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Education 3-13 Vol. X, No. X, Month 200X, 000-000

Informality of Teaching and Learning in Nonformal Schools: Sociocultural Processes as Meso-systems of Student Development

M Mahruf C Shohel and Andrew J Howes

The University of Manchester


The flexible environment of nonformal primary schools in a community context in Bangladesh facilitates the individual development of young people who would otherwise be excluded from the school system. This paper aims to explore the features of institutional and wider context which support this nonformal learning environment, as well as contrasting it with those features which create a very different and far less flexible environment in formal high schools. The paper draws on a five-year longitudinal study of students making the transition from nonformal primary to formal high school using ecological systems theory as a framework from two geographical sites in Bangladesh. Data suggests that children’s learning is facilitated by the interlinked contexts of nonformal school and family / community. In contrast, the separation of formal high school from family and community appears to contribute to early dropout. This paper raises some questions worthy of further research and will contribute to the emerging debate about nonformal education and its impact on future educational development for achieving millennium development goals (MGDs).


Nonformal education is a highly important arena for developing countries such as Bangladesh. Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are launching nonformal primary education programmes which cater for children who have not enrolled or dropped out from school. Their primary objective is to prepare students to enter or re-enter the formal education sector. After completing courses from nonformal education (NFE) programmes children are able to continue their education by enrolling in formal primary or high schools at the appropriate level. In this way nonformal education is complementary to formal education for disadvantaged people in the country.

Nonformal primary schools are dissimilar from formal high schools in respect of infrastructure, facilities and resources (Shohel, 2008). Most BRAC[i] nonformal schools are one-room schools with limited floor space. The classroom is very neat and clean and students sit on mats on the floor. There are commonly about 30 students, two-thirds of whom are usually girls, in the school. The teacher, generally a female with at least 10 years of schooling, is chosen from the community where the school is situated. Children begin school at a minimum age of six, but are often older. The same teacher teaches the same group of students from Grade I (between 6 and 8 years of age) to Grade V (between 11 and 14 years of age) when they finish the primary education cycle. Though an annual exam has been introduced in BRAC school, continuous assessment of students’ performance is its feature (BRAC 1997:3).

The informality of nonformal school environment has flexibility for teaching and learning in a community context where interactions between school and community are very influential and fruitful for students’ development. In parents meeting, ‘parents and teacher discuss the children’s progress, attendance, cleanliness and hygiene, the responsibility of parents towards their children, and any school problems requiring parental attention’ (BRAC 1997).

In the formal school, by contrast, links are neither acknowledged nor valued. Home is often seen as a source of problems, rather than affording the potential for mutual positive influence. For many children ‘formal schooling is, to a large degree, the struggle to substitute one kind of tradition (or knowledge) for another within the mind of the child’ (Wax and Wax 1971:15). But promoting children’s willingness or motivation to achieve, inevitably at the expense of others, is not an unproblematic goal of schooling. One result is unemployment and frustration, as large numbers of graduates come to the job market. In response to our question, ‘Why do some parents not want to send their children to high school?’- an NGO worker said:

When you ask the parents about it, they say: you see my neighbour’s son got education, even he finished his college education but didn’t manage to get a job. He is hanging around and became burden for his father. Because he got some education, now he can’t work as a day laborer. Most parents don’t value education. Also they don’t see a good reason to send their children to schools. [Interview, NGO Worker, Bogra 2005]

In developing country contexts, both the individual effects of poverty on children and the macro-effects of societal poverty on the amount and quality of school resources seem to affect negatively children's high school progress and performance. Which is more important? And therefore how plausible is early intervention as an approach to improving children's high school progress and performance? In our view, both are important. We would argue that under the conditions described above investment decisions should not be taken in an either-or framework. Early childhood and primary education investments in the developing countries like Bangladesh will be closely linked in their usefulness and productivity. Investment in one maximizes the productivity of investment in the other, especially if there is continuity between the two in purpose, philosophy, and pedagogy.

Nonformal schools are a good example of such investment. They are targeted towards marginalised children and give preferential enrolment to children of landless and nearly landless households. The school curricula and school policies are designed to fit the needs of poor children who may have to work while attending school.

Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework for the study was Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1992) ecological system view of human development, which focuses on the way different contexts influence children’s development. This framework suggests that the development of children and young people cannot be effectively understood without paying attention to the influence of interaction between microsystems, exosystems and macrosystems. For children, microsystems are usually considered to include the family, peer group, school and community, and interaction between them is called meso-system interaction (see Table 1 below). Only this committed and broad perspective, says Bronfenbrenner, can do justice to the reality of human development. It is far too easy, for example, to essentialise the child or young person as a pupil, rather than a person, and to see school transition only in terms of increasing academic expectations. In the context of problems and difficulties, any such simplification leads to inappropriate blaming and unrealistic solutions, because it ignores the interrelationship of highly significant factors.


