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     Volume 6 Issue 3 | January 26, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Shocking Schedules

Nader Rahman

These days children around the city have routines so hectic that they have forgotten how to enjoy themselves. While the common perception is that not all students have such punishing schedules, the truth is at some point or the other they all go through such periods. Even that seems broadly acceptable, if students are put under some pressure every now and then. But the pressure that they are actually put through is inhuman, and what is far more shocking is that it often starts as early as the age of ten.

Children these days take private coaching very early because of the enormous workload. (left) Leisure time is replaced with extra classes. (right)

Take Naimur Rahman , currently studying in the 9th grade at a well known English medium school in the city. “Since the 4th grade I have had a number of private teachers," he says "my parents thought the more teachers I had the better it would be for me academically”. He went on to say “my parents lost touch with the fact that all I wanted was a little free time”. His story is not uncommon, these days parents have started strict disciplined routines which focus entirely on studies and leave out other activities. Naimur says, “the 4th grade was just a taste of what was to come for me, back then they employed one teacher to come everyday and teach me for two or three hours a day, if he left before dark only then was I allowed to play”. It got tougher with every successive class, soon teachers were split. There was one for Maths, one for science, one for English and so on. All of that was by the 6th grade. That was the last year he remembers having any free time to himself at all.

“Since then on an average I have had three teachers a day every day of the week, including the weekends! But I live with it, my parents only do it because they want me to succeed”. Talking to him, one got the impression that he was much wiser than his years, no doubt the result of a forfeited childhood. While he defends his parents and the decisions they made for him, he also adds that they were not the only ones to push their children. “I may have started a little early, but by the 6th grade everyone in my class had a routine similar to me”. While children need to be pushed, the real question is how far and at what price? Is childhood really worth giving up for a couple of grades?

Naimur's case brings to light the fact that he does not entirely blame his parents for the problem. Instead he has come to a point where he no longer sees it as a problem.

After school it is usually straight back home to study some more

That is tricky ground, because at that stage the children have accepted the fact that they will have no free time to themselves. The problems come with this level of acceptance, many have been bullied into that mind-set without ever really thinking about it.

These inhuman hours are more often than not blamed on the parents. But that is not entirely true. A well reputed English Medium school in Dhanmondi has a book list 43 items long for the 8th grade! No wonder they need to study day and night. These are the circumstances that have led to parents worrying about their childrens studies, that worry is then translated into hours and hours of after school tutoring. It is a vicious cycle, one can neither leave the school or the parents out.

Adiba Khan is another of the tireless troopers who has spent most of her after school life shuffling about between teachers. She is currently giving her O' Levels and since the 8th grade has gone through the routine from hell. She says “first I would wake up at 7:30, and then go to school from 8 till 2:30. After school I was rushed back home where I usually could not eat lunch properly.” It all seems somewhat fine till now, but then comes her real routine. “my first coaching started at 3:30 so I had to eat, shower, change and be at my English class by 3:30, when my school only ended at 2:30. One and a half hours there and then by 5:30 I had to show up for my Accounting class. One and a half hours there as well, only to leave for my Commerce class at 7:30.” Her commerce class ended at 9 and she would usually be home by 9:30. This was the average day in the life of Adiba Khan. She admits that her only free time was when after dinner she watched some TV but she also had school the following morning, so there were not many late nights for her to unwind.

The amazing part about her routine was that on weekdays she hardly had any time to “study” at home! That was immediately backed up with her statement that “weekends were there for homework”. She is a prime example of what thousands of kids all over Dhaka go through before their O' and A' Level exams. The question must be asked, what is to happen to their lives, if they are constantly pushed to the brink? These 14/15 year olds have routines more excessive than their parents put together. They are being pushed too far, and what do the parents have to say to such accusations. Adiba's mother says “it made me very sad to see my daughter's routine, but what choice did she have left?” She hinted that the schools were to blame, that their classrooms were jam-packed and that the teachers were the real culprits. “It leaves every child in school with a situation where they are almost forced into extra coaching, sometimes by their school teachers” she goes on to say “the routine was tiring for her health and mind, she had no time to relax”. While agreeing on the plight of her child, she made it startlingly clear that there was no other way to guarantee her daughter's success.

