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     Volume 4 Issue 77 | December 30, 2005 |

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Cover Story

When School is All About Having Fun

The Early Childhood Learning Centres

Shamim Ahsan and Imran H. Khan

The three floors of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) located at Banani echoed with the sound of laughter and positive energy as crowds of eager children, their mothers and representatives from numerous NGOs and press alike gathered together at a Children's Fair organised by RIB. The children, all of whom are of pre-school age, belonged to the families of the most disadvantaged communities throughout Bangladesh. They had come from over a hundred Early Childhood Learning Centres (ECLC) established in different parts of Bangladesh over the last three years. They are all part of a project called 'Kajoli Model', an initiative of RIB to solve illiteracy in the poorer communities. Everyone came together to

Blackboards are fitted on the sides of the walls and children are allowed to draw and write whenever and whatever they wish to

demonstrate the different aspects of this unique endeavour, in this low-cost model totally sustained by the local community. The fair was inaugurated by his Excellency, Kees Beemsterboer, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Bangladesh, on December 20 2005. The whole day was full of activities surrounding the children and their involvement with the centres.

Mohammad Piyar who will be six very soon does not need to be persuaded too much to exhibit his newly acquired knowledge, a well-known nursery rhyme. "Naam Tar Motibeel/Bohu Dur Jol/Hashgulo bheshe bheshe/Kore kolahal. Ek deshe chilo ek tuntuni ar ek biral…" Piyar recites with confidence; there's no stopping Piyar's enthusiastic display of his learning. "I have also learnt counting numbers and Bangla letters as well", Piyar says proudly while playing with a balloon he got as a gift from the fair. "Piyar has also learnt a lot of adab kaida (manners), why don't you show your uncle?" joins in Piyar's mother Jhorna Begum. "Assalamualaikaum", Piyar quickly responds.

Jhorna Begum and her eldest son Piyar come from a remote village named Chalachchar under Monohordi Thana in Narshingdi district. Piyar, who has been a student of ECLC under the Kajoli Model, established in their village around a year back, is ready to get admitted into government primary school next year. And he is apparently excited about going to a new school.

Things were different even a year ago. School or education was the last thing in the minds of Piyar's day labourer father and housewife mother. Joynal, Piyar's father, used to work in someone else's field with a daily income that ranged between 50 to 70 taka. Even that was not a secure job. His mother had to work as a housemaid to supplement Joynal's income. "All our thoughts were centred on how to get two meals a day; we did not worry about anything else. We felt very good when we could feed all our three children twice a day", Jhorna says.

One morning a man named Sattar Haowladar came to Piyar's house and told Jhorna that they are setting up a school and requested her to send Piyar there. "I thought why not. There was a school but it was far away. Now if there is one nearby, perhaps I can send him there. Besides, Piyar used to go out of the house in the morning, roamed around the entire village, picked up quarrels with other boys and was up to mischief all the time. I would not see him the entire day. So I decided that in the school he would at least be out of trouble," Jhorna reminisces. Kajoli Model school and Piyar did not disappoint her. She is very happy that she made the right decision at the right time.

Selina is from Bagerhaat village but she and her family live in Shatkhira. Her husband, Harun-ur-Rashid, works in the nearby textile mills for a meagre salary of Tk 3000 per month. This is insufficient to sustain the family. She has two children and her younger daughter Sadia Afreen Joti, who is five years of age, is ready to join one of the Early Childhood Learning Centres also called the Kajoli Model School. Her other child is already in one of the programmes and in another year, he will be ready for primary school. "I hope to send the elder one to one of the local schools now because he enjoys learning. It is a little hard as we have so little money but we can manage", says Selina, who didn't seem too surprised that her son had taken a liking to school.

In Kajoli Model early childhood learning centres children are taught through fun, game and laughter

The Kajoli Mode's ECLC is the result of an action research project supported by RIB. The research behind the model began in Kajoli, a village located in Sreepur Upazila of Magura District in the Southwest region of Bangladesh. The research took shape on the first of January 2003 and since then, the model has evolved and has been implemented throughout some 103 centres. These centres, which came into being from the model, are known as the Early Childhood Learning Centres (ECLC). The centres follow a few common principles and in the passage of time, modifications have been made as more and more similar establishments have mushroomed in nearly all districts of Bangladesh.

"The objectives of the model lie in its simplicity", states Dr. Shamsul Bari, Chairman of RIB, who is quite pleased with its research on poor children. It was with his friend Tuhin, who later passed away that Bari gathered all the information on the school systems and decided to make a model based on that. It was then that the first ECLC took shape. The main intention was to develop pre-schools for children of ultra-poor families in villages.

These children need to be attracted to schools such that they can be prepared to enter into the mainstream primary schools of the country. "The parents of the poor children and the community itself will be able to support these children", Bari continues. The model serves two goals. The first is to install the concept in the children that 'Learning is fun'. The other goal is that of providing the society with good model. "The society will ensure the centre's sustainability", as Bari puts it.

The basic principle of the Kajoli Model is to provide pre-school education at a very low cost or no cost. When a school is being run, there are some costs incurred that are unavoidable, namely the salary of the teacher. Hence the no cost system has still not been possible so the existing centres are run at a very low cost.

Through the ECLCs under the model, the children are taught that learning is all 'fun and games'. "The centres are not schools, but merely gatherings", continues Bari. "It is something to make the children feel comfortable so that that they are not intimidated by the idea of going to school and realise that learning is fun. They are also taught basic etiquette such as respecting elders and learning what is morally right and wrong." Once the children see that learning is entertaining, not to mention stomach filling, this will

Shamsul Bari, Chairman of RIB, who has been behind this innovative pre-school learning centres called Kajoli Model

remove the fear of education from their minds. No more will they want to skip classes or miss a lesson as they will feel that they are missing out on something special. The parents too come to know that learning is not that difficult, nor is it only meant for the well off. The neighbourhood must also ensure that the centres can survive on a minimum cost and are sustainable through community support alone. There must be no outside help of any kind. Once outside help (such as foreign donations) is offered, the community will tend to rely on the outside support and the model will cease to function. Nari states that if outside help comes in, "the mothers will not contribute and they are an essential element of the model".

The main participants in the Kajoli Model are the 'champions', the teacher, the mothers and the children. The cham-pion, who is a local representative, pro-motes the cause of the centres to the local community. He or she must secure the support of the sur-rounding community to ensure that the ECLC runs smoothly. The champion has the responsibility to encourage the local people, a key factor to the well-being and future of the centre, as it is his or her duty to collect the initial establishment cost, the cost of chalk each month and also to collect enough money to pay the teacher.

A woman or teenage girl from the locality is preferred as a 'teacher'. She is usually known to the children and must have some basic education (ability to read, write and count is more than enough) and has good rapport with the children. She is paid a salary of Tk 500 a month and this amount is easily raised from the community. A three-day training programme, given at Magura at Kajoli gramm training centre, is adequate preparation for the teacher to teach the children under the Kajoli Model. To teach in ECLC any teacher must have at least the qualification of passing level five of the Model. The logic of not employing teachers with higher qualifications is that this would increase the cost of the school and therefore upset the programme. "If we try to get a better teacher, the salary has to be more and then the principle of the low cost model will be violated," Bari points out. "We prefer physically challenged people as teachers. These people have a lot of love, affection and patience to offer to children".

Teachers play a crucial role in the whole concept of the Kajoli Model School as they are

A demonstration of a class under the Kajoli Model at the fair

the ones who have to translate the concept of 'learning through fun' into reality. It certainly requires great devotion, patience and compassion to motivate a class comprising 26 under six-year-olds. Teachers are usually selected by the 'champion' and from the same village where the school is established. Most of the teachers themselves are students of either schools or colleges. Laila, herself a student of class eight at a local madrasa, has been teaching at the Kajoli Model School at Nilphamari's Jaldhaka Thana for the last five months. She is very excited about it. "It was tough at the beginning, especially when they (her tiny students) suddenly broke into a loud chillaballa (racket). I did not know what to do. But I have started to come to terms with things and am enjoying my job," Laila says.

Sarifa, who has just completed her HSC, teaches at another ECLC in Nilphamari. "I love spending time with the children, studying and playing with them," she says. Her one-year experience of teaching the children has taught her something really precious, "The best way to teach them is not to let them understand that they are being taught. Thus every now and then I start playing with them, sing or recite with them." The monthly salary of Tk 500 is certainly not a great incentive but Sarifa thinks it is ok as she did not really expect to get a job while still a student. Besides, "I also have the gratification of doing something good. Everybody in the village respects me and I have made friends with all the children of the village who often invite me to their homes", she concludes.

Children go through a round of physical training before getting into studies

The 'mother' is a representative from the pool of mothers whose children go to this school. With 26 students at the centre and normally 26 school days a month, each mother is responsible for feeding the group once a month. Since this is equivalent to a mother cooking every day for her child, she is motivated to cook and feed the whole group once a month, thus ensuring that her child gets fed the rest of the month. "We are given the schedule for our time to cook so it's no burden. After all, we are feeding our own children", concludes Selina. Cooking for a whole group provides more variety for the mother and is taken up as a challenge to see which mother provides the best meal. It is not only a special day for the mother but is also special for her child since he or she is made the class captain for that particular day.

The children are from the ultra poor level of society and would normally not have had the option to go to school at this stage. By being sent to school at this age they gradually lose the fear of going to school, a common reason for drop outs in the country, and are able to blend in with other children.

A centre has a daily session for about four hours and are open six days a week. A direct method of teaching is used. Instead of starting with the alphabets, students learn by means of associating words with pictures. A large board made of cloth with pockets in them, hold cards known as pocket cards. The pocket cards have alphabets, words and numbers on them which the students have to match with corresponding pictures. There are no exercise books, pencils or pens used in the centres, keeping the cost to a minimum. A one time lump sum amount of around to Tk 1000 is sufficient. The only other item needed on a monthly basis is chalk. The cost here too is very little, only Tk 18 per month (3 boxes / month at Tk 6 per box). This item is sometimes given free from the local schools or teachers.

Pocket cards and pocket boards that are fun to use replace the traditional exercise books and pencils

Some characteristics are common to all the ECLCs. The most important one is that the centre has to be a community-run centre and must therefore be totally independent of outside support. There is no specific location for the centres. It may be at someone's home, in the veranda or a few rooms built by the community or an unused space of any local public building. The parents provide the floor mats as well as the utensils necessary for their children to eat and drink from. The mothers provide midday meals to the children, a strong motivator for learning and staying in school. A "basic premise of the model is that knowledge may be imparted through games". In fact, the children normally see the pocket board and pocket board activities as fun and games and hence, never seem to tire of learning.

Apart from learning to read, write and count, the children also learn to recite nursery rhymes and poems, sing songs and tell stories. Through games and physical exercise they also acquire basic social values. The children must be chosen from the ultra-poor families whose children would normally not go to school. Five is the best age to take in the child as, after a year at one of these centres, they are ready and willing to venture into class in one of the government primary schools. When in such a school, they are mostly ahead of the rest of the pupils in the class as they have a solid year's learning experience. Most of them also get government scholarships allotted for 40 % of the children of a primary class who are poor, meritorious and maintain regular attendance. This is a tremendous relief for the parents and encourages them to keep their children in school.

Each of the 26 mothers feed the children khichuri once a month in turn. While it works as a strong motivation for the children to attend schools, it also helps grow a fellow feeling among the community members

Sujan Kumar Mondol from Joypurhaat Upazila is a local champion. The ECLC in his neighbourhood was his initiative. "There are 26 children from extremely poor families in my school. We try to get these children to primary school but they tend to run away and miss their classes. They have no understanding of teachers or the value of an education", said Mondol. "I received my training from Magura at Kajoli village Training Centre", continues Mondol reflecting on the days when his centre was just taking shape. His NGO, Upoma Shongo, is also located in Joypurhaat and it was through them that he got the ECLE established. He also got a good teacher for the children and educated the mothers about the Kajoli Model. "Only one kg of rice, half a kg of lentil and one kg of vegetable is enough to feed these children each day", states Mondol. One of the common solutions given to the family is to save a palm-full of rice every day. That way at the end of the month or when their turn comes to feed, there are no shortages."

"When a family is too needy, the chairman in our Upazila comes forward and contributes to the wellbeing of the children", concludes Mondol. He knows that he is part of something

Jhorna Begum from Chalachar village, Manohordi, Narshingdi, has sent her eldest son Md Piyar to one of learning centres and hopes to send the next one very soon

big and has the backing of his whole community. In the North Bengal region, where there are a lot of poor people, when they are in shortage of money they give vegetables and other such essentials. That way the children always have something good and nutritious to eat. Everyone comes forward to help as the children belong to that same community and there is a sense of responsibility.

Mortoza Islam is another champion who hails from Joldhaka village of Neelphamari. "I too have started one such centre but the local community will ensure its

sustainability. All I have to do is educate some people and they in turn educate others. It's a simple process and it helps everyone", said Islam. Champion Abdul Hai from Upazila Bodorganj in Rangpur district feels the same way. "Once the community see that the centres are helping the children and are giving them and the mothers a purpose, their support increases and everyone wishes to get involved", Hai said, enthusiastic to shed more light on Islam's comments.

Amena Begum from Gaibandha's Mithapukur village was stunned when her five-year old daughter Nupur refused to have rice from the patil (pot) because it was not covered. Magura's Sabur Ali felt ashamed when his five and a half year old son Sarif asked him if he could write his name (Sarif has already mastered the great art of writing his and his father's name). Taslima Khatun was forced to buy her daughter Phul a soap as she had been insisting that she would not go to bathroom unless she can wash her hands. In the Kajoli Model School the kids learn such basic health tips and teach their parents about them.

The sustainability of the ECLCs is through knowledge and exposure. The idea behind this innovative model is that as more and more people come forward to establish such centres, one day, illiteracy can be removed from Bangladesh. "When one person learns to adapt the system, he or she can pass it on so that more people can adopt it and in the process, the whole rural geography can be developed", states Bari. "We have finished the research and we are now trying to coordinate the sustainability of the project. We want to start a newsletter through those established centres, not through RIB, such that the activities of the establishments and their accomplishments can be made known and examples can be set", says Bari, a former top-ranking official of UNHCR who is a champion himself, of other innovative programmes to develop rural communities.

A group of 'champions' who assembled on the children's fair at RIB shared their experiences reflecting on how their initiative resulted in setting up of the early childhood learning centres in their respective villages

These 103 ECLCs help in ensuring that children from the crucial ages of five to six are kept away from the streets where there are many dangers that may confront them. At the same time the seed of discipline and moral values are instilled into them. They are also provided with food, shelter and security, which their poverty stricken working parents are unable to provide for them. For these parents whose struggle to survive is a daily headache, nothing can beat the knowledge that their children are not going hungry and have a chance to change their fates for the better.

A video was presented at the fair on the Kajoli Model pre-school learning cnetres

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