Figure 1: Diagrammatic representation of ecological systems theory

Table 1: Description of ecological systems (adopted from Bronfenbrenner 1979 and 1992; Feldman 2003).

|System |Description |

|Microsystems |This is the immediate environment, in which a person is operating. Microsystems are the systems that|

| |intimately and immediately shape human development. The primary microsystems for a person include |

| |the family, peer group, classroom, and sometimes a church, temple, or mosque as well.  |

|Mesosystems |This refers to the interaction between experiences in the microsystems, such as the connection |

| |between a child’s home and school. Interactions among the microsystems, as when parents and teachers|

| |coordinate their efforts to educate the child, take place through the mesosystem. The mesosystem |

| |manifests itself through the bonding that takes place between the individual and members of the |

| |microsystem. |

|Exosystems |Surrounding the microsystems is the exosystem, which includes all the external networks, such as |

| |community structures and local educational, medical, employment, and communications systems, that |

| |influence the microsystems. |

|Macrosystems |Influencing all other systems are the macrosystems. These are the larger cultural context in which |

| |we live. |

In this paper, we focus attention on transition between different types of school as a potentially critical life event in the development of the child or young person, and therefore as a lens which links personal, cultural and economic factors through the meso-level factors of school and home, family, and religion, in connection with changing or dominant aspects of the culture, society and community.

From the micro-level perspective of the individual child or young person, their experience of transition will depend on what it means to them personally, which is likely to be affected by, e.g. their biological development, their personality, and their own particular way of making sense of situations. For example, the child or young person will be leaving behind meaningful relationships and creating new ones; the meaning that those relationships have may be positive or negative, and the meaning may be expressed in terms of other aspects of the child’s experience. Understanding transition from the point of view of the child provides a way of investigating the validity of Bronfenbrenner’s framework in the particular context under study. The challenge was to develop a methodology which would generate data of appropriate richness and depth.

This paper focuses on school influence from this perspective, seeing the institutional culture of school as representative of the school as a whole, and as having a significant effect on the relationships and practices in which students are involved, or from which they are excluded. We find it helpful to interpret this notion of institutional culture through considering four aspects of transition from primary to high school: the psycho-physical, socio-cultural, pedagogical and environmental dimensions (Shohel, 2008), along with the wider socio-political influences of context (see Figure 2). These can all be seen as mesosystem interactions, influencing directly the micro-level experience of transition.

Figure 2: Impacts of institutional culture and socio-political influences on individual development (Shohel, 2008)

These dimensions are intended as useful categories for thinking; they derive from the literature but are largely intuitive, and it is relatively straightforward to understand how they exert their influence. For example, norms and assumptions about psycho-physical development are very prominent in the institutional culture of school. The expectation on students in many classrooms is that they will listen to and obey the teacher, and this expectation is supported by the accepted practice of physical punishment in many schools. But such an expectation is dependent on what the school as a whole values and sees as important. As we will see, nonformal schools challenge the largely unquestioned norms of formal schooling, with important consequences for students’ experience of transition to formal high school. Another dimension of institutional culture is embedded in assumptions and norms about the school environment. Classroom environments significantly affect teaching and learning, but this environment is largely determined by what is generally accepted in the school, and by the allocation of resources to maintaining that environment. Again, nonformal schools tend to work to different norms.


The empirical study and the data which follow are drawn from findings of a longitudinal (2003-2007) doctoral research project focusing on transition from the nonformal to the formal education sector, in the context of Bangladesh. The research is based in two distinct geographical districts - namely Bogra and Narsingdi – the latter having a higher socio-economic level, more devout religious practice and greater access to urban areas, and being closer to the capital Dhaka.

The data derives from fieldwork conducted in five phases in two rural areas of above-mentioned districts in Bangladesh. A programme of interviews, questionnaires and observations of students and teachers was set up in nonformal primary schools, and in formal high schools. Three nonformal feeder primary schools were purposively selected from each area, together with the linked high school in each case, based on the presence of graduates of nonformal primary school enrolled in the first grade at high school (Grade VI). Interview participants were selected using ‘criterion-based sampling’ (Patton 1990:176) from among those nonformal students who had the intention of going to high school, and from those who were already in selected high schools in the study areas. A research diary was maintained throughout the fieldwork periods for recording reflection in the field, and other stakeholders such as NGO workers were interviewed to generate wider understanding of process and context. From their position within the formal school, students reflect keenly on the qualities of the nonformal school, articulating them in a very rich way in conversations provoked by photographic images of school contexts (Shohel and Howes 2007).

Analysis and discussion

The analysis that follows focuses on how the school institutional culture impacts on transition and individual development through four dimensions of mesosystem interactions (see Figure 2).

Two systems of schooling

A summary of the major differences between the two types of schools being considered here shows how they differ along the four dimensions.

Table 2: Institutional differences between nonformal primary and formal high schools

|Dimension |Nonformal Primary Schools |Formal High Schools |

|Psychophysical |Teacher behaves like mother |Teacher behaves like authority |

| |No physical punishment |Physical punishment |

|Socio-cultural |Learners from one community |Learners from different communities |

| |Community participation |No community participation |

| |Cost-effective |Costly |

| |Cost free education |High cost of learning materials |

| |School hour is flexible |School hour is fixed |

|Pedagogical |Teacher-student ratio is low |Teacher-student ratio is much higher |

| |Very little homework |Heavy homework |

| |Follow adapted national curriculum |Follow national curriculum |

| |Flexible examination |Rigid formal examination |

| |Active learning activities (eg. quizzes, songs, |Low level of active learning activities |

| |dancing, drawing) | |

| |Regular supervision, strong motivation |Irregular supervision, less motivation |

|Environmental |Only one classroom |Many classrooms |

| |Normally no playground |Own playground |

| |Community toilets and water supply |Own toilets and water supply |

| |Schools are close to home |Schools may be far away from home |

In the course of transition, these differences contribute to significant and systematic sources of difficulty for young people. In the main section of the paper which follows, we explore how these differences are rooted in different institutional cultures, with significant consequences for learners making the transition between them.

Institutional cultures and the psycho-physical dimension level of heading????

There are strong assumptions and norms guiding practice in relation to eg. health education, and the way teachers relate to students in their care.

Health education and practice

An important aspect of the psycho-physical dimension is the attention paid in different schools to promoting particular health behaviours. In Bangladesh many NGOs recognise a correlation between a person’s education and health behaviour, and as a consequence they run community health and family planning programmes as well as schools. The associated values and norms extend into their school curriculum and through training into the teacher’s practice, for example in insisting on and modelling hygienic behaviour. As a consequence, nonformal schools tend to be clean and tidy, with pupils expected to follow basic rules of hygiene when using the toilet. More significantly in this dimension are the good hygiene habits that nonformal students form as a result of their school experience, and the expectations they have of themselves and their environment.

Students in formal high school who came from nonformal schools are very aware about health and hygiene issues. They love to talk about what they have learnt from their apa[ii] (teacher). Most of them are very unhappy with their high school environment especially the tube-well areas and toilets. Among the classmates, nonformal graduates are comparatively neat and clean though most of them wearing old cloths. [Observational Fieldnotes, Narsingdi, 2005]

By comparison, formal school teachers are not at all influenced by the practices informed by NGO activity in their local community, seeing that practice as irrelevant to them in their teaching profession. When they are teaching, they focus on their specialist subject, making no room either in the curriculum or in school practice to pay attention to health and hygiene issues. As a consequence, students in the formal system also pay little attention to these issues. When we asked a formal primary graduate about the tube-well area he said:

It is very normal here in this high school. In my primary school it was even worse then our high school. We’re used to it. [Interview, Formal Primary Graduate Student, Grade VI, 2005]

During the transition between nonformal and formal schools, awareness about health and hygiene can become a source of stress. One of the female students from a high school reported that she never used the toilets in that particular institution, because she found them very filthy and unhygienic:

I don’t like the toilets of this school. I don’t think that those are cleaning everyday and students who are using them, they don’t keep them clean. If you go to one of the toilets which students use, they’re disgusting, very filthy and smelly. Once I went into one of those toilets and was about to vomit. I came out straight away. I never used the toilet while I’m in the school and I don’t think I’ll ever go that toilet if I’m not in desperate need. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Narsingdi 2004].

Physically this student is harming her health, and also building up a negative attitude to school, which may well lead the student to dropout from school. Other students also reported that they did not like the dirty toilets, or the filthy tube-well area:

The tube-well area is so filthy! Sometimes children leave loo near to the tube-well. They also use the tube-well for cleaning themselves after shitting nearby which is disgusting and hazardous for public health because other people are using the same tube-well for drinking water. Even I can’t think how they do it. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, 2005]

The shock expressed by this student about the behaviour of others is indicative of the completely different assumptions that have informed their learning experiences.

Relationship with teachers

Students’ relationship with their teacher as well as with peers in nonformal primary school is typically cordial and informal. In response to our question: ‘Do you like school?’ a student said:

We do enjoy our school. You see on the image everyone is happy [referring to a photograph of students in class using textbooks]. We are so close to each other. We look like a family. Our apa is treating us, as we’re her own children. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Bogra 2005]

In response to our question: ‘Do you miss your primary school?’, one of the nonformal graduates said:

We do miss our primary school. We miss our apa. She was so kind and caring. She was so affectionate and always tried to explain the course content as long as we don’t understand it. She also motivates us to be an ideal student[iii]. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Narsingdi 2005]

In nonformal schools, pupils become used to interaction in the classroom with teachers, peers, and NGO workers (see below). Students become accustomed to outsiders and interact easily with them.

In contrast, the expectation on students and teachers in many formal high school classrooms is that students will listen to and obey the teachers. Ideologically young people are seen as needing to be controlled and developed, and consequently impositions are made on them through curriculum and school policy. It can be argued that from a more humanistic viewpoint, a successful high school career requires that teachers consult students and take into account their likes and dislikes in school. However, in these high schools there was no mechanism or interest in teachers consulting students. In response to the question: ‘Do you ever ask students what they like or dislike about this school?’ the teachers said:

We never think about it. Actually they come for education and we do our best with the resources we’ve got, following the Government curriculum. Whatever we do, we do it for their betterment. So their likes and dislikes might not important for the school improvement as long as school try to provide them education for better future. [Interview, Formal High School Teacher, Bogra 2006]

Recently in the UK and elsewhere researchers and practitioners started to explore the idea of ‘children as a decision-makers’, providing a critical edge to the education system from inside it. Informed by observation and interviews, we would argue it is important to develop this critical edge in Bangladeshi educational settings as well, to provide a counter to the dominant social norms in the school.

The philosophy of nonformal schooling directly discourages any kind of punishment for the learners. Teachers are typically motherly and try to motivate students to learn by showing affection and care. One of the nonformal graduates contrasted nonformal primary and formal high school practice as follows:

You know, in high school, teachers don’t bother whether you’ve learnt anything from their lessons or not. Don’t care whether you come to school or not. You see, she was sitting down with us on the mat [he was pointing to a photograph] like our mum. She hardly hit us. But in this school if you failed to answer the teacher’s question, you definitely will be slapped or beaten [either with hand or a stick]. I hate punishment in high school. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Narsingdi 2005]

Such corporal punishment is common practice in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas. Both physical and mental punishments are used:

If you don’t answer the question, then the teacher will hit you. They will slap you on your face or whip you with stick. Or they will ask you to stand up until the lecture is finished. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Narsingdi 2004]

In addition, financial penalties are used in some schools. For a day’s absence students can be fined 2 takas[iv]. If they flee from school, they can be fined 5 takas.

Well, if anyone is absent from the class, he or she will be fined. If she or he doesn’t pay the money, the teacher will beat him or her. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Bogra 2005]

Institutional cultures and the socio-cultural dimension

School is usually seen in policy as a socialising institution, as well as an educational one. This raises another significant aspect of the nonformal school: parental involvement is generally much stronger. Nonformal schools are situated in the locality and parents are involved with school management. School hours are decided by the parents, who can nearly always see or hear what is going on in the school. One NGO worker reflecting on community participation in nonformal primary schools:

Sometimes parents help the teacher arrange things in the school. Sometimes they provide necessary materials to make the school comfortable for students, such as mats, a jug of water etc. Teacher also talks to parents passing by about their children and send students to bring absent ones to the school. [Interview, NGO worker, Narsingdi 2004]

School is a social institution. Therefore, teacher-parent contact is very important to make a school effective. It also creates a social bond among parents and teachers. [Focus Group Discussion 1, Putia 2004]

By contrast, formal schools are typically situated near to public places such as the bazaar, away from students’ homes, with the result that parents do not know what is going on in the schools, or even whether their children are attending. Without teacher-parent interaction, it is very difficult for schools to perform a socialising role effectively.

There is regular teacher-parent meeting in nonformal primary schools under the supervision of NGO workers. In contrast, there is no regular teacher-parent meeting in formal high schools. [Focus Group Discussion 2, Madobdi 2004]

The teacher-parent relationship is an integral part of the nonformal school management system. In addition, micro-credit, health and family planning schemes are often administered through the same NGO office among the members of the same community. In formal schools contact between teachers and parents is minimal:

Teachers from formal high schools do not even bother to contact parents regarding their children academic achievements or any possible risk of school failure. [Focus Group Discussion 3, Fultala 2004]

Some teachers from formal high schools see the need to involve parents in their children’s school education. But parents in the formal school typically leave the school to carry out the educational task, for several reasons. Parents who have little education themselves struggle both with feelings of inferiority, and with all that they need to do to survive. Many have neither the inclination nor the time to get more involved.

The socio-cultural significance of school is often marked in the classroom through artefacts and displays. The following image shows a map of Bangladesh.


Photograph 1: A detail map of Bangladesh is hanging on the wall with charts

A student informed us:

We use to play with the map when apa wasn’t around. We tried to find out names of the places from the map and then asked other whether they can point the place or not. Whoever could find the place he got a point. Whoever told first it was his or her turn to ask the rest of us about the place. Though we hardly visit other places of our country, but we know almost all places names on the map and their geographical situation. It’s great experience of fun and learning. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Bogra 2005-2006]

In comparison, in the formal high school, national identity is reinforced by assemblies each morning, with an oath of allegiance to the flag. This is very effective in reinforcing expectations on future citizens, but is very different from education facilitated by resources in the nonformal school.

Institutional cultures and the pedagogical dimension

Curricula and subject contents have an enormous impact on the experience of schooling. The curriculum of formal primary and high school education in Bangladesh is highly centralised and there is a sequential scheme of work from Grade V (primary) to Grade VI (high school) in the formal education system. In practice, there is no chance for teacher to offer something beyond or outside the curriculum.

In terms of the primary curriculum, the basic difference between formal and nonformal sectors is that the formal curriculum is developed by the NCTB (National Curriculum and Textbooks Board) at the national level, and so presents a standard form across the country. It is a curriculum has very little to offer in relation to practical life skills, but it does lead directly into the high school curriculum. By contrast, the nonformal curriculum is an adapted form of the NCTB curriculum, containing more ‘life skills’ including awareness on health, nutrition and some other social issues developed by the responsible NGOs for that specific nonformal primary school, but it leaves nonformal graduates with gaps in their knowledge when they meet the high school curriculum.

In response to our question, ‘What have you learnt from your school so far and how do bring you knowledge into practice?’, one pupil told us:

I learnt how to plant trees, wash my clothes regularly and keep my hair and nails clean. I also taught these things to my younger sister. She understands the importance of these things. But sometimes she doesn’t like to follow these rules in everyday life. [Interview, Nonformal Student, Grade V, Narsingdi 2004]

In response to the same question, another respondent said:

I give more importance to wearing sandals when going to the toilet and cleaning my hands before eating. In health class we were told to brush teeth before going to bed and keep away flies, especially from foods. I live with my grandmother and do some work at home, so all these are quite useful I think [Interview Nonformal Student, Grade V, Bogra 2004].

In general, the nonformal school method pays much more attention to explanations of healthy and unhealthy behaviour, and there is a suggestion that these explanations are passed on to other members of the family. From the point of view of educational relevance, nonformal primary curriculum is more life-oriented then formal primary curriculum; it is based on the formal curriculum (taking account of the 53 competences outlined by the state as expected outcomes of primary education) but it is adapted by NGOs to fit local needs, placing emphasis on the needs of the target group.

Though we have to follow government curriculum for our nonformal primary schools, we not only reduce the formal curriculum, but also add different components which are relevant to the students’ life and which will be very useful for them in future. We use local materials in schools which are available locally. We run the school shift according to the parents’ opinions. In the same classroom different students can do different activities which are completely impossible in formal schools. We also give emphasis on co-curricular activities so that schools could be enjoyable learning experiences. [Interview, NGO Worker, Narsingdi 2004]

Another feature of the nonformal timetable and curriculum is flexibility, within limits. In the classroom students have some choice over the subjects they study and the activities in which they engage. Teachers take care of the students, paying particular attention to those left behind by their classmates, with a view to helping them catch up with the class progress.

In contrast, a fixed timetable is obligatory for formal high school students; the whole class is normally involved with same activities. As one of the formal high school teachers said about the constraints of the curriculum:

Time has been allocated for each subject. We’ve to complete the assigned part of the course before the students sit for exam. We don’t have enough scope to give a space to do different thing in the same class period. With a large class size it would be quite impossible to keep hold on the whole class. [Interview, Formal High School Teacher, Narsingdi 2005]

The topics learnt in nonformal schools are related to every day life such as cleanliness, habits, nutrition and health care. These, when taken home, can have a multiplier effect on the whole family. As one of the respondents said:

I would go home and share school activities with my parents and siblings. I’ve been encouraging my parents to send them to school so that my brother and sister can learn more about life. [Interview, Nonformal Student, Grade V, Bogra 2004].

