Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 17:50 UK
Meeting Millennium Development Goals


Aisha goes to school and wants to be a lawyer when she grows up

As part of a series assessing whether Bangladesh is on track to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, the BBC's Alastair Lawson visits a slum in the capital, Dhaka, to find out why the country has made such remarkable progress on getting children into primary education.

Aisha, nine, is part of the Bangladesh success story when it comes to primary education.

She is a resident of the Mogh Bazaar slum in central Dhaka - and in contrast to other children in this series - she is one of the country's 16.4 million primary school children aged between six and 10.

So why is she at school - learning English, history, Bengali and maths - when an estimated 3.3 million of her contemporaries across the country work full or part time?

Poor people rely on small children as breadwinners so they literally cannot afford to send them to school
Shumata Begum, teacher

"I come here because my parents say it is important for me to get an education if I am to do well in life," she says.

"I want to be a lawyer when I grow up because I have seen so many people go to prison unjustly and I would like to help free them.

"I enjoy it here and have many friends. I want to be able to read and write when I am older. My mother says it will help me to get a better job."

'Food incentives'

Aisha's teacher, Shumata, says that in poorer parts of urban Bangladesh it is a constant battle to persuade parents to send their children to school.

Like my friends, I want to work hard and do well in life

"It is a conflict between short-term gains versus long-term benefits," she explains. "The advantages of an education will not be seen straight away whereas money provided by a son or daughter who are working is immediate.

"Parents need to be convinced that educating their children is a worthwhile option. In some cases they need cash or food incentives to drop their children off at school. That is especially the case with poorer and less well educated children."

The government and the UN say that the country's success in getting children into primary schools - there is a 90% enrolment rate - is a significant achievement and puts the country well on target towards meeting its MDG target of universal primary education.

There are 365,925 primary schools in the country and more than 88,000 secondary schools.

"The number of of enrolled students increased from 12 million in 1990 to over 16 million in 2008," says UNDP spokesman Sakil Faizullah.

"Similarly the net enrolment rate was boosted from 60% in 1990 to 90.8% today.

"Furthermore the level of gender equality has also improved, with the number of girl pupils and female teachers steadily increasing in recent years."

'Particularly vulnerable'

But despite the progress, key challenges remain.

Aisha in class
Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

These include improving the quality of education and making education more inclusive, especially in remote rural areas of the country.

"Disadvantaged children - such as children with disabilities or from ethnic minorities - are particularly vulnerable to exclusion from educational opportunities," a recently published UN report says.

"There are many children who are not going to school but who could attend if schools were more inclusive and child friendly."

Experts say that the quality of teachers needs to be improved.

Approximately 25% of teachers in government primary schools are untrained and memorising facts still remains the dominant way of teaching in many schools.

"Furthermore there is little emphasis on developing analytical, practical skills," said Mr Faizullah.

"This results in several issues such as low achievement rates, high drop-out and high repetition rates. Currently it takes an average of 8.6 years for a child to complete the five-year primary school cycle."

Other problems cited by education officials include poor contact hours between pupils and teachers. These average half the international standard of 900-1,000 hours a year.

Ninety per cent of schools in the country are double shift, meaning that students in grades one and two attend in the morning and students from grades three to five in the afternoon.

Improving sanitary conditions has also been cited by the government and the UN as a priority for primary schools.

While the number of toilets has increased, an acute shortage remains. In 2008, 5% of schools reported having no toilet at all, while 14.7% said that they had only one. On average, primary schools have 150 pupils for every toilet.

"Similarly, poor functioning tube wells and access to water, including water free from naturally occurring arsenic, continue to challenge schools and impact on the retention and drop-out rates of children," the UN report says.

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