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School readiness model gains momentum in Bangladesh
In 1996, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board implemented the Integrated Child Development Project (ICDP) to help fill these gaps. The population ICDP works with lives mainly in paras, or communities, of 30–40 families. Community outreach posts known as ‘Para Centres’ provide health and early learning activities, with a focus on education. The centres provide services for preschool through second-grade children and are run by ‘Para Workers’, who are locally recruited part-time employees.
The workers, 95 per cent women, originally used a preschool educational package that was critiqued by education activists as being too didactic. The activists argued that the focus in these centres should be on age-specific interactive learning, rather than academic teaching. They recommended devoting more attention to establishing appropriate environments that would help young children become cognitively, emotionally and socially ready for school. In response to these recommendations, ICDP created a School Readiness programme for children aged three through six. School Readiness aims to create safe, child-friendly environments where children participate in learning activities designed to ease their transition to primary schools.
The programme is based on the Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning method, grounded in the theory of multiple intelligences. Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner, a cognitive psychologist and author of Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences (Basic Books, 1993), argues that human beings learn through at least eight distinct types of innate abilities, or intelligences. Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning requires educators to adopt techniques that capitalize on children’s strongest intelligences, while simultaneously developing their weaker ones.
The Para Centre is a uniquely viable model in the region. Each of the 13 tribes in Chittagong Hills Tracts speaks a distinct dialect, so the local language is the initial medium of teaching at the centres. As learning progresses, there is a gradual shift to Bangla, the national language. Community participation levels are high, and more than 56,700 children from the district’s ethnic minority communities have received pre-primary education at 2,220 Para Centres.
The Para Worker acts as a role model for children, understanding their cultural backgrounds and motivating them to succeed. A 2005 assessment of the programme, however, found that these workers received very poor pay. The study suggested that their salaries should be raised to an “honourable” level and noted: “Para workers need to get more teaching-learning materials and regular training. They should also get a regular supply of play materials for children in schools.” To reduce workers’ relatively high drop-out rate, pay was increased and performance-based incentives were introduced.
To raise awareness about the importance of early learning and the link between pre-primary education and successful entry into primary school, ICDP organized advocacy workshops, produced interactive popular theatre and implemented caregiver education programmes at the district level. More than 94 per cent of children who completed one year of preschool courses in the centres are now enrolled in nearby primary schools.
By 2010, the School Readiness programme will be expanded to 3,500 Para Centres in all three districts of the Chittagong Hills Tracts.