NGOs invest extensively in the development of a culturally appropriate yet liberal curriculum and in preparing teachers through refresher training which includes healthcare components. Data from interviews conducted indicate that nonformal primary teachers plan their lessons regularly. But the teachers from formal high schools said that they cannot, because of their huge workload.

To understand learning process in nonformal schools, we did observation to see how teaching and learning take place in the classroom. In Phase-I fieldwork, during a social studies lesson, I noticed that:

The teacher narrated a story about what happened to a person who ate some food that was left uncovered. The story was followed by the text on diarrhoeal disease; its causes and prevention. [Observational Fieldnotes, Nonformal School, Narsingdi 2004]

Thus the teacher tried to speed the message of a particular lesson, using a story to drive it home. Storytelling and listening is a natural instinct of humans and an effective method for delivering messages and transforming knowledge.


Photograph 2: Handmade flower with pieces of colourful cloths by students hanging on the roof of the classroom

Nonformal graduates talked about how they had made flowers with colourful clothes, and how they decorated their classroom. Looking back to the primary school while seeing the Photograph 2, one respondent said:

We made those flower after apa showed us how to make flowers with colourful pieces of cloths. It’s a wonderful experience for us. You know our place is famous for loom industry. I know how to use a weaving machine. But I never made flowers with cloths. When apa showed us how to make flowers with clothes, we were excited. I went home and showed my mother how to make flowers with cloths. The following day, apa brought some colourful cloths and we made flowers together and hang those in our classroom. Later on I decorated our house too by cloths made flowers. You see how beautiful the classroom was! [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Narsingdi 2005-06]

This talk exemplifies what Bronfenbrenner called a bi-directional relationship: the activities done in school influence the home, as a mother learns how to make and display decorative flowers from her daughter. Flowers in the home become symbols of the school and the emphasis placed there on creative expression and aesthetic value. Evidence indicates that the high school by comparison is empty of symbols of fun and beauty: there is ‘nothing like that’ there. It is important to note the emotional content of the descriptions; evidence of the strong emotional value placed by young people on their nonformal school, and the relative lack of emotional connection with the high school environment.


Photograph 3: Students work made by clay hanging on the wall

Formal education, however, does not always teach by example. During an observation in formal school we noticed that class teacher was giving a lesson from home economics textbook about household weekly duty regarding cleanliness and disposal of things. Surprisingly the very problem she was raising about the household was present in the classroom.

I am surprised when she is talking about daily duties for household. She is reading from the book that you need to sweep the house everyday to take away dust and make your house neat and clean. But I see most of the benches and table are full of dusts. Classroom floor is full of pieces of papers and leafs. Now she is explaining weekly household duties. She is saying to the students that you need to dispose your broken furniture and other unnecessary things. If those are not in use, then you might give some one or store them in a safe place. But I see inside the classroom there are some broken benches which also could be dangerous for students, they might hurt themselves by the sharp edges of those broken furniture. [Observational Fieldnotes, Formal High School, Bogra 2006]

Such examples of the mismatch of words and action, supported by a culture of hierarchies and expert roles, form part of the hidden curriculum that demonstrates to students in a powerful way that what teachers say is more important than what they do.

Institutional cultures and the environmental dimension

Nonformal graduates in formal high school mentioned that they liked the bigger space of their high school, the big field attached, the large buildings, different classes and large student population. But they also expressed great unhappiness with their messy and damp high school environment especially tube-well area and toilets. For example, as we saw in psycho-physical dimension, one of the female students never used the toilets in her school because they were very filthy and unhygienic and smelly. Consequently she went for nearly seven hours each day without using the toilet, which can clearly have dangerous consequences for health (UNICEF 2005).

During one initial high school classroom observation, on a very hot day, there was no fan, and teachers and students informed us that there were cases of fainting due to the extreme temperature. In general, the classroom environment of both formal high schools was comparatively untidy and dirty, and this was accepted in the culture:

Normally we don’t clean classroom in high school. High school has it employees who suppose to clean the promises. Someone is employed and assigned to do it. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VII, Narsingdi 2006]

In comparison, nonformal students have long experience of working in a clean environment. After a baseline survey of potential students, BRAC programme organiser call parents for a meeting. Then parents decide on the place and hours for the school, and the teacher is recruited from the community. They rent a house from a community member or even from a parent, rather than building it. After opening the school, decisions are taken in the organisation of BRAC schools by the parents and teachers, who typically take good care of the environment. For example, before starting a lesson, the teacher ensures overall cleanliness of the classroom.

