Poverty is not the reason why kids are dropping out. It’s something else.

Is ‘poverty’ the real cause for children to drop out? Image: adb.org

There is a wide-spread believe among the development agencies and NGOs that children drop out from primary schools due to poverty. That’s why most of the education programmes are designed in a way keeping ‘poverty’ of the households of the students in mind. Free schooling, free stationary, free lunch and many more ‘free’ services are provided to entice the drop outs back to school.

Let’s take Bangladesh as an example. To achieve MDG, Government of Bangladesh invested heavily on making new schools in every parts of the country, made primary school completely free for children. It helped a lot to achieve the MDG — making sure 100% of the children are enrolled in the schools. NGOs and development agencies pumped billions of dollars to make universal enrollment in primary schools. So, why more than 20% of the students are dropping out before completing the primary school?

NGOs then come up with projects that address the drop out crisis. They try to bring these drop out kids back to school. Some of them complete the primary level and never enroll in high school or drop out again from high school. Now what? Should they again come up with projects to reduce drop-out rate from high school level?

Students are not dropping out from primary schools because they are poor. Primary school is free in Bangladesh.

In my last 8 years of experience, working with development organizations and NGOs and for last few years with my own social enterprise — Light of Hope, I’ve found very little evidence that tells otherwise. I’ve talked with hundreds of children who dropped out and their parents to find out the real reason behind the drop out in the first place.

And what I found is a very simple — parents from low income families don’t see the ‘real value’ of education. For them, if the kids can learn to read and do a little bit math that’s all they will need to go on with their lives. No need to waste years after years in schools. Children earning 2000–3000 tk per month now is far more valuable than children earning 10,000–12,000 tk after 14–15 years of education.

No amount of ‘free’ stuff can keep them to continue their children’s education. The moment the value of ‘free stuff’ will be less than the potential income of the children, they will flip.

Most of the dropped out children I talked with, said they find the school boring. They are not interested to go to school. Rather they will work and earn some extra cash for their family and for themselves. They asked me, why should I go? I will never be a doctor, engineer or earn a lot of money.

They understand the reality that they will never be at the university and if you can’t complete university you will never get a good job. So why waste so much time for initial few years of schooling?

How can we bring this or even keep the existing students are bored, don’t get any excitement from classes and can’t connect the education with their real lives to schools? That should be the real question we should ask ourselves.

How can we make schooling fun, interesting and connect the learning with real life for children? How can we convince the parents from lower income families that schooling will matter for their children’s well-being?

Poverty is never the ‘root cause’ of anything. Poverty is the outcome of lack of opportunities and our inability as society to nurture the human talent to grow to its full potential.