Innocenti Working Papers

The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (IRC) was created to strengthen UNICEF's research capability and to support its advocacy for children worldwide. The Working Papers (formerly Innocenti Occasional Papers), are the foundation of the Centre's research output, underpinning many of the Centre's other publications. These high quality research papers are aimed at an academic and well-informed audience, contributing to ongoing discussion on a wide range of child-related issues.


The Urban Divide

Poor and Middle Class Children’s Experiences of School in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Children living in urban slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh, often have poor access to school and attend different types of school than students from middle class households. This paper asks whether their experiences in school also disadvantage them further in terms of their learning outcomes and the likelihood of dropping out. It is based on interviews with 36 students aged 11-16 from both slum and middle-class backgrounds, in 2012. Most of the participants were in private schools, and learning was overwhelmingly geared towards assessment and the memorisation of set content. Though teachers were sometimes hard-working in preparing their students for examinations, ultimate responsibility fell to the students. Ranking and labelling of students kept their examination performance salient at all times. Teacher-student relationships varied from the supportive to the abusive. Beating and humiliating punishment were common in all types of school, despite a recent legal ban on the former. Lessons were sometimes dry, irrelevant to students’ lives, and with little scope for active student engagement. A new emphasis on ‘creative learning’ in curricula and teacher training had, at the time of the study, yet to filter into the classroom. Students were subject to the risk of violence both outside and inside the school, whatever their background. However, it was much easier for middle class students to change school when they ran into problems, or to employ private tutors if they needed more help with their lessons. Their way of talking about school reflected a strong sense of inevitability that they would at least complete secondary education, whereas students from slums were limited to one or two local options and even there, their places in the classroom were precarious. The paper discusses how these experiences in school are likely to heighten the risk of dropping out for slum students, analyses the results in terms of de-facto privatization and school accountability, and recommends better regulation of private tuition, and teaching styles that are less obsessed with examination results.


Keywords: education, urban poverty, Bangladesh, informal settlements, secondary schools
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