We hear it all the time. "These kids can't learn", "they're uncontrollable", "don't waste your money".
Our response? "Try them", "behaviour can change", "they're worth it". We have seen that children can learn, even when every voice in their life has said otherwise. It's not too late.
Access to education is a basic human right. There’s little argument that children need education, but simply enrolling a child in school does not guarantee success. This is especially true for children on the street or for those who have been out of school long term.
In Lesotho, it is not uncommon for a 16-year-old child to be out of school for many years and to have only completed fourth grade. The vast majority of children and youth we encounter have not completed primary school. To us, this is staggering and means that our children have few options for their futures, even when they come to the point of wanting change. Attending primary school is compulsory in Lesotho and is a pre-requisite for further education, including vocational training.
Last year we enrolled a few children in school, bought uniforms and ensured that had everything they needed to get an education, but each of them found re-entry to the classroom overwhelming and one-by-one they eventually dropped out. We are hearing the same stories even now as caregivers try to keep their children in school. This is disheartening for everyone involved, but especially the child.
Even those who sincerely want to return to school after a long absence find the transition difficult. The most common reasons we observe are that:
- Classes are taught in English, which they don't speak
- They have trouble concentrating for long periods
- They are much older than their classmates
- They feel excluded because of shabby clothes
- They may display difficult behaviours
- There is an ongoing need to earn money for their families
Our experience has been that children who are out of school for less than a year have reintegrated with relative ease. Working with families and communities, we have successfully returned several children on the streets to mainstream schools. But those who have been out of school for more than a year need something different. Most children on the street have been out of school for more than a year and many for two to three years.
We are designing a school that gives children a second chance at learning in a flexible environment, tailored to their unique circumstances. A bridging school will get children to the ‘next step’ in their education, whether that is high school or vocational training.
Our thoughts are that an effective bridging education would include:
Afternoon classes. A shortened school day allows children who must participate in income generating activities to still gain an education while their broader family circumstances are addressed. With smaller class sizes, a compressed school day will not disadvantage students, but will in fact help to reintroduce them to the practice of learning.
Bringing children from the streets. Some children walk for hours to get from their village to town to earn enough for the day’s food. A bus route, including the town centre and other congregating areas will bring children to school and take them home at the end of the day.
Instruction in Sesotho. Our children have enough challenges in trying to get an education. Learning in a foreign language only puts success further out of reach, as children feel incapable of grasping the content. Learning in their own language will enable children to develop the capacity to reason and form arguments, and restore confidence in their ability to learn.
Character development. For students to be truly successful, they must develop develop character and integrity. A program which focuses on team-work, determination and problem-solving using practical and fun activities is essential to bridging education, especially for children who’ve not had the benefit of parental guidance.
Individual support. The reason for long-term absence from school is rarely academic. Social, familial and economic pressures have robbed children of the basic right of free education. Therefore, a bridging school can’t just focus on the academic setbacks that children have faced. Each enrolled student needs someone who is dedicated to helping them and their caregiver individually. A support network must be created around them, ensuring that every child is connected with other services that support them and their caregivers to be self-sufficient.
We see education as more than just attending classes and passing exams. The way a child is trained is vital in achieving excellence out of poverty.