When I think of private schools, I think of venerable old walls in the midst of lush greenery and tennis courts, with an impressive driveway on which the Ferraris or Rolls Royces roll up to bring the posh girls and boys for their education at an elite school.
That’s why I was especially looking forward to the school of my little Bangladeshi friend Amit. Because he too goes to a private school and he has invited me to visit it with him.
But even from the outside, it is obvious: A private school in Bangladesh is something completely different than in Europe. To the left and right of the school are ancient brick houses, half demolished, the rubble is partly in large heaps just in front of them. The school itself is also made of unrendered bricks on the ground floor, a dreary-gray concrete block piles up above it and the only ’splendid‘ thing about this building is the stone door frame under the sign at the entrance.
In the entrance area, women sit on narrow wooden benches lined up along the wall. These are ‚guardians‘ explains Amit, and before I can dig deeper, the little man hops up the stairs to the first floor. There, we are welcomed by a visibly excited man in a gray suit – the director and founder of the school, Sanjit Sakar.
I was told he speaks good English, so I would not need a translator, and he could answer all my questions … But I quickly realize this was a slight misinformation – many of my questions are not answered or answered with completely different information than I hoped to get. Whatever. First I am just shown around and have to look at every single classroom. It strikes me that this school hardly differs from a residential building. The school is on one floor, a long corridor from which about 10 rooms branch off – the classrooms.
We start with the little ones, the ’nursery‘, and as I understand it, that’s comparable to the preschool in our kindergardens. Only a great deal more colourless. The room is grey and almost bare, only a few balloons sticking forlornly on the wall. Today, there are only four children sitting at two tables which are pushed together, with scissors, paper and pencils in front of them. And apparently they are already practicing first letters. Here, a teacher with a headscarf ‚rules‘ over the children and Amit tells me later that he does not like her at all, because she always beat him, for example, when he got up from his chair without permission or was too naughty in her opinion. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to her directly because she doesn’t know any English. And the director ignores my question, what exactly is taught in the nursery. Instead, he sings the lady’s highest praises, she is a proven expert, he says. And no, there are not always that few children here, but today not all of them came to school because it was so cold. (small note: the school visit took place in January 2018, as it was freezing cold for Bengali conditions – around 10 degrees centigrade).
Amit has to go in his class, the lessons are about to begin. But I realize that he is reluctant to wrench himself away… after all, he has brought the foreign lady and only this fact apparently makes him the star of the school.
I am now guided from room to room, from class to class. The children always have to get up when I step in and, more or less motivated, they belt out a ‚welcome‘ or ‚how are you, Ma’am‘ for me. Every time I attempt to have a little conversation in English, the differences in the language skills quickly become obvious: In the lower classes, the children do not go beyond ‚how are you ‚ and maybe even ‚what’s your name‘. The older ones, on the other hand, can impart their favorite subjects, their favorite sport and even their knowledge of Germany to me. However, I deliberately keep these ‚visits‘ short, because I do not feel well in the situation which seems similar to interrogations.
Only in Amit’s class I stay longer. Especially to take pictures of a typical classroom in a private school in Bangladesh:
As I already mentioned, not all students are there today, usually at least two, sometimes even three pupils sit at the tables. I can understand that the children only come sporadically in winter…the classrooms cannot be heated, in some rooms you can’t close the windows properly and even if the pupils are wrapped up warmly, the damp cold slowly creeps in from below into all limbs.
By the way, the boy in the last picture is my friend Amit – right at our first meeting he conquered me with his open attitude, his mischievous humour and his cleverness. In recent years, we communicated nonverbally with our hands and feet, but now he is in the seconde grade and meanwhile we have real conversations. Because, unlike in Germany, children in Bangladesh have many more opportunites to use their language skills in English directly, even in everyday life. A big advantage, I think.
10:30 am, time for a break. That means: 20 minutes free time for the pupils. The very little ones are now picked up again by their parents, the others can go to the playground or stay in the classes and get spicy tomatoes, cucumbers or similar things to eat. Amit usually prefers to stay in class with his friends, as it is not as cold as outside in the mini-playground – which, by the way, is roughly the size of four car-parking spaces. A concrete surface surrounded by rubble.
