Educating street children
STREET children constitute one of the most vulnerable and marginal groups in Bangladesh. "Street children" are essentially the boys and girls for whom the streets, unoccupied dwellings, wastelands etc., have become homes and/or sources of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected or supervised by responsible adults.
Government statistics, based on a survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, estimate the number of street children in Bangladesh to be around 380,000 -- of whom 55% are in Dhaka city. A little less than half of them (49.2%) are of the age group The major problems of street children are: Insecure life; physical and sexual abuse by adults of the immediate community; harassment by law enforcing agencies; no, or inadequate, access to educational institutions and healthcare facilities; and lack of decent employment opportunity.
The role of appropriate education for empowerment of children -- especially the disadvantaged groups like the street or working children -- has been unequivocally established. Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh recognises the right to education for all -- including the disadvantaged children.
The National Plan of Action for Children (2005-2010) also clearly emphasises the urgent need for "education and empowerment." Along the same vein, the National Poverty Reduction Strategy of the country provides for education as a means of "empowerment of disadvantaged groups" -- including children.
Notwithstanding the above official rhetoric, and despite a growing recognition of their vulnerability and disadvantaged status, there have been strikingly limited efforts to improve the condition of street children -- especially by providing them with appropriate basic education. It will not be an exaggeration to note that this section of our society has largely remained outside the main ambit of developmental interventions.
Much to the relief of all those who want, and aspire, to see a better future for our street children, there have been a few encouraging, albeit limited, efforts to educate them through Open Air Schools (OAS). These schools are managed and administered by a number of national NGOs, mainly in metropolitan cities.
The schools are strategically located, covering the city-entry points and/or working places for street children, such as railway, launch and bus terminals, market places on riverbanks, busy city markets, parks, etc. The street school spots are typically acquired (often free of cost) from the community or relevant public authorities.
A typical school functions for two to three hours everyday for up to six days a week. School operating hours are decided so that they do not interfere with the working hours of the children. Prior to commencement of classes, the concerned staff (development workers, teachers) walk around the neighbouring area to identify newly arrived children and to invite regular children to classes.
The learning materials predominantly focus on various life skills related topics. To cite a typical example, the schools run by the NGO Aparajeyo Bangladesh use an open learning package that includes the following topics: Life skills, child rights, child labour, protection from sexual abuse and exploitation (including trafficking), creating dreams, keeping safe on the streets, dealing with the police, and HIV/AIDS/STI prevention. The idea is to create an educational foundation amongst the targeted children by blending pedagogical and practical life skills.
Based on my recent experience and interactions with a number of such schools (and the key stakeholders including school staff, children, representatives of the surrounding local communities), a number of problems can be identified regarding the contents and conduct of the life skills training and capacity development sessions imparted in the schools:
The mixed age groups of children make it difficult for the educators to respond to age-specific needs, maturity and queries. For very minor children (aged 6 to 10), for example, sessions on fairly technical topics (e.g. sexual abuse, arsenic contamination, legal issues of child trafficking) are not easily comprehensible.
The time of the training (2 to 3 hours including the time for rapport building) is considered insufficient by most educators.
Some terminologies and technical jargons used in the training sessions are not easily amenable to children's understanding.
The schools run on bare minimum logistics and facilities, and lack any protection from weather fluctuations in the rainy and winter seasons.
As the children hail from varied geographical locations and cultures, some staff noted that diversity and variations in language (including accents and dialects) sometimes make uniform conduct of training sessions difficult.
Some training materials are not in adequate supply. Use of audio-visual materials is strikingly limited.
In the OAS, ensuring and maintaining regular presence of the children, who often tend to be highly mobile and restless, is a huge challenge.
Although most educators/trainers have basic relevant training (to a varying degree), advanced training on teaching techniques and tools is clearly inadequate.
It may be relevant at this point to think about and furnish some clues on improving the effectiveness of the OAS campaign. Some such ideas include the following:
The training topics, session time, and contents need to be reviewed and analysed by appropriately qualified experts and practitioners in order to make them more consistent, comprehensible and adaptive to the specific age and intellectual development of the targeted children and the local context.
To ensure "age-content compatibility," some educators and trainers opined that the children may be divided into two groups -- up to 11 years of age, and 12 years and above.
The logistical requirements of the OAS should be reviewed.
A need assessment for all teachers and trainers should be carried out, and further training such as advanced training on teaching techniques (preferably tailor-made to the street children) and training of trainers may be considered.
The contents and mode of delivery of various training and capacity development initiatives should more clearly focus on (and lean towards) a "right-based approach" as distinct from mere philanthropic orientations.
As far as possible, the training contents and literature should use visual and pictorial materials as well as physical demonstrations, where applicable. Other experimental models of training and learning may provide valuable lessons in this regard. (The relevant materials developed by such institutions as CMES, Breaking the Silence, Fulki-Chittagong etc. may be consulted in this regard).
Along the same vein, the training methodologies used in these schools need to be reviewed by appropriately qualified experts. Emphasis may be given to use of learning by doing, mock sessions, and various illustrative tools.
The concerned staff should have systematic and regular consultations with the targeted children and community people before designing and/or implementing any training scheme, especially about its contents, time and location.
Female children should be given preference, or at least equal opportunity, in availing various skills development training.
The salience and topicality of education as a means of broad-based empowerment are now unequivocally established, both amongst the academics and the development practitioners. This observation is especially relevant for the street children as one of the most disadvantaged and marginal sections of the society. The OAS campaign, despite all the limitations, does offer some rays of hope. This interesting initiative deserves immediate attention from our policy planners, academics, and development practitioners.