At its peak, in 2009, the network had 64,000 schools and 1.8 million students.
Key ingredients of the approach include renting one-room primary schools (to avoid capital costs); opening a school in every community (to ensure easy access), recruiting and training women as teachers in each community (to ensure the safety of girls and the availability of teachers), and adapting the school schedule so students could still fulfill needed responsibilities at home. Local women were trained to teach Grades 1 through 5, with up to 30 children per classroom rather than 50–60.
Students took standard national exams, but the teaching and curriculum were different, given that many students were the first in their families to go to school. BRAC’s approach centered around joyful instead of rote learning, integrated extra-curricular activities such as performing and fine arts, and prioritized girls—so they totaled 70 percent of students. From the outset, it included a formative assessment system which enabled teachers to understand students’ learning gaps and take appropriate measures early. The approach resulted in students performing at levels that exceeded those of traditional schools.
BRAC created its schools in the mid-1980s to augment traditional government primary schools. The limited number of government schools made access to education difficult for many children, particularly girls, who had to walk long distances and deal with related safety issues.
BRAC’s role in Bangladesh’s education landscape has since evolved, along with Bangladesh’s needs, but it continues to support the government in educating children who are out of school. As more government schools have opened, BRAC has shifted focus to remote areas, piloted new educational models in urban areas, and supported government schools through teacher training and digitizing the primary curriculum.
Responding to COVID-19 challenges
This flexibility and the ability to rapidly mobilize have proven crucial in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed multiple challenges through school closings, remote instruction, and the need to assess and address the needs of students when schools re-opened. In Bangladesh, school closures were among the longest in the world: 18 months.
Within two weeks of school closures, BRAC teachers were conducting one-on-one phone voice lessons. Within a month they were connecting to small groups through conference calls using non-smart mobile phones. When the lockdown was relaxed, teachers visited children in their local neighborhoods and ran small group classes.
When schools reopened, teachers refocused on getting children back to school, and helping them adjust. As teachers had stayed connected to students, BRAC schools witnessed over 90 percent regular attendance and under 2 percent dropout. Initially, schools focused on well-being with joyful and fun activities and no lessons—to get students used to being back in school and enjoying it. Students were then assessed to determine their educational levels, and remedial classes were introduced to address learning gaps.
Testing levels of educational competence was crucial, as nationally mandated automatic promotions had resulted in students moving to higher grades regardless of their level of learning. This meant that students had to be assessed one by one to determine what they knew and what they had missed—and get each one back on track.
The assessments indicated, as expected, that the majority of students faced difficulties in language skills and mathematical competencies. Even handwriting seemed to have significantly deteriorated, due the lack of practice during closures. Another observation from the field was the marked decrease of spontaneity in children which has always been a hallmark of BRAC schools. They were more introverted, in comparison to before the closure—hence the initial focus on wellbeing, joyful and fun activities to enable students to socialise and interact with their peers.
A new approach for reaching as many children as possible
This need to address a range of student readiness levels, combined with the assumption that a large number of students will have dropped out of school during or after the pandemic, led BRAC in 2022 to implement a new model of instruction—designed to reach and assist as many children as possible. The model draws on BRAC’s decades of experience with accelerated learning to meet the needs of students coming from a variety of circumstances and backgrounds.
The new model is a 10-month intervention consisting of a four-month Bridge component and a six-month Accelerated component. The Bridge component builds on and refreshes previous learning, while the Accelerated one focuses on grade-specific “must-know” competencies.
Within this model, two instructional streams have been designed and implemented—with each stream composed of cohorts of 25–30 students. Stream 1 is for students who have not completed first or second grade; Stream 2 is for those who have not completed third or fourth grade. In both cases, two grades are condensed into the ten-month period with periodic assessments to determine students’ progress.
After completing the 10 months, students will transition to the next grade in government primary schools. Stream 1 students will transition to Grade 3, and Stream 2 students will transition to either Grade 4 or Grade 5 of mainstream schools. The accelerated cohorts now total 116,000 students.
Two other elements have been introduced to increase the likelihood of transitioned students staying in school: para (village) committees and ongoing after-school support. The para committees—composed of parents, teachers and other community members—will track students, monitor the socioeconomic factors that often influence children leaving school, and support them to ensure they don’t drop out again. The after-school support will provide remedial assistance from teachers whom the students know, in settings that are familiar.
With this overall model now being implemented, participating students no longer complete the entire primary years in BRAC schools but instead transfer at an earlier stage to government schools. This avoids duplication of services and enables BRAC to focus on areas of greatest educational need. This includes serving places with high rates of dropouts or of child marriage, providing teacher training to incorporate more technology—with all teachers expected to have smartphones—and exploring the likely reintroduction of pre-primary education.
The rewards of casting off conventional assumptions
BRAC’s flexible approach to designing programs within the school system design has features that make it ready to scale—with rented facilities, teachers recruited and trained locally, and regular assessment and addressing of changing learning needs. Scaling it is vital to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 (“ensure inclusive and equitable quality education … for all”), as millions of new teachers are needed by 2030 according to UNESCO.
A vital insight from BRAC’s experience is that academic credentials are less important for a teacher than passion, rapport with young people, and respect in the community. Aspiring teachers can be trained in specific curricula, if they already possess those crucial qualities.
BRAC’s approach holds great promise but requires that traditional assumptions—such as what a school looks like and how a teacher is trained—be put aside. The focus must be on achieving educational outcomes on a massive scale.
Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is Head, Thought Leadership & Programme and Enterprise Communications at BRAC Bangladesh, and Safi Rahman Khan is the Director Education, Skills Development, and. Migration at BRAC Bangladesh.