Many children in the developing world are denied the opportunity to learn. The school year is punctuated by holidays, closed periods, examination periods, and other intervals when schools are closed. Teachers (and often the students themselves) attend irregularly and class time is not used efficiently. Estimates in India suggest that out of an official school year of 200 days, many students receive the equivalent of just 60 full days of schooling.
Some of the best schools in the developing world have focused on increasing time on task. BRAC, based in Bangladesh, runs schools providing education to more than one million students. Its schools are open for a remarkable 274 days each calendar year. They are open six days a week and 50 weeks each year, less a few national holidays and teacher training days. Student attendance is 96% (in government schools in Bangladesh it is 61%). Teacher attendance is 95%, and on days when a teacher is away, another teacher covers the class. Once classes start, teaching and learning continue non-stop until the day is over. This means that the average student is in school and learning 257 days each year – more than double the average for government schools in India or Bangladesh. When their actual time on task – how much time they actually spend learning – is considered, the difference is even greater.
How do BRAC and others do this?
First, BRAC keeps the school day relatively short (around three or four hours depending on the grade level of the students, compared to six hours in government schools). This makes teachers and students more likely to attend even if they have other demands on their time. It is also based on ample evidence that for learning to happen, frequency is more important than duration – three hours of learning six days a week is better than six hours of learning three days a week. Individual communities decide on the opening and closing times of the school, which enables any local circumstances or conditions to be taken into account.
Second, the high quality of teaching and curriculum in the schools contributes to high attendance. Four hundred years ago Shakespeare described the archetypal schoolboy “creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.” Schools like those run by BRAC demonstrate that when pedagogies are lively, engaging and pitched at the right level, children enjoy going to school, and attendance and time-on-task increase.
Third, schools are located in areas that are accessible for children – in the middle of urban slums or at the centre of rural villages – making it easier for children to attend regularly and reducing parental concerns about safety on the journey to and from school. Government schools, by contrast, are often constructed on land outside the village or away from urban slums.
Fourth, a range of techniques are used to drive up student attendance. Simple measures, such as instructing teachers to send students to homes of absent classmates to enquire about the reason for absence or working with community leaders and parents to explain the importance of regular attendance, make a large difference.
Finally, the schools have high teacher attendance. Teacher attendance is a problem that many school systems in the developing world face. One study of several countries found rates of absenteeism that ranged from 16% in Bangladesh to 27% in Uganda, and had a significant impact on learning. Good monitoring of teachers can reduce this to below 10%. BRAC requires that if a teacher is absent, a teacher from a neighbouring school must teach the absent teacher’s class after they have finished teaching their own. Not only does the policy ensure that children do not miss a day of school, it also creates strong peer accountability. In addition, teachers are always recruited from the local community, creating a high level of accountability to the parents and reducing the chances of travel problems preventing teachers from reaching school.