Leaving the street?: A research focus
How do teachers feel about street-connected children being included in mainstream classrooms? How do young people experience leaving the street and going back to school? In this article, I address these questions using the findings of two pieces of research conducted in Kenya. The first examined teachers’ understandings of inclusive education in relation to street-connected children returning to school. The second,1 my PhD research, explored the experiences of young people leaving the street and returning to formal and non-formal education.2
Rationale for the research
I have been volunteering with organisations working with street-connected children in East Africa since 2009. More recently, my involvement has included fundraising and the evaluation and analysis of monitoring and evaluation data. Originally I taught street-connected children and young people who no longer live on the streets at street-based drop-in centres and short-term transition centres. In addition, as a sponsorship coordinator, I tracked children’s progress in schools after reintegration, assessing their additional support needs – in terms of resources such as study guides or extra tuition – and coordinating communication with the sponsors who were paying for their fees.
I noticed that a number of the young people supported through education drop out months or years after they return to the classroom from the street. However, it was difficult to predict who would not manage to reach their final year of primary/secondary school – ability is not an indicator. To understand the challenges they faced when returning to education I explored the transition experiences of street-connected children and youth, aged 12 and over, who were supported by three different Kenyan organisations in two Kenyan towns to return to education, or in some cases start school for the first time, after their lives on the street. To provide context to the study I also conducted a smaller piece of research that asked teachers about their thoughts on welcoming street-connected children into their classrooms.
Talking to the teachers
I interviewed nine teachers at four primary schools in Central Kenya, to find out their thoughts about street-connected children returning to school. When the teachers talked about how they supported these children in their classrooms, they referred mainly to the provision of basic material needs such as food, clothing and shelter. They focused on what the young people did not have and on the negative aspects of street-connectedness, such as behaviours attributed to life on the street, including the potential to be involved in criminal activity and cigarette, alcohol and drug addiction.
When they talked about the academic support they gave children returning to the classroom from the street, one teacher described how they had to ‘go down’ to the child’s level when pitching the work, and this was echoed by the others in their interviews. This response surprised me as the same teachers talked about how it was a shame when they saw children on the street who had been ‘bright’ when they were previously at school. They therefore suggest that all children living on the street are somehow less able.
The deficit approach they took towards street-connected children meant that a number of the teachers felt that they were unable to support the return of these children to the classroom. They expressed a wish for training, support and more government spending on resources. As an advocate of inclusive education, I know that these perceived issues are frequently voiced as reasons why inclusion into mainstream classrooms is not feasible for other marginalised groups, like children with disabilities. But if teachers are to be prepared for the inclusion of street-connected young people into their classrooms, some of whom may also have disabilities, what does this preparation need to consider? Understanding young people’s experiences of returning to education could be useful as a starting point.
Young people’s experiences
To explore how young people experience leaving the street and returning to education I talked to participants who were attending primary schools (state-funded or private day schools and boarding schools), secondary schools, polytechnics and non-formal vocational apprenticeships. They mentioned various difficulties that they faced in returning to education, including:
- the inability to concentrate for long periods of time;
- having to deal with so many subjects;
- the problems of learning in a language that was not their mother tongue.
The most significant issue, however, was being recognised as being, or having been, street-connected.
Students who were attending schools where they were the only people who had lived on the street (that they knew of), invented stories to explain why they had been absent from school for a long time, or why they were starting a new school. For instance, they pretended they had been staying with a relative. They felt that their peers would not understand why they had been on the street, and were ashamed to share this aspect of their life stories. Other children, who attended schools as part of a group supported by one organisation, talked about how they were unable to feel understood by their peers who had not been street-connected. This was either because they were stigmatised by these peers, or they felt that they would be stigmatised if they were to share their experiences with them.
In many ways these young people could be described as having remained street-connected. The participants’ street-based experiences influenced how they saw themselves when they no longer lived on the streets. Some of the young people I spoke to did not feel they belonged in their new situations, because they had lived and/or worked on the streets. They struggled to integrate effectively with their peers and tried hard to create identities for themselves that would help them fit in. As a minimum this meant making the effort to be clean. For the young people in apprenticeships and vocational training placements, it meant dressing correctly and accessorising to maintain an outward appearance of belonging. For the young people in boarding schools, it meant outperforming their peers and proving they belonged academically. A number of young people explained how they did not belong, and this feeling appeared to intensify after transitioning to secondary school.
Interestingly, older participants in vocational training placements, many of whom had completed primary education, were more comfortable with their street-connectedness than their peers in formal, mainstream education. Some talked about how their time on the streets had developed strengths, such as survival skills, that were helping them as they prepared for the world of work. A number of these young people were engaged in the informal labour market alongside their courses or apprenticeships, carrying out similar jobs to when they lived on the street, to supplement their training allowances.
The attitudes of teachers and trainers were important to a young person’s ability to develop a sense of belonging to a particular education pathway. There were a number of participants who felt that they had not been appropriately welcomed to their new school, having been treated exactly the same as the other students or singled out for previously living on the street. Two young people were introduced to their peers as having been street-connected: one was declared ‘not to be trusted’, the other had performed well in a previous school and was used as an example for other students to work harder as a ‘street child’ was outperforming them. Such introductions highlight a deficit view of street-connectedness held by the head teachers.
At one school, a boarding primary, the teachers helped the children to settle in and provided ongoing support through regular meetings with them as a group. The participants implied that it was easier to do well at this school as the teachers were engaged in the teaching and supporting them as students.
One major observation from this study is that one young person’s experience of leaving the streets and returning to education is very different from another’s. There are many different things that affect the transition, some of which lie beyond school (for example, being able to pay for fashionable clothes or supporting their family). Since some of the participants did not want to be identified as street-connected and some teachers took a deficit approach to street-connectedness, it is debatable how useful it is to highlight a young person’s previous life experiences to the teachers when they start at a new school. However, teachers need to be aware of the challenges that any young person returning to education faces – particularly with regards to self-esteem and belonging.
Children may require acceptance and support in order to feel that they belong and remain engaged in schools and training centres. Teachers therefore have a role to play in developing inclusive pedagogies and teaching practice that build the self-esteem of all learners. My recommendations are not new, but emphasise the need for collaboration, and drawing from the lessons learned by those working to promote the inclusion of other groups marginalised from education. For example, materials on the EENET website3 provide advice on advocating for inclusion and developing inclusive practice through an action learning approach.
Most importantly there is a need for joined up thinking in terms of reintegration that looks at young people’s journeys after they transition from street to school. Organisations working with street-connected children should work closely with schools and teachers to develop an awareness of the needs of street-connected children that improves teaching practice and education interventions delivered on and after the street.
Su Corcoran is currently a research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University, programme officer at EENET, and fundraiser for Child Rescue Kenya.
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