Make school calendar child and learning friendly
Is there a good reason why the school year should begin in the first month of the Christian calendar other than that this is how it was done in the colonial era? In India, school calendar is a state (provincial) matter, but the year mostly begins in June.
In the large majority of countries in the northern hemisphere, the school year begins in the month of September. Regular school activities end at the end of May or in June when the summer break begins.
In UK, when primary schooling was made compulsory in 1880, the school calendar was set around the farming season. It was a matter of getting parents to send their children to school; there was no hope of getting the children to school in the summer, when their help was needed most in the field or to look after their siblings when the parents were in the field. The same reason applied in Europe and North America.
In Bangladesh, though children's help at home or in the field is a consideration, it is no longer seasonal on a nationwide basis. A more pertinent concern is the annual climate pattern that may affect children's attendance in school.
At present, it is expected that about two hundred days of teaching should occur during the school year with days off for the weekly holidays and other holidays during the year. Sheikh Shahbaz Riad, a professor at Dhaka Teachers' Training College, studied the present time used in schools and published a reform proposal in 2017. The proposal seems not to have received the attention of policymakers.
Riad examined the temperature and rainfall pattern and concluded that optimal use is not made for instruction of the more temperate and less rainy and stormy days of the year. The large number of days devoted to public national examinations held at the end of grade 5, 8, 10 and 12, which disrupt school routine for all students, not just the examinees, also reduces time for instruction.
The average daily maximum temperature in Dhaka in the months from October to March is between 25-32 degrees Celsius, whereas it is between 32-34 degrees Celsius for the months of April to September. The average number of rainy days between October and April is 0 to 8 days in a month, whereas it is 15 to 21 days between May to September (www.climatetotravel.com).
In the current school calendar, annual exams (other than public exams) and winding up the year occupy November and December. Admissions and starting the new year distract students and teachers from regular instruction in January and February. Full attention to instruction is neglected during the best part of the year, conducive for school attendance from a climate point of view.
Checking the examination schedule of a recent year, Riad reported that the total number of days for these examinations added up to 129 days (8 days for PECE and equivalent, 17 days for JSC and equivalent, 30 days for SSC/Dakhil, and a staggering 74 days for HSC/Fazil.)
Present school vacations interspersed throughout the year, and the long Ramadan holidays, tied to the cyclical lunar calendar, undermines the regularity of the school calendar. There is a good educational justification for continuity and predictability of the school calendar (with usual official holidays) and to go for a long, regular 10 to 12 weeks summer vacation. The summer months are less comfortable for school work, as explained. These months then can be used for in-service teacher upgrading and special remedial lessons for students who have fallen behind. There is no strong reason for shutting down schools during Ramadan when everything else functions, albeit with modified daily hours.
The new curricular framework proposed by NCTB (to be introduced in 2022) provides for 185 school days with 5 school days in a week. It also helpfully proposes that public exams for grade 5 and 8 will end and the first public exam will be at the end of grade 10. Moreover, the total number of days spent in public exams will be cut to 5 days for each by limiting these exams to a few key subjects. School level assessment is envisaged for the other subjects. School's annual and term exams also will be shortened and continuing formative assessment of students will be emphasised as part of the instruction.
Whether the school week should be 5 days need further consideration, given that many schools are run on double shifts, limiting the duration of the school day. The new curriculum time-table appears not to allow sufficient time for co-curricular activities or give due importance to these as essential elements of the school experience and means of achieving the broader curriculum objectives. The sixth day or two half days of the week may be devoted specifically to regular co-curricular learning activities.
The proposed assessment reforms, if implemented properly, will lead to improved teaching and learning. In the spirit of reforms, it is the right time to rethink the school calendar and make it more child- and learning-friendly.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to shutting down of schools for most of 2020. The school may reopen in the new year, but with modified school routine and perhaps partial or alternate day attendance. There will be a huge task of recouping the learning loss of almost a whole year and adjusting the school year. Taking advantage of the necessity, the 2021 school year may be shortened to January to August (without any prolonged break in 2021) and the 2021-22 academic year may begin on September 15. This would be a fitting change in school education in the 50th year of independent Bangladesh.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University.