For Adiba that is no consolation at all. She says, “There were times when I felt too much pressure, it was all very very tiring”. Adiba also makes it clear that she was not the only one going through such pressures, most of her classmates had similar routines. And the ones with more than four O' Levels at a time, their routines were even worse than hers. She valiantly ends by saying “it was tough and I don't have enough free time as I need, but I manage”

With children's horizons narrowing, the next generation will be equipped for the class room, but not for life. These constant after school tutors have almost completely phased out any extra curricular activities children may have had. Gone are the afternoon cricket matches, they have been replaced with geometry, history and physics. While for some this may seem trivial, the fact remains that children need creative output. Without it they become clones of each other blankly memorising facts and figures.

Yale psychologist Joseph Mahoney is the lead author of the report, ``Organized Activity Participation, Positive Development, and the Over-Scheduling Hypothesis." In an interview with the Boston Globe he said “We were trying to find the tipping point: Is there a point at which too much is too much and there's a decline in children's overall well-being?” The rather surprising answer he came up with was no. In a random survey of 2,125 5- to 18-year-olds the study found that the more time children spend in “organised activities”, the better their grades, self-esteem, and relationship with parents and the lower the possible incidence of substance abuse became. “Even high school students with more than 20 hours of activities a week don't suffer for it,” he said. The study defines organised activities as adult-led and having a purpose. It includes community service and after-school programmes, as well as music, religious education, and sports. This is clearly the hype of over scheduling one could look forward to in Bangladesh. Instead one is left with lines after lines of private tutors, many of them merely looking to make a fast buck. The current after school curriculum needs a massive upgrade, results and scores are not the be all and end all in a student's life. At the end of the day a child needs to be well grounded.

Another interesting aspect of this back-to-back teacher syndrome is that many households with two working parents, use the constant teachers and after school classes as some kind of day care for their children. Asif, a private teacher says “it has become common practise when both parents work, that they will employ a couple of teachers so that their children are never really unattended”. This provides them with a sort of stopgap day-care centre. He quietly says “I am speaking from experience”. While the parents are provided with peace of mind, the child must suffer the loss of free time.

Wasif Wahed was another one of the unfortunate children who suffered the trials and tribulations of after school scheduling. He is currently studying for his A' Levels in one of Dhaka's best known schools. In the 9th grade his mind-boggling routine started at 7 in the morning and ended at 9:45 at night. After reaching school by 8 he continued his classes till 2. After which he reached home by 2:30 only to leave for private lessons that started at 3:30. As one might expect lunch was more of a snack than a meal. After his first class he then rushed off to a 6:30 Bangla class. That continued till 8, and eventually he would be back by 8:30. At 9:00 again he would study for the following day, stopping only for dinner. He would be in bed by 11, only to wake up at seven the next morning for the same routine.

There is so much homework and exams to get through for children, they hardly have any time to get involved in anything creative.

His routine was startlingly similar to Adiba's but the similarities did not end there. Like her, his weekends were taken up with yet more teachers, at least then they would come teach him at his house. In comparison to his weekdays he says “the weekends were far worse”. He adds, “Almost everyone had a similar routine, mine even seems manageable compared to some of the others”. One questions how those children even managed time to sleep! He regretfully says, “All that time and pre sure…I could have utilised for creative purposes”. Wasif's guitar barely made it out of the cupboard till he finished with his O' Levels. He also hints at the fact that the teachers who run the numerous coaching centres all hold down school jobs. “Why aren't they putting the same effort into their teaching at school?” he questions. He says with some pride that “whenever I exerted myself too much, my parents always told me to stop”. While his parents are not blamed, the finger has been pointed elsewhere. He finally states, “I am very happy to have gone past that time, I did not enjoy it at all”. While he may rejoice in his newfound freedom, the fact remains a little yet significant portion of his childhood was taken away.

