Disadvantaged children in school

Deepti Srivastava
Every year, we see beelines of parents outside schools they can afford, as they choose the best one for their child. We also see a large number of children clean the windshields, meander along the heavy traffic at the red lights to sell their ware, beg on the streets, in the markets, malls, cinemas, places of worship, picking rags etc. We might firmly believe that they should be in schools rather than on the streets, but may not realize how difficult that can be.
For children living on the streets, education is difficult to access. Among causes related to the child’s own precarious condition, studies report that school related factors like lack of knowledge about admission dates, procedures and lack of birth certificates as well as school’s own unsympathetic attitudes towards these children lead them to remain out of school.
Taking cognizance of these factors, one organization, working for the most deprived urban poor approached homeless children (around 3500 across 6 states) to stay in its free and voluntary comprehensive-care children’s hostels and got them enrolled in full-time formal schools. It’s partnership with the state guