From street to school: Experiences from India
CHETNA stands for Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action, and we work to provide essential services for street-connected and working children in India. The participation of children is fundamental to the achievement of our objectives at CHETNA and we work together with street-connected children to design the interventions that can best meet their needs. Our Street to School project in West Delhi, funded by Toybox, engages with children, their parents, the schools and high-level authorities, to offer a range of activities that ensure street-connected children are able to access education.
One challenge of India’s public education system is the retention of children from low-income communities in schools. There are many reasons why children are not in school. Some of those voiced by the communities we work with reflect the perceived and actual problems faced by families with very little historical experience of education. For example: parents do not have identification for their children, such as birth certificates, with which to enrol them into schools; or they do not see how it is possible for their children to study when they are required to earn money to meet the needs of their family; or because the child may be older, has never studied, and they do not think that a school would accept them.
Children who are struggling with poverty, are more at risk of being involved in child labour and becoming street-connected. CHETNA works with parents and local authorities to support their enrolment into Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) schools. Parents are counselled about the need to send their children to school instead of engaging them in labour. They are encouraged to participate in their children’s education by attending parent-teacher meetings and becoming members of the School Management Committees (SMCs). When parents face issues because of incomplete or inaccurate documents, CHETNA staff members accompany the parents and children to school to sort out the differences and ensure admission of children. The staff regularly meets with school authorities to find out if there are any obstacles to children’s education that CHETNA can help address.
Keeping children in school
When children return to school, or begin school at an advanced age, it can be difficult for them to cope with the expectations of formal classrooms. CHETNA coordinates after-school education clubs, where street educators assist children to complete their homework, bridging the learning differences that cause difficulties, and talking through their day-to-day issues at school. These classes are held at negotiated locations within the communities, usually in open areas under a tree. Initially the educators had to mobilise the children to visit the education clubs, but now the children come in groups by themselves, often inviting their peers to come along. The children are taught in classes of approximately 35, at 13 education clubs around West Delhi. Each club has a unique name and two student leaders are elected by their peers in each class.
As well as covering the subjects taught in school, the children are given opportunities to showcase their talents through art, craft or music. The street educators also organise participatory life-skills workshops, at the education clubs and in the schools, that cover the knowledge and life-skills needed by street-connected and working children on and off the streets. For example, the workshops develop awareness of emergency numbers that children can call for assistance, such as Childline, police, health centres, fire services, etc., and increase their awareness of child rights.
The street educators also acknowledge and attempt to address the issues that the children face in school and at home. They make regular home visits and talk to school teachers to understand the progress and gaps in children’s education. The aim is to maintain engagement with teachers and parents on a one-to-one basis, discussing the concerns of the children, such as attendance, health and hygiene, self-esteem, and leadership, etc. These children can face stigmatisation because of working as rag-pickers, etc., and we need to regularly engage with parents, teachers, and children’s peers to discourage such behaviour.
The street educators also facilitate peer support group meetings, which provide a space for the children to discuss their concerns with each other, and find solutions to their problems. Peer support meetings enhance the participation of the children and to give them agency in their own lives, boosting their confidence. This includes going on a four-day workshop outside of the city where they can reflect on their lives and set future goals. The natural environment of the retreat provides a welcome change to the chaos of their everyday lives and a space where their problems are heard and potential solutions discussed.
Engaging with schools, parents and the wider community
The Street to School project aims to include all the elements of a child’s environment to ensure that children are able to overcome barriers to accessing and continuing their education journeys. CHETNA organise teacher training sessions to familiarise teachers with children’s rights and to help them understand how to prevent and deal with child protection issues. The meetings also act as a platform to discuss the concerns of the parents and children in nearby communities. To complement these sessions, we have painted child-friendly murals on the schools’ walls, to display information about children’s rights in a visually attractive manner. Additional display boards also encourage the children to contribute their opinions and emotions via paintings, poems, notes, etc. These displays reinforce the child rights messages, develop creativity and contribute to child-friendly environments.
We hold regular parents’ meetings at the education clubs on a quarterly basis, to introduce the importance of education, and encourage them to share their concerns. Parents’ trainings are held annually in each community, to help them address their concerns and familiarise them with their responsibilities in ensuring the rights of their children. Community rallies, organised in collaboration with schools and publicised through banner displays and sloganeering, build wider awareness of and reinforce the importance of education and children’s rights.
Finally, to advocate for the children, we work with and lobby stakeholders from higher authorities. Regular meetings with the education department are held to promote the CHETNA model of working and encourage their participation. We have developed a number of documentaries and newsletters about our project, such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wZM8uouPKA.
Saumya is the monitoring, evaluation and communications officer at CHETNA.