Multi-lingual schools get attendance up in the hill districts

multi-lingual school
Children in the hill districts are now learning the basics in their mother tongues, pushing attendance rates up. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh

Going to school was never a real possibility for the children in the village of Alutila, a remote hamlet that houses a smattering of villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Torn by decades of conflict and lacking basic infrastructure, the region had few schools to begin with, and those that did exist taught curriculum in Bangla to classrooms full of children from various ethnicities and mother-tongues.


  • 300 community-run schools and 700 teachers are improving enrollment and attendance rates in the CHT.
  • Two-thirds of the population in the hill districts have been served by education, health and capacity development services provided with UNDP support

Most children, overwhelmed by the demands of learning a new language without having mastered their own, dropped out of the system within weeks. When the peace accord was signed in 1997 changes gradually rippled through the system and spending on primary education in the CHT started gaining priority.

Hemali Tripura was only five years old when her parents enrolled her in the pre-primary Multi Lingual Education (MLE) programme at the non-government primary school at Alutila. As a Tripura by ethnicity she and her parents had only ever learnt their mother tongue, and the family was wary of enrolling their only daughter in a school where the medium of learning was Bangla.  In the course of the past two years they have discovered that these MLE schools are built around the awareness that the medium of instruction has to be customized to accommodate the diversity of languages that the CHT represents.

The MLE programme is managed under the UNDP’s CHTDF project “Support to Basic Education in the Chittagong Hill Tracts” and proved to be the beginning of a new chapter in Hemali’s life. One where education takes precedence with her parents viewing it as her way out poverty. While she may only have taken the first step towards education, not even that would have happened if she was forced to start her studies in Bangla.

In December 2009, with funding from the European Union, CHTDF began a new phase focusing on making education relevant and accessible to young people. This initiative resulted in the introduction of multilingual education in 150 schools in the region.

At the Alutila Punarbashan Para Model Primary School Hemali’s MLE started and in a few years she has made remarkable progress. As her teacher said, “When Hemali first joined the class she was a shy girl. Slowly she started to take an interest in her studies and became an active student in the class. Tripura being the medium of learning in the classroom made a big difference in how Hemali interacted in class. Because of mother tongue learning, Hemali was able to understand what was being taught and this sparked an interest in her to learn.”

Henrik Fredborg Larsen, Director, CHTDF, UNDP says, “With 11 ethnically diversified groups of CHT where a significant proportion of them are only familiar with their mother tongue the importance of learning in one’s mother tongue cannot be overstated,” when speaking about the importance of MLE Education.

He goes on to say, “Recently studies in this field have shown that mother tongue based instruction can significantly help improve learning performances of early learners.”

Now a student in grade two, Hemali comes first in class. “When I started in studying I was scared. I thought what would I do in school? But once I started classes, I realized that we were learning in Tripura and I could understand what was being taught. Being taught in Tripura meant I could understand the teacher and I could talk and learn. I enjoy studying in my own mother tongue,“ says Hemali when talking about her experiences.

Like Hemali, students in the Pre-primary MLE programme at the school attend classes regularly and take an active interest in learning. However, the school faces many challenges. Many of the villagers still do not understand the value of a good education. In overcoming the situation, the project staff together with the School Management Committee (SMC) organizes regular consultation meetings with the community to highlight the importance of sending their children to school especially given that the children will be taught in their mother tongue first to ease the transition to primary school learning down the road.

While the MLE concept has proved to be an innovative idea some problems still remain. A.H.M Mohiuddin, Sr. Technical Advisor-Education, CHTDF says, “The absence of an agreed MLE strategy at a national level is problem,” when talking about the larger issues that still need to be addressed.

CHT has historically low enrolment rates (12 percent in some communities) and even worse dropout rates (56 to 65 percent). Programmes such as MLE are stemming the tide and in a small way adding to Bangladesh’s impressive primary education enrollment statistics. Bangladesh is currently on track to achieve 100 percent primary school enrollment by 2015, one component of Millennium Development Goal 2.

The only problem is the goal of 100 percent primary school enrollment continues to face a number of obstacles especially in CHT as it closes in on magical number of 100 percent success. Often the schools come across difficulties hiring teachers, as there are few SSC pass candidates available for the post. The programme implemented in partnership with the Ministry of CHT Affairs provides training and orientation on MLE materials and methods of teaching.

Currently there are over 100 students from pre-primary through grade five. Out of 300 families in the village around 156 families send their children to Alutila Punarbason Para Model NGPS now. This commendable progress was possible largely because of the mother tongue based MLE introduced at the beginning of learning.

In starting the long journey of educating themselves, starting with mother tongue learning for children often means higher attendance rates, lower drop out rates, a better quality of education and lower rate of readmission in the same class.

As Hemali’s family hopes with her good grades and her keen interest in school, Hemali will one day graduate from High School and go onto higher studies. The CHTDF programme on MLE learning in pre-primary schools implemented by the Hill District Councils and funded by the European Union thus paves the way for quality education for the children in the remote areas of the CHT.

The CHTDF project is jointly funded by AusAid, CIDA, Danida, JICA, EU, Norway and USAID.

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