In a questionnaire survey we conducted, the aspects of school disliked most by high school respondents were related to cleanliness, health and safety issues, such as dirty toilets and bathrooms, dusty benches and ceiling fans, and smells from the nearby chicken farm. In most cases in nonformal primary schools though they did not have facilities like toilets, bathrooms, tube-wells or ceiling fans, knowledge and active participation made them more aware of the care of their environment.

In response to our question about the differences between high school and primary school one nonformal graduate wrote:

The difference between high school and primary school are: In primary school we used to sweep and clean the toilets before starting the class. But in high school we do not need to do anything. In primary school, teacher never hit us, but in high school teachers beat us if we do not prepare our lesson or do not do our home task [Activity Questionnaire, Bogra 2006].

Participation in caring for the school environment is expected of nonformal students, but this institutional expectation ends when they move to the high school.

Changing institutional cultures in a socio-political context

Having explored the challenges involved in institutional cultural change in relation to the four mesosystem dimensions, it is important also to consider the challenges presented to that change from the socio-political context (Figure 2). Changing the institutional culture is never a trivial process. Formal education in particular is often influenced by a political agenda based on and supporting the power of central state institutions. In most cases, the curriculum and organisation of a school is based not on a democratic process, but as an institution run by powerful people with weak subordinates. As a consequence, the formal school system finds it difficult to adapt to changing priorities, or to experiment with alternative approaches.

Local politics is frequently a significant factor in the running of formal schools. In some cases, the problems are rooted in an ongoing power struggle between community leadership and formal high school authority, with school authorities aiming to negotiate with powerful local community leaders to run the school. For example, the head teacher may involve members of the local elite who have a strong political hold in community so that he or she could run the school management committee according to his or her will.

However, as suggested under the socio-cultural dimension, one possible source of change lies within the school itself, in a strengthening of pupil activity within the school. The following comments by formal high school students coming from nonformal primary schools are therefore indicative:

No one bothers. Classroom is full of rubbish and dust. It might contribute to our illness. But who cares? I think you now know how difficult to stay a classroom like that. The smell come from the nearby chicken farm is disgusting. They have no right to build a farm next to the high school. They are powerful, therefore, they don’t care about anyone. Even the chairman of the Union Porishad[v] doesn’t say any thing, or put pressure on them to move it from here. I think we should do something about it. [Interview, Nonformal Graduate Student, Grade VI, Bogra 2006]

The student raised his voice against the unfairness to the community and passive action of community leader. But he could not suggest any thing which could prevent this kind of injustice unless he became headmaster.

If I become Head Master[vi], I hope one day inshaallah[vii], I’ll definitely bring changes to this school. I won’t sit down in the room, talking to other people or reading newspapers, not taking care of our school and my students and colleagues, like our head sir[viii] does. Rather, I’ll visit each and every classroom regularly to see whether everything is ongoing according to plan. [Activity Questionnaire, Bogra 2006]

In the above response the research participant indicated the ownership of the school such as ‘our school’, ‘our head sir’ giving the essence of community involvement for school development.


Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory is the basic interpretive framework used here to explore pupils’ school and learning experiences. Analysing the institutional cultural influences on transition along four significant dimensions demonstrates the magnitude of differences between nonformal and formal schooling in the Bangladeshi context. Drawing these differences together, we might summarise the institutional culture of nonformal schools as informal, in the sense of the flexibility of curriculum, pedagogy and the possibilities of connection and responsiveness to the needs of home and family.

This informality, it seems, is highly valued and meaningful to pupils, providing them with an effective interlinked context in which they can make sense of themselves and their environment. So for example, we saw how teachers acting (as it were) in the role of mother could lead to activities in the home which strengthens the mother’s role in the education of the child, and raising the value of schooling as perceived from within the home. In another case, we saw how the visits of the NGO officers were appreciated by pupils, indicating the supportive and informal style that is adopted on these occasions to make nonformal system effective.

In nonformal schools, links between home, school and street are understood, acknowledged and valued in the culture. Some of the content of conversations between those meso-level elements is suggested in the data discussed in this paper. We can picture a child having conversations with the teacher about the flowers made at home; or with the NGO workers about their motorbike, or with their peers about the map on the wall.

However, the data also help us to avoid some stereotypical views of an informal education system. For example, there is nothing accidental, disorganised or ad hoc about informality as described and practiced here. Instead, it is the result of a distinctive policy, and a problem-solving approach with decisions oriented to local conditions. A system of education which puts children and young people at the centre cannot be organised by an individual person, or one organisation, or by the state acting alone. It is only possible at the level of the group, through social action across levels of context, by effective leadership at each level. The organisation of nonformal primary education in Bangladesh has something to offer in this regard.

