Hindu mother Sabitri Rani with her daughter Asha at Deshiapara Child Education Center in Pirganj in Thakurgaon district of Bangladesh on Oct. 15. The school, run by the Lighthouse project of Caritas Bangladesh with funding from the European Union, is due to close in December when the project ends. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Sanjit Pahan, 11, an ethnic Pahan and Hindu, has always been fascinated by aircraft flying over his remote and forested village in Bangladesh.
The eldest of two sons of a poor farmer, Sanjit resides with his family in a thatched house in Koromtali village in the Birampur area of Dinajpur district. Life is a daily struggle against abject poverty. Yet Sanjit has a big dream — he wants to become a pilot.
In 2012, his dream moved slightly closer when Catholic charity Caritas Dinajpur set up the first primary school in Prayagpur, about five kilometers from Koromtoli.
"It takes about 30 minutes by foot to reach the school through a road through the forest. I want to become a pilot and fly over the sky after completing my education," Sanjit, a fourth grader, told ucanews.com.
Sanjit's younger brother studies in first grade at Prayagpur Child Education Center, which has about 100 children in two shifts receiving basic primary education from grades one to five. All the kids are from the poorest and marginalized communities. Many had never received formal education or had dropped out of school.
Sadly, Sanjit's dream may die soon — the school is due to close in December due to a funding shortage.
"I see many children don't go to school. Instead they help their parents in the fields or go hunting. I want to go to school at any cost and I want to fulfil my dream," he said.
Students in their classroom at Prayagpur Child Education Center in the Birampur area of Dinajpur district on Oct. 15. Children from poor families have benefited from free primary education. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
In 2012, Caritas received funding of 10 million euros (US$11.4 million) from the European Union and Caritas France to offer basic education to thousands of poor children across Bangladesh.
A project called Aloghor (Lighthouse) is part of the EU's Supporting the Hardest to Reach through Basic Education (SHARE) non-formal primary education program.
Under the six-year Lighthouse project, Caritas was entrusted to set up 1,005 schools in 27 districts of Bangladesh and offer basic education to more than 158,000 unschooled and dropout children from communities with no school at all.
The scheme now has 911 schools. A total of 94 schools were closed over the years as they were in areas that now have at least one government-run school.
A Lighthouse school has 30-120 students depending on capacity, while the project has 1,339 teachers and 172 staff, according to Shishir Angelo Rozario, head of the Lighthouse project.
Besides free education, children are also given essentials including books, exercise notebooks, pencils, pens and play materials.
Children from ethnic minorities receive education in their mother tongue from teachers from their own communities.
The term of Lighthouse ended last November. However, Caritas officials appealed to the EU to extend the project to December 2018 so that students could enter the mainstream education system.
"Funding was extended for a year but the project will close in December. Over the years, we have been able to put about 12,000 students into the mainstream education system. We are still concerned about what we can do for the rest," Rozario told ucanews.com.
A student reads during a lesson at a Lighthouse project education center. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Caritas has been trying hard to secure donors to continue the project.
"Donor agencies are not keen on funding education projects as they think education is the responsibility of the government. However, the reality in Bangladesh is different and lots of children still need support to get basic education," Rozario said.
Attempts are being made to run the schools with funding from eight Catholic dioceses, a church source told ucanews.com.
Despite a remarkable drop in the poverty rate, from 31 percent in 2010 to 21.8 percent in 2018, millions still live below the poverty line in largely agricultural Bangladesh, according to the World Bank.
Poverty is a major barrier to education in a country where the official literacy rate is about 60 percent.
Although primary education is free in government schools, students must pay tuition fees in private schools.
Government officials say annual primary school enrolment is 100 percent, but educationists say millions drop out of school after grade five because their families cannot afford their tuition fees from grade six.
In 2016, about 38 percent of students dropped out of secondary schools in Bangladesh, according to the state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Education Information and Statistics.
In 2014, a UNICEF report said that 27 million children aged 5-13 were not in school in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, 5.6 million children were not in school.
Parents, community leaders and church educators have expressed concern that the end of the Lighthouse project would force many poor children to stay out of school.
Sabitri Rani, 31, a Hindu mother of two daughters in the Pirganj area of Thakurgaon district, is anxious about the impending closure of Deshiapara Child Education Center funded by Lighthouse. She and her husband are agricultural workers.
"The Lighthouse school brought a light of hope for poor people like us. We are sad to see the project closing down," she told ucanews.com.
"The school offered comprehensive education — extracurricular activities, general knowledge and courtesy — to make children become good human beings. Without the Lighthouse school, I think many children will be deprived of quality basic education."
A teacher takes a class at Deshiapara Child Education Center on Oct. 15. Hundreds of such schools in Bangladesh face an uncertain future as the Lighthouse project phases out in December. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Samuel Mardy, an ethnic Santal community leader in Birampur, fears that at least 70 percent of children from ethnic communities would drop out of education without a Lighthouse school.
"Lighthouse schools have had a special focus on the needs of children from minority communities because these communities are backward in terms of education and largely impoverished. With this advantage gone, most ethnic students would drop out," Mardy told ucanews.com.
Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board, said the EU decision not to continue the project is a result of Bangladesh government policy.
"Development groups are doing great in the education sector, but the government has been insisting that international donor groups donate directly to the state, citing that education is government responsibility," Gomes told ucanews.com.
He noted that government projects are often marred by irregularities and corruption, so the real purpose of funding might not be attained.
"Often the government allocates funds to NGOs for education, but in order to get it an organization must have strong political connections and rely on corrupt means. The EU has a soft corner for people in remote areas and downtrodden communities, but it cannot bypass the government," Gomes added.
An EU spokeswoman said there was nothing unusual in closing down a project after it had reached the end of its term.
"Reaching out to schoolchildren, with a particular focus on those that are hardest to reach such as minorities, children with disabilities or children living in remote areas, remains a priority for the EU. This is in line with U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 4 and is embedded in the EU's overall approach of strengthening education systems," she told ucanews.com.
"The EU is an important partner of Bangladesh's national fourth Primary Education Development program. This program foresees the continuation of such initiatives, including addressing out-of-school children in a systematic manner. The EU's budget support to Bangladesh in primary education takes this into account."