I take the opportunity and slip into the staff room. There the teachers use their free time to correct the mountains of class work that pile up here. Apparently, they do not give themselves a break. That’s because the teachers here work half-time, so theoretically they are free after class at half past one, explains Subarna Gosh, a young teacher who speaks English very well. Bad luck for her! Because of course she is bombarded with questions by me now …
The biggest difference between private and public schools, she explains, is the funding: In private schools, some rich people raise money to run the school, and in public schools, the state finances everything. The teaching situation is different: In public schools, there are many more students, often 150 students together in one room, while the private ones have much smaller rooms, so usually only 20 students per class are taught. „With the effect that we teachers can take care of each student individually, the students learn much faster and we also regularly do tests to evaluate the progress.“ At least four tests per trimester in each subject.
The ‚guardians‘ pay for the school – they are the parents, says the young woman and also answers the question that I had in the entrance area of the school …. The women who sat on the benches are apparently waiting parents. „These are the guardians of the new students. They wait there, because sometimes the children have to get used to school. So the guardians wait downstairs until the break, as the little ones stay only for about two and a half hours. „It also happens that a child doesn’t want to stay in school, but the guardians have their methods of motivation: with chocolate, stickers or balloons they make them curious, so that they get used to the class.
„However,“ continues Subarna Gosh, „there are also parents who cannot afford the school. Then the school assists, the parents have to pay half or nothing. But there are only few. „There is an admission charge of 3000 Taka (about 30 euros), but those who cannot pay that, only pay 1000. The monthly costs for the nursery are 600 Taka (6 euros) and the same for the first two classes, the higher classes cost 700 Taka (7 Euro). „Teachers earn very little here. The junior teachers 4000, the senior teachers 5000 Taka monthly. That is very little. In public schools you earn more „. Then why is she working at this school, I ask her. „Because the working hours are short. I’m actually a housewife, but teaching for a few hours here works just fine. And I also do it out of passion.“ The young woman lowers her eyes and even blushes a bit. That’s quite cute – a teacher who likes to do her job … you don’t find that too often in Bangladesh, I’ve already noticed.
There are 15 teachers at this private school and subjects are Bangla, English, mathematics, religion and sciences, meaning biology, chemistry and physics. Always ex-cathedra teaching, I suppose? Subarna hesitates, does not know exactly what I mean. I talk about concepts like group or project work. She only smiles mildly. No, this is unthinkable here, she admits: „We have such small rooms, sometimes it is quite exhausting when a child is very loud and is yelling around. This disturbs the other classes, so discipline is important to us. But we can only implement it with the help of the parents. The problem is that many parents are illiterate and sometimes do not care so much about education or have a problem educating their children properly, teaching them manners. So we often have to teach the children not only within the curriculum, but also how to behave properly. And because most parents themselves are uneducated, they also do not know how to behave properly towards the teachers. That’s a big problem for us. But because it’s just a private school, we have to endure that. The main problem is education, Bangladesh is just a developing country, a poor country, and most parents are uneducated. If you want, we also bring up the parents a bit, because we try to teach them how important manners and good behavior are for everyone. I think the family is the most important and first instance in which a child learns. So basically we have to start in the families. We’re trying our best here, but I hope the parents will try harder too. “
That seems to work pretty well, I think, as I leave the staff room and go down the stairs to the director. Because lessons have commenced, and it is pretty quiet in the classes. Even though there are 250 students at this school, I learn from him. Boys and girls are taught together and the religions are mixed: There are Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists at his school. But most are Hindus.
He founded the school 5 years ago, says director Sanjit Sakar. „I wanted to help the poor, the people without possessions, who otherwise have no chance of education. There are many schools in Savar, but ours is different. We attach great importance to a beautiful handwriting and good enunciation. This will later be an advantage for the students. For the parents it is especially important that their children learn English and then maths and sciences. They hope for better chances for their children.“
Of course, he does not finance the school alone, he tells me, he is not that rich … a small smile flits across his face. But then he gets ’serious‘ again and explains the financing: „Every month I need about 150,000 takas to keep the school running (about 1500 euros). We never quite manage to get this amount; from the students we get 100,000 a month. That’s when the seven members of management jump in. These are all business people who earn well: landlords, retailers and the likes. I also own a business and also run an NGO. But we get no money from government, only a few books are provided by it, all other things the parents have to pay.“
This is apparently the only common ground between German and Bengali private schools: The parents have to pay a lot of money. Even if the costs cannot be compared, of course.
Therefore, after school, I ask Amit’s father Gopal why he decided on a private school. „The school is not far away, the teachers are well educated and the teaching situation is better than at the public school nearby. But honestly, I did not even ask before if the teaching standard is better than in public schools. I know that it is not easy to be accepted at the few really good public schools in Bangladesh – there is enormous competition. „