Dr Fahmida Tofail, Assistant Scientist, clinical sciences division (child development unit), icddr,b has some interesting views on the topic. She says “when we talk about children's development, we should include both physical and mental growth. And as we all know mental growth is multifunctional and cannot be measured”. She adds, “With these current routines there is tremendous pressure, and mental growth is often forgotten in the process”. Because mental growth cannot be checked or measured, most teachers and parents tend to forget it. This can and most probably will have serious consequences in the future; Dr Tofail says, “One must learn to adapt to their surroundings, this generation of children will grow up academically sound but socially retarded”. If these over studious children are ever sent abroad, they will struggle to adapt to life there.

Children are held back by an academic system where they are not encouraged to think

Dr Tofial claims the reason behind this phenomenon is “the fact that education is placed above all else in one's own country leaves their social interaction skills severely lacking, they become introverted and breaking that cycle is tough'. Therefore for these students any new challenge that is not academically linked could be viewed as a source of social discomfort and general unease. She says, “The prevailing situation is linked with the job market of our country. Abroad there is a certain amount of job security because skills are valued. Here in Bangladesh the emphasis is on good grades. Because of this parents and their children look only to the academic side of student life to achieve future success. Their skills are not valued, their GPAs are”. She blames the educational system claiming they are not encouraged to think. She says, “They (the students) are only programmed to learn, their will to explore is non-existent”. What does one say about children who don't think, but merely memorise and regurgitate? Their lives and futures are at stake, and all of this because of academic pressure.

Children's lives are being dismembered by shocking schedules. No doctor can fix the damage that has already been done; one can only hope to limit it now. Who really is to blame? Adiba poignant reminder should be a wake up call to everyone-- “If I had a choice I would have done things very differently, but I didn't have any other choice”.

…And The Fight Goes On

Children taking their all-important entrance exam while their
anxious parents wait outside.

Hana Shams Ahmed

The cold wave of the first month of the year is nothing compared to the cold surges of panic parents of young children have to go through at this time of the year. Hundreds of thousands of children appear in the 24 public and innumerable private schools all over the country for a place in one of the 'good schools' which will determine their ultimate future.

Tiny heads are hammered with information and instructions for several weeks before they finally appear for the admission test in their parents' desired schools. But these little soldiers of knowledge understand little about intricacies of the admission process. The students are not the only ones who have to face the pressure; the guardians too are co-fighters in this battle for a place in the sun. The public schools are the first choice for parents with a limited income, but with scarce number of seats, getting a place at one of these schools is sometimes very difficult; a child has to fight with at least seven others for a place at one of these schools.

Besides the examinations, there are also several other ways in which a student is admitted into a school. Zeba filled up a form for a very well known Bangla medium school in Dhaka. There were 600 applicants for about 100 seats in the first grade of the school. About 200 of them were eliminated after the entrance examination. Following that there was a lottery, which got rid of a further 200. Zeba who had done quite well in the entrance examination was unfortunately eliminated in this lottery. “We were shocked”, says Zeba's mother, Jesmin, “Zeba studied under two private teachers for two months for this exam. A student of BUET used to teach her Math and another private university student used to teach her the other subjects. She did very well in her exams. There was no reason for her not to make it to this school!”

Jesmin took this up with the school authority who at first were reluctant to take her back. “But after I offered them a 'donation' of Tk 20,000 (outside the admission fees) they took her in,” says Jesmin.

Although parents are anxious to get their children into good schools, it's very difficult for a child to understand its' importance. “I don't like studying,” says six-year-old Faisal who was recently admitted to a very well known public school in Dhaka, “My mum shouts at me every day to study. I just like to play on my computer.” Faisal did not pass the entrance examination of the school and was only admitted after his parents agreed to pay the desired amount as 'donation' for the school's development work.

School should be about learning and learning should be fun. But here in Bangladesh it is anything but that. The whole admission process puts a sense of intense fear and apprehension in the hearts of young children, as young as five or six. Because a certain standard of education is not maintained in all the schools, a handful of schools become the target of parents all over the capital city. But these schools can only cater to a certain number of students. There are only a few public schools in Dhaka. Private schools are beyond the reach of most middle-class families, so a great number of students have to be stuck in schools with low standard of education, which means that many average and below-average students like Faisal never get the opportunity to hone their intelligence.



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