|Bangladeshi children: Fight the decades of underachievement
Thu 11 Dec 2003
Most Bangladeshi pupils underachieve in education and are under-represented in employment in Britain. The Census 2001 highlights that 78 % of Bangladeshi boys and 63 % of girls, averaging 70.5 % underachieve in GCSEs, and 40 % of the Bangladeshi young people aged between 16-24 are unemployed. Their underachievement can be traced back to the 1980s. The Swan Report (1985) first revealed the detailed educational performance of Bangladeshi pupils and showed that they were the lowest achieving group in comparison with their other Asian or White counterparts. Before that, their educational performance was not recognised as an issue and was focused either jointly with Pakistanis or they were regarded collectively as a South Asian group. Their underachievement in education has continued to this day.
Many studies have revealed that most Bangladeshi children underachieve in education due to a lack of communication skills. Whether they are born and/ or brought up in the UK, many of them fail to meet the demands of the National Curriculum which requires certain levels of literacy and numeracy skills. Once they start to underachieve in education, they lose interest in their lessons, become demotivated and start to truant from school which eventually leads them to be disengaged from education. Other problems include overcrowded housing, racism, inappropriate support from the National Curriculum (NC), low self-esteem, lack of parental involvement into their children's education, extended holidays etc.
The National Curriculum is academic oriented and designed to support those students who possess sufficient levels of communication skills. This cannot support appropriately those students who lack these skills, although they might have possessed vocational and/or occupational skills. It is true and internationally accepted, that students might possess any of these skills and they have the right to obtain the full benefits from the National Curriculum. It has been evident from previous research that the National Curriculum is suitable for some but not for all. About 30% of Bangladeshi children are academic and able to achieve 5 GCSEs at grades A* - C similar to their White and Indian counterparts. However, about 70% of them do not possess academic skills and the National Curriculum cannot support them to utilize their other skills within school-context and this is contributing to underachievement among many Bangladeshi children. But language skills should not be used as the ultimate test to assess one's talent. The National Foundation for Educational Research claims that underachievers could have talent and let their talent shine. Bangladeshi children have talent. One of their potential skills is 'practical skill' for which the curriculum does not offer support to utilize within a school-context. Their hands speak faster than their mouths but only the sounds of their mouths are heard and that of their hands is being ignored.
Whilst more than two decades have passed and many studies have revealed the reasons for their low attainment in schools, to date there has been no detailed empirical study at any level suggesting ways and means of reducing their underachievement. In the absence of such studies, I explored, through my PhD research, the benefits of work-related learning (WRL) within the school curriculum for Bangladeshi students in Years 10 and 11. Evidence suggests that work-related learning is particularly useful for those students who are not adequately supported to achieve their highest potential within a school-context, to develop various important skills which are needed for adult life.
WRL is defined as learning 'through work, about work and for work'. WRL at Key Stage 4 (Yrs. 10 & 11) can take place through any planned activity using work as a context for learning, which illustrates aspects of working life. WRL 'through work', that is through work experience and enterprise activities, is intended to improve motivation and attainment. Learning 'about work' through vocational courses is also intended to increase pupils' understanding of themselves and of the world of work and its contribution to the community. Learning 'for work' seeks improvement of key skills including literacy, numeracy, communication, improving one's own performance, working with others and Information Technology (IT). This can help young people at the stage of transition from school to adult and working life.
It is an opportunity, particularly for the low-achievers of education, who are not being adequately supported by the National Curriculum, to spend time up to one day per week in a work place, training place, or a college, which could hopefully prepare them for life after school. Students on WRL schemes can replace two of the three following subjects: Science, Modern Foreign Language, or Technology. Under Section 363 of the 1996 Education Act, the Secretary of State for Education has empowered the schools to set aside, or modify, parts of the NC in Yrs. 10 & 11 provided that the schools have workable plans and structures in place as a complementary education to the other subjects studied in schools. It can provide credits towards a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ). This blended learning through the use of an out-of-school context is supervised and monitored by teachers appointed to the task and designed to complement the GCSE work at school.
The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) launched programmes to provide financial and other forms of support to a range of locally derived and delivered WRL projects since 1997. The Government has committed to high quality WRL for 14-16 year olds and these WRL projects were launched in an attempt to fulfil this commitment. The projects aimed to encourage innovative arrangements for WRL and to make sure that further education colleges and training providers can take part in the projects by offering appropriate courses for 14-16 year olds in collaboration with Local Education Authorities (LEAs) and schools. Between 1997-2003 about 95% of secondary schools in the UK have included WRL within the school curriculum and about 80,000 students are involved in the programme. The evaluation reports of these projects indicate success, particularly for the low-achievers in education who are reported as being 'back on the track'.
