DUBAI // Seated on the floor of a modest school in a far-flung Bangladeshi village, two Emirati aid workers were moved by the enthusiasm of children eager to show off their spoken English skills.
"They were bursting with pride when they stood up to recite a poem or write a maths equation on the board," says Asma Malik, a country programme officer with Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organisation working to improve children's access to primary education in developing countries.
Ms Malik has also assessed projects in Jordan, Pakistan, Comoros and Sri Lanka.
"They jumped at the opportunity to ask us questions and we were struck by their innocence," she says.
"They asked us, 'What is your favourite colour? Do you know how to dance? Are you married? Do you have kids? What vegetables do you eat?'."
The primary learning centre was one of several that Ms Malik and Maria Al Qassim visited as part of Dubai Cares' Shikhon initiative, reaching 50,000 students in 1,670 informal Bangladesh schools.
Shikhon means learning in the Bengali language. The project is run in partnership with the Save the Children organisation in impoverished Bangladeshi communities.
Ms Al Qassim recalls meeting parents who helped build the compact centres in Bangladesh.
"There was so much pride as they pointed out a clock, maps or mats they had given," she says. "There was a sense of ownership and pride at being involved in their child's education."
Some learning centres are part of villagers' homes that they share with the school. Other schools are basic bamboo structures with tin roofs, while in some areas villagers have built brick and mud units.
Orange and blue plastic sheets are stretched across the floor, while the walls are covered with colourful pictures of animals and the students' drawings.
The children, ages 8-12, are the sons and daughters of daily wage labourers, and farm and tea plantation workers. They are the first generation of their family to attend school.
From June to September, when floods inundate low-lying areas, the little ones walk through mud and water to reach school. Several thousand children are ferried in small boats by their parents.
Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest nations. Half of its 150 million people live on just US$1 (Dh3.67) a day. Literacy rates are dismal, with a 45 per cent national drop-out rate.
The country has been listed among 35 nations where literacy efforts must be accelerated, according to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) 2010 report.
Dubai Cares has been involved in Shikhon since 2008. The charity was launched in 2007 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
Aid amounting to US$6.1 million (Dh22.4m) over a five-year period in Bangladesh supports the purchase of books and vitamin supplements for children, educational and training material and workshops for teachers and parents.
The Dubai Cares programme officers visited schools, teachers' training centres and workshops to gauge first-hand the scheme's impact.
The project is a bridge that helps children who have never been to school to gain admission into secondary schools.
Ms Al Qassim was struck by the interaction in the classroom.
"The children would stare, their eyes so focused on what the teachers said. One teacher was so dynamic that the children were totally involved in his talk about the importance of vitamins," she says.
Maths, science and English lessons are supplemented with talks about hygiene and social skills, says Talat Mahmud, Save the Children's Shikhon programme director in Dhaka.
"They learn discipline, cleanliness, how to behave with their elders," he says. "These are very significant, besides their academic learning. We also have parenting education, where we teach parents about personal hygiene, nutrition and talk to them against physical punishment."
Support from Dubai Cares was vital, according to Mr Mahmud.
"Education helps build a child's confidence and realises a parent's dreams," he says. "Dubai Cares is on the journey with Save the Children to create an opportunity for these vulnerable communities. It's a great help for us in Bangladesh."