What we have seen is that many features of these two school systems are maintained and supported by the institutional cultures and socio-political contexts of the school. In other words, elements of the system such as the very dubious sources of authority of some headteachers, based for example in systems of patronage, have a direct impact on the pedagogy in the classroom and on the environment that the pupils learn in and live in at school.

In this context, nonformal education is potentially a meta-concept which affords an opportunity to integrate existing cross-curricular issues such as health education, personal and social education, economic and industrial understanding and environmental education. In this way a comprehensive political literacy could develop leading to reflection and action at the local level. Nonformal education approaches seem to hold promise as an alternative means of providing basic education through informal teaching and learning, but also as a model for critical analysis of the structures and cultures that support the formal education system, often to the disadvantage of marginalised groups of young people.


We would like to thank The University of Manchester for providing funding for the PhD study on which this paper is based, and BRAC for the assistance they provided during the fieldwork. We are also grateful to the Wingate Foundation for one year’s funding for the PhD project. We are thankful to the School authorities as well as the research participants for their contribution towards the project.

Brief biographies

M. Mahruf C. Shohel has completed a PhD in Education in the School of Education at the University of Manchester. He is a member of the Fieldwork Research Group, the Socio-cultural Theory Interest Group and the Cultural Theory Group within the university. He has been attached to NGOs’ education programmes in Bangladesh and has written extensively on nonformal schooling.

Andrew Howes is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Manchester, working on intercultural learning, inclusive schooling and education in science. Along with M. M. C. Shohel he is a member of a study group on fieldwork about marginalised children and young people.


BRAC. 1997. BRAC Annual Report. Dhaka: Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1979. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. London: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1992. Ecological Systems Theory. In R. Vasta (Ed). Six Theories of Child Development: Revised Formulations and Current Issues 187-249. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Feldman, R.S. 2003. Development across the lifespan. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Patton, M.Q. 1990. Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Newbury Park: Sage.

Shohel, M. M. C. 1999. An Evaluation of Grade II Bangla Primer of BRAC Nonformal Primary Education Programme. Unpublished Practicum Report, Dhaka: Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology.

Shohel, M. M. C. 2004. Nonformal Education in Bangladesh: A Focus on Policy and Practice. Paper presented at the 12th World Congress on Comparative Education, 22-26 October 2004, Havana, Cuba.

Shohel, M. M. C. 2008. Transition from the Nonformal to the Formal Education Sector in Bangladesh: An Exploration of the Challenges Students Face. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Manchester: The University of Manchester.

Shohel, M. M. C. and A. J. Howes. 2005. ‘The tube-well area is so filthy!’ Re-examining the relevance of formal and nonformal primary education from pupils’ perspectives. Paper presented at the 8th UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development, 13-15 September 2005, Oxford, UK.

Shohel, M. M. C. and A. J. Howes. 2007. Transition from nonformal schools: learning through photo elicitation in educational fieldwork in Bangladesh. Visual Studies 22, no. 1: 53-61.

UNICEF. 2005. Lack of safe water and sanitation in schools jeopardizes quality education (press release). (Retrieved on 07/09/05)

Wax, M. and Wax, R. 1971. Great Tradition, Little Tradition and Formal Education. Lawrence: Kansas University.



[i] Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) is one of the leading developmental organisations in Bangladesh. It is also the largest NGO in the world in terms of manpower and programmes it runs. It runs large-scale programmes for rural and urban poor families in education, health, micro-finance and agriculture sectors. It started out as a relief and rehabilitation programme in the aftermath of the independence war of Bangladesh in 1971. The BRAC education programme (BEP) model has been adopted in almost a dozen countries, most of them failed although none on the same scale as in Bangladesh. In 2002, BRAC opened its first international office in Kabul, Afghanistan and is currently operating in 5 other Asian and African countries including Sri Lanka.

[ii] In Bangladesh, primary school students call their female teacher ‘apa’ rather than teacher or ‘mis’ which means ‘elder sister’. Culture-wise ‘apa’ is used to address an older female, unfamiliar lady or schoolmistress. It is assumed that a schoolmistress is a respectable, responsible and caring person.

[iii] The notion of ‘ideal student’ is based on social and cultural values and norms. An ‘ideal student’ is who is attentive, humble, listen and obey elders.

[iv] The typical daily income for a labourer is about 100 takas.

[v] Union Parishad (Union Council) is the lowest level local government in rural areas in Bangladesh.

[vi] In Bangladesh people normally use ‘Head Master’ instead of ‘Head Teacher’.

[vii] This is an Arabic phrase, which means ‘by God’s will’.

[viii] The norm in Bangladesh is that pupils call their teacher as ‘sir’.


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