WRL comprises activities for students of all ages, but it is particularly beneficial for the low achievers of education. The main objective of WRL is to prepare students for working life. This is done by incorporating aspects of the world of work into the 14-19 curriculums in order to develop the appropriate skills, knowledge and understanding required for the world of work which many students cannot develop through classroom based education. It involves pupils becoming involved with partnerships with further education colleges, training providers and employers. Some students might benefit from a specially designed course offered in college. They can improve necessary skills from a different environment and approach i.e. practical approach and become motivated to go on to further and higher education. Some others might benefit from a specially designed training course and on leaving school they can choose a work-based training i.e. modern apprenticeships and work towards achieving National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) or go on to further education or employment. Some other students for who options of a college or training course are not appropriate, might choose to work with an employer according to their ability and career interests. On leaving school they might be able to develop skills which are necessary to stay on education or training and choose one of them, or find an employment. It is expected that students on work placement for one day every week for about two years could be able to learn the work. It should be noted that students on college or training course also will have the option of work placement and students can move within the WRL programmes. Whatever the case, learning outcomes and qualifications will depend, to some degree, upon the individual pupils' ability and career aspirations. For this reason, it is seen to be important that schools, training providers and colleges are aware of this programme. As a result, students can find routes into Further Education, Higher Education, modern apprenticeships and employment.
Work-related learning is a method designed to help students develop their learning. For example, whilst some nursery children can learn the alphabet from the rhyme `a for apple, b for ball, c for cat etc', others might find this method unsuitable for them and they might like to actually see an apple, a ball and a cat etc in order to the learn alphabet. Similarly, evidence from research suggests that Bangladeshi students who fail to develop skills from the classroom-based and pedagogy learning system, can develop by going through the practical approach. Bangladeshi researchers including Zubaida Haque and Dil Afroze Quader have cited in their PhD theses that Bangladeshi children are 'practical flavoured'. This statement is consistent with my pilot and PhD researches. It can also be remembered that learning from a practical approach is traditional to Bangladeshis. Most of the first generation members of Bangladeshi society came to the UK with little or no English. However, they were able to develop tacit knowledge from work and found jobs with English employers. The contribution of the first generation in building up British leather factories, plastic factories, textile and manufacturing industries are well remembered by the community. The BBC has revealed that 65% of the Bangladeshi workforce in the UK and in Bangladesh pick up their skills from work.
WRL is not a separate curriculum; it is an alternative method of learning within the curriculum. It should not be misunderstood that Bangladeshi children are suitable only for work-related learning. It is for all students but particularly beneficial to low achievers in education. The students would attend school for four days a week and spend one day in an out-of-school context. The schools, parents, students and careers officers will work together to decide which student could benefit from which placement. The Department for Education and Skills and the school will set out a contract to be signed by the employer. The students will follow a well-designed programme which should not only contribute in improving practical skills but also in complementing GCSE work at school. It has been evident from my research, and also from the DfES Projects on work-related learning involving the under-achievers, that the students are able to develop a wide range of skills which are conducive to GCSE work and most of them are able to either stay on education and training or find employment.
Schools play an important role in making students aware of the opportunities that are available to them through work related learning. Schools can also help by providing opportunities for them to develop and practice their skills of employability, provide direct and indirect experiences of working environments, experiences of communication with different working personnel, creating problem-solving scenarios that may arise at work and opportunities to look at the labour market to develop awareness and understanding of the local and national employment patterns. Young people need, and benefit from, a broad and balanced curriculum where WRL is an integral part. The world of work is always changing and young people's training and skills gained at school should reflect this. Thus, students need to be prepared by developing skills to enhance their employability. By getting involved in WRL, students can be aware of how their school work may be related and applied to employment situations.
There are three ways in which a student can follow a WRL programme:
a) Pupils can follow WRL as a built up programme in the curriculum including different subjects such as citizenship, and personal, health and social education (PHSE) which can be supplemented by careers education and work experience.
b) Pupils can follow vocational courses (e.g. GNVQ)
c) Pupils can follow an extended WRL programme through placements with FE College, training provider and employer.
I explored the benefits of extended work-related learning programme through my doctoral research. Most of the results of my research are consistent with those of DfES Projects. Many important skills which students could develop by going through an extended work-related learning programme include: Oral, reading, writing and telephone skills; numeracy and information technology skills, working with others, improving own learning and performance and problem-solving skills; raised motivation, punctuality, attendance, careers and educational awareness and social and life skills etc.
Work-related learning has not been introduced country-wide as yet. The DfES Projects are working across the country. Some schools in a Bangladeshi populated area, for example, Camden, Tower Hamlets, Newham Councils, have already been involved in the tester programmes of work-related learning. It is expected that Bangladeshi children would be able to reduce the rate of underachievement amongst them. However, it should also be noted that work-related learning is not a panacea. It is not an ultimate solution. It is one of the ways to reduce underachievement. There are failures noted in the evaluation report of the DfES projects due to planning mistakes made by schools. The schools should have a workable and effective plan for the students. They should recruit the right student for the right placement; liaise with parents, careers officers and employers etc. Bangladeshi parents should also consider that, perhaps, no course could support their children if they are absent from the classroom due to time spent in Bangladesh on extended holidays.
I would like to highlight here that work-related learning is also being offered in countries outside the UK including Japan, USA, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Norway. It is very interesting to know that 75% of young people in Switzerland follow work-related learning programmes (Vocational) and apparently none of the young people are unemployed, in contrast to the 40% of Bangladeshi young people (16-24) who are unemployed in the U.K.
Finally I would like to draw the attention of community students, parents and significant members to work together to persuade schools where Bangladeshi children attend to incorporate a suitable work-related learning programme in their school curriculum.
Mohammed Abul Lais
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