This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 6 - Special issue on street-connected young people and inclusive education
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Editorial: Inclusive education and street-connectedness

Sarah Thomas de Benitez

Young people who are street-connected depend on the streets to live and/or work, whether alone, with peers, or with family, periodically or more long term. They form strong bonds with public spaces, which play a vital role in their everyday lives and identities. Being, and having been, street-connected has implications for effective education provision, which is the theme of this edition of Enabling Education Review. In this editorial, I explore what is meant by ‘street connections’ and why a focus on inclusive education is important. For the purposes of this article, and the articles in the Review, ‘young people’ refers to children and youth.

Understanding street connections
The term ‘street-connected children’ emerged in a global study1&2 for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and was embedded in the High Commissioner’s 2012 report on the protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living on the streets.3 Using the term ‘street connections’ means understanding individual young people as capable of forming, maintaining and renewing relationships, associations and attachments. Using the terms ‘street children’ or ‘street situations’ labels, objectifies and limits individuals to specific types of location and a passivity of circumstance. However, the term ‘children with street connections’ suggests agency, empowerment and a dynamic spectrum of situations, ranging from maintaining close ties with home to total immersion in street culture. An emphasis on connections suggests children have relationships within the streets as well as with family and community; all forming part of their life trajectories.4 ‘Street connections’ positions the young person at the centre of our thinking. It encourages us to explore the types and strength of his or her connections with and within public spaces, within family, neighbourhood and school – indeed within whole child protection systems. The language of ‘street connections’ is ecological, systemic and holistic, offering a way of thinking that bridges the divide that the term ‘street children’ created between research, policy-making and practice.

This edition of Enabling Education Review explores the intersection of inclusive education and street-connectedness at a time when policy mechanisms promise important strategic change for practitioners, advocates, researchers and policy-makers: namely considering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN General Comment on Children in Street Situations (UNGC No. 21).

The Sustainable Development Goals
There are 17 SDGs.5 SDG 4 specifically aims to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Several of SDG 4’s targets are relevant to street-connected children e.g.:

  • Target 4.5 seeks “…equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including […] children in vulnerable situations”;
  • Target 4.7 considers what is needed for inclusive education, including “education facilities that […] provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all”.

The SDGs are different from their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in fundamental ways that are encouraging for inclusive education. The SDGs are interdependent, holistic and aimed at ‘leaving no-one behind’, whereas the MDGs were ‘stand-alone’ goals. Human development, human rights and equity are deeply rooted in the SDGs: seven targets explicitly refer to people with disabilities, six to people in vulnerable situations, and two to non-discrimination. Civil society and the private sector participated in framing the SDGs, which prioritise partnership building between governments, private sector, civil society and individuals.

Inclusive education has, in the SDGs, moved from policy sideshow to policy focus. Positioned within key wider ambitions to address poverty and inequalities, improve health and make cities sustainable, civil society engagement is explicitly welcomed. In theory, at least, fighting for inclusive education now means swimming with the tide rather than against it. Organisations seeking to encourage inclusive education now have a policy frame more receptive to evidence of innovations that respond to the needs of vulnerable and excluded children.

UN General Comment on Children in Street Situations – UNGC No. 21
Delivered in June 2017, UNGC 21 is the authoritative interpretation for street-connected children of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This new policy framework applies to all States party to the Convention (http://bit.ly/EER-SC13) and is fundamentally different from any previous guidance.

UNGC 21 is the first definitive international legal guidance for governments on protecting children on the streets. It is rooted in research evidence, civil society experiences, and seven regional consultations with 327 street-connected children from 32 countries. UNGC 21 recognises inequalities as structural causes of the emergence and exclusion of children on the streets, instead of singling out families for blame; it describes children as street-connected.

UNGC 21 characterises children as relational beings, capable of making choices, not as passive objects of rescue or rehabilitation. It makes perfectly clear that both welfare (rescue-based) and repressive (punishment-based) approaches to street-connected children are incompatible with the CRC and children’s rights. Children’s rights to associate and assemble freely in public spaces without harassment or arbitrary removal are fully recognised. Round-ups of children contravene the CRC: children must not be removed from the streets as an excuse to fulfill their rights (even though this has sometimes been advocated).

UNGC 21 recommends partnerships and State support for civil society “providing personalized, specialist services for children in street situations on the basis of a child rights approach, through funding, accreditation and regulation” (para. 15). This is the first authoritative guidance that recognises civil society’s capabilities in providing tailored services for street-connected children.   

UNGC 21 matters, because it moves street-connected children from the policy fringes to a legitimate subject of policy-making. As a holistic, child-centred policy framework, this well-informed guidance is compatible with the SDGs and fully in line with rights-based approaches to inclusive education.

SDG 4 and UNGC 21 both invite specialist and innovative civil society participation. Tracking SDG 4 targets without implementing UNGC 21 will miss street-connected children, who need interventions tailored to their lives and contexts. On the other hand, UNGC 21, if implemented with street-connected children, will help States achieve SDG 4 targets for inclusive education.

On-the-ground innovations – this edition of the Review
This edition contributes to understanding the intersection of inclusive education and street-connected young people – a group of excluded, hard-to-reach and vulnerable learners. The articles articulate a broad range of complex challenges faced by young street-connected people, giving insights into social innovations that might be usefully scaled up, adapted for use in other environments, or with other groups of excluded children.

The multiple barriers faced by street-connected children help to explain why these learners are often unable to access education. Barriers include:

  • lack of identity documents;
  • precarious families with no experience of education;
  • challenges of daily survival on the streets;
  • engagement in child labour;
  • discrimination facing street-connected girls;
  • dental health issues;
  • experiences of violence, abuse and neglect – including as perpetrators, as well as victims;
  • trauma as a block to learning;
  • experiences of ‘failure’ in formal schooling with teachers using deficit-based approaches that discourage learning;
  • stigmatization and prejudice;
  • overcrowding at home;
  • high rates of illiteracy in the community;
  • substance abuse;
  • juvenile crime;
  • conflict.

The articles in this edition provide valuable insights into educational innovations that operate on the ground, navigating barriers facing street-connected children. Each innovation aims to meet learning needs of children with highly complex needs in specific street-based circumstances and within their local contexts. Together they show that ‘sites’ of inclusive education are possible anywhere.

Innovations are sometimes located in public spaces. Mobile School offers an innovative approach to delivering education, in local languages, to hard-to-reach communities in a number of countries. CHETNA provides street outreach linked to workshops in school and after-school education clubs. Life Skills Oasis in Kenya uses football to engage children’s interest and start conversations about school and life-skills. Several innovative services are offered through drop-in centres, such as Child Rescue Kenya’s ‘Street Smart’, where children can build trust with social workers and youth can access non-formal schooling support to prepare for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education.

Some innovations involve residential programmes. Retrak in Ethiopia provides catch-up classes and intensive counselling, with each child allocated a social worker case manager. In India, Rainbow Homes use peer education and older students coach new arrivals in an informal space, to prepare them for entering formal education. In Uganda, S.A.L.V.E. International uses creative play to engage young people transitioning from the streets, and helps teachers listen to how children communicate, so they can more easily understand, feel comfortable and enjoy learning.

Other projects prepare children and support them into and through a formal education system. In Kenya, the St John Bosco Rehabilitation Centre provides weekly boarding facilities for children, while in Uganda, CROSO runs a scholarship and mentoring programme for secondary school graduates wanting to attend university.

Some innovative programmes are holistic, with education forming part of a wider, child-centred focus. In Kenya, Glad’s House uses boxing and golf caddy programmes among options to help young people combat low self-esteem and the fear of being viewed as worthless, so that they feel able to manage taking first steps back into a classroom. In India, Street Invest and Child In Need Institute work to develop street-based life-skills and a bridging package for different ages and abilities, linked to after-school coaching and support in local school and club premises, seeking to ensure each child can access education.

Other pioneering approaches aim to change formal schooling into a more inclusive experience for all, including street-connected children. ChildHope and CESIP in Peru raise awareness about child labour and violence in schools, helping teachers develop inclusive teaching practices through psycho-pedagogic support and social skills workshops. In Uganda, the African Education Trust (AET) and Child Restoration Outreach (CRO) work with street-connected children, as well as with parents, teachers and officials, to understand and act upon children’s specific difficulties about returning to school.

Some formal education systems are not open to changes that could enable street-connected children to have positive learning experiences. In such circumstances, alternative schools can be a valuable option: Brazil’s Project Uere has an innovative educational method designed for children suffering the effects of trauma. In the Philippines, Fairplay for All’s school, based on the idea of democratic education, helps children to choose what is important and to have a say in defining their own education.

Community space is another fertile site for innovative educational approaches with children who are excluded from education. In Kenya, Chance for Childhood trains community-based learning assistants for children with special educational needs, especially communication disabilities. In Haiti, Dynamo International works through street social worker networks, using Capoeira dancing to develop relationships with adults that in turn help create respectful relationships between teacher and child. Taking a multi-stakeholder approach, street social workers and university researchers combine their knowledge, experience and methodology for innovative alternatives that are tested in ‘micro-actions’. In Panama, TECHO takes a cross-sectoral, participatory approach to developing educational projects in informal settlements, through a ‘Life Skills Education’ project that connects young people with a bigger picture of their community, surrounding environment and living conditions.

Introducing the language of street connections into education
The projects in this edition are full of commitment, bravery and creativity. It will be exciting to follow them as they explore the new paths that this language of ‘street connections’ opens to street educators, school teachers, social workers and providers of holistic services, when engaging with young people. For those who approach education as relational – something that happens between learner and educator – the concept has enormous potential. No longer facing a ‘street child’ or a child in a street ‘situation’, but instead an individual who makes and is capable of forging new connections, an educator/teacher engages with a learner. A challenge presents itself: to discover the learner’s pattern of connections (what better way than to start by active listening, as part of building a relationship?) and then to puzzle out (together?) how and with whose support this young person’s learning might progress. Social work research has begun to accommodate this new way of engaging with street-connected children;6 the opportunities are now open to educational research.

Language influences thought and action. Whether students are ‘given’ grades, ‘earn’ grades or have no grades, represent radically different approaches to education and to the power relations between students and teachers. When teachers ‘correct’ homework, the assumption is that students make errors and teachers rectify them. The assumption changes when students use teacher’s ‘feedback’ to identify and fix mistakes. Language can stigmatise, encourage or empower. The terms we use influence our approach to children. Consider the images we conjure of ‘street child’ (abandoned, victim, orphan, vulnerable?) and of ‘child in street situations’ (passive, located?), then ‘child with street connections’ (relationships, choices, social actor?). Changing the story from ‘street child’ to ‘street connections’ opens the pathways to inclusive education.   

[1] Thomas de Benitez, S. (2011) ‘Making Global Connections: Children, the streets and us’

[2] Thomas de Benitez, S., & Hiddleston, T. (2011). ‘Research paper on the promotion and protection of the rights of children working and/or living on the street: OHCHR 2011 Global Study’. Geneva: OHCHR.

[3] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). (2012). ‘Report on protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living on the street’.

[4] Rizzini, Irene, Udi Mandel Butler, and Daniel Stoecklin, eds. (2007). ‘Life on the streets’. Sion, Switzerland: Institut Universitaire Kurt Bösch/IDE (Institut International des Droits de L’enfant).

[5] http://bit.ly/EER-SC17

[6] Dabir, N. (2014). Street-Connected Children. ‘Encyclopedia of Social Work’. Retrieved 20 Aug. 2017

Sarah co-founded the JUCONI Foundations in Mexico www.juconi.org.mx/en/ (1988-94) and Ecuador http://www.juconi.org.ec/ (1994-1996). These are global pioneers of family-centred work with street-connected children. As founding chair of the Consortium for Street Children’s Research Expert Forum (2011-2014), Sarah developed an innovative international research-practice partnership. Later, as CEO of the Consortium (2014-2016) she led the successful NGO campaign for UN General Comment No. 21, chaired the Advisory Group to the UN Committee’s Working Group, secured a unique consultative process with street-connected children, and delivered the necessary support to ensure a well-informed, evidence-based UN General Comment on Children in Street Situations.

As a senior independent researcher and consultant since 2000, Sarah has provided technical assistance to national governments and international donors, advice to international policy-makers, and support to grassroots NGOs and networks in the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia. She has conducted extensive academic and policy research in Latin America. Currently researching street-family-work interfaces with street-connected young people, Sarah provides technical assistance to entities that encourage governments to apply UN General Comment 21 for street-connected young people.

Contact: sarahthomasdebenitez@gmail.com