Pandemic’s toll on education: tens of thousands skip Bangladesh school certificate exams

Reshma Akter of Narsingdi’s Belabo could not take the exams for Secondary School Certificate, or SSC, because of a job she took as a house help in Dhaka after her day labourer father’s income shrank during the pandemic.

They wanted their daughter to continue her study, but could not cope up with the coronavirus ripple effects, said Feroza Begum, the mother of the former student of Dewaner Char High School.

“What job a poor man’s daughter could secure after study? We’ve used the opportunity we got. Now it (Reshma earning for the family) is helping us. She can’t take the exams leaving work.”   

Like Reshma, students in their tens of thousands have sat out the SSC and equivalent exams this year. Although there is no official data on the total number of students who were absent, an analysis suggests it will be over 50,000, or 2.15 percent of more than 2.2 million students who had registered for the exams this year.

The number of absentees has increased severalfold this time, officials said.

TENS OF THOUSANDS SIT OUT SSC TESTS

Almost 19,000 students did not turn up for the test on the opening day of the SSC and equivalent examinations -- the first public tests held in schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The physics exam of science stream was held on the first day on Nov 14. The number of absentees went up by tens of thousands when business studies and humanities students took their tests.

Around 18,000 humanities students skipped history and world civilisation test and the number of absentees in accounting exams of business studies students was nearly 6,000.

The number of absentees was over 10,000 in physical education test and it shot up to around 32,000 in geography and environment exam.

Officials said they were yet to get the total number of students who skipped the SSC and equivalent exams this year because physical education and geography tests were common among many of science and humanities students.

Nearly 13,000 students skipped the exams on the first day last year. More than 2.4 million students from all streams took the exam on that day.

The SSC tests were held this year on reduced syllabuses of three elective subjects considering the setback caused by the pandemic. Usually scheduled in February, the exams were delayed by nine months. There were no exams on the compulsory and fourth subjects, including Bangla, English and general math, for which the students will be graded through subject mapping.

WHO ARE THE DROPOUTS

Data showed the number of absentees was higher in the madrasa and technical education institutions, where students from poor families study mostly.

Interviews of teachers and parents indicate students of the general education boards also skipped the exams due to the financial crises of their families.

Teachers said many children have left the cities due to their parents losing income because of the coronavirus crisis. Some have been forced to quit their studies and get married, work in factories or become automotive helpers as a result of financial hardships.

Many have lost interest in their studies because of the long shutdown of educational institutions while many others, who had hoped that they would be automatically promoted to college, did not appear with poor preparation, parents and teachers said.

A total of 80 students registered for the exams for Dakhil, equivalent to Secondary School Certificate, at Amena Begum Darul Quran Dakhil Madrasa at Islampur in Brahmanbaria’s Bijoynagar this year. Forty-three of them did not appear in the exams.

Principal Mokhlesur Rahman said the number is much higher than that of last year’s exams held at the outset of the pandemic, which he said dramatically changed the lives of many.

With families plunged into financial crises, the easy way for many students was to drop out after a closure of educational institutions for around one and a half years. Many institutions held online classes, but mobile devices and internet connections were costly for many poor families to provide.

“Some students have gone abroad (for work), some have taken a job and some of the girls have been married off,” said Mokhlesur, echoing the fears of experts who had warned of massive dropouts thanks to pandemic-related reasons.

He said many parents married off their girls secretly fearing the teachers would stop the marriages. 

“Many had registered hoping they would be automatically promoted. They did not show up when the exams were held,” said Md Shahabuddin, supervisor of Idilpur Government Model High School in Shariatpur’s Gosairhat. Out of the 391 humanities students at the centre, 21 skipped the exams.        

WHAT AUTHORITIES SAY

Professor Kaisar Ahmed, chairman of Madrasah Education Board, said they were yet to compare this year’s data with those from the last five years. “It will be easy to solve the problem if we can identify it.”

Ali Akbar Khan, chairman of Technical Education Board, said the presence of students in the exams fell this year due to the pandemic. “Many did not study hoping for auto-pass. They had poor preparation. They may prepare well next year. Girls being married off were another factor. Many students took a job.”

He said the authorities will take steps to bring back the students to study. “We’ve discussed the issue with divisional commissioners and asked them to pay attention to technical board students.”

EXPERTS ADVISE MORE INVESTMENT IN EDUCATION

Serajul Islam Choudhury, professor emeritus at the University of Dhaka, thinks unemployment and a commodity price hike reduced many families’ ability to send children to schools. 

“And the main problem is that we cannot create jobs despite development. There is no certainty that a student will get a job after finishing study. So the students left school for whatever jobs they could get.”  

He advised the government to take steps to generate jobs in order to keep the students in schools.

Students take SSC exams at Dhaka’s Motijheel Government Boys’ High School on Sunday, Nov 14, 2021. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Educationist Syed Manzoorul Islam said the students who have taken a job cannot leave work because their families depend on them.

Many students work as private tutors, but well-off families stopped appointing tutors out of fears of infection, he said. “These students left study after failing to get a private tutor’s job.”

Many students, whose families could not afford the cost of online classes, are thinking about sitting for the exams next year as the schools have now reopened.

Parents of girls in rural areas prefer madrasas to schools for security, and the girls were married off during the pandemic, driving the number of absentees, Syed Manzoorul said. “The same thing happened in technical education.”

He called for more investment in education and said, “The biggest problem is that our government is not friendly to education. Do they ever sit with educationists and teachers before preparing the national budget?”

“Wouldn’t it help if the government provided the students with laptops and free internet connections?

“This would stop child marriage and child labour as well,” he believed.