A Bangladeshi family’s dreams of a good future life for their two young children is proving to be elusive as incomes come to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic and they find it difficult to pay for their schooling.
Struck by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh families are struggling to pay for their children’s education.
Rafiq Islam (name changed), a handloom trader living in Tangail would earn about 45,000 Bangladeshi Takas a month. His family would somehow see the month through. That is not the case any longer. Rafiq says that the economic crisis means that he and his wife Shabnam (name changed) have to stop dreaming.
“The looms are silent and there are no buyers these days,” he says. “My income has dropped to a trickle and I realise how lucky I am to have my own ancestral house. But even buying rations is difficult these days.”
Earlier, the family managed to save some money. That is no longer the case.
The young couple had dreams for their two young sons aged eight and ten years. They wanted to give them good education. For this, they sent them to the best school they could pay for.
The best school in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in SouthAsia, is often a private school – and not necessarily the best. Teachers are untrained and children return home with loads of homework. Students in these best schools are under pressure to cope with the best in the class. This gap in education is served by private tutors.
Parents insist that the quality of education in government schools is poor. This is not without reason. A USAID report, for instance, says that 44 per cent of students completing their first grade education in a government-funded school struggle to read a word and the rate of dropouts is high.
Expensive private schools are an option for the aspiring parent. But this needs to be complemented with private tutions that cost parents like Rafiq and Shabnam a fortune. 67 per cent of the urban households, most often like theirs, pay for their children’s private tutions, up from 48 per cent in 2000, according to UNESCO’s global education monitoring report.
Bangladesh’s low investment on public education
There is little influence that the government has in this regard. “Government schools are no good,” Shabnam says. “The teachers don’t come to school and they don’t teach if they come.”
But the family can no longer pay for the private tution fees for their two young children.
The UNESCO report that was released in December 2021 has been the subject of an intense discussion in the Bangladeshi media and parents like Rafiq and Shabnam are aware of its import.
They say how they identify with what the report has to say – that seven per cent of Bangladeshi families have to borrow to pay for their children’s schooling. They say, in hushed, hesitation-filled tones, that they too have to borrow money for educating their children. “It is tough to pay the school fees and the tution fees,” says Rafiq. “But both must be paid.”
The share of urban households in Bangladesh paying a private tution fee increased from 48 per cent in 2000 to 67 per cent in 2010.
Overall, the average expenditure increased by 80 per cent in real terms, according to the report.
Private schools have also been charging during the pandemic and thousands of families like Rafiq and Shabnam’s feel the strain. Rafiq complains that there is no income and what he is paying is not justified. But the schools have their own reasons and so do the private tutors.
The government introduced classrooms over televisions, mobile phones, the good old radio and over internet – but the reach has been limited because internet penetration in communities like Tangail is poor and has taken a further hit during the pandemic.
According to a World Bank study, pre-pandemic estimates showed 58 per cent of Bangladeshi children did not achieve minimum reading proficiency by grade 5. It is estimated this figure will increase to 76 per cent during school closures.
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to translate into a substantial long-term economic cost, the World Bank study says. Researchers have estimated that the average Bangladeshi student will face a reduction around US$ 335 in yearly earnings, or almost 6.8 per cent of their annual income by the time they grow up.
Such is the story of Rafiq and Shabnam’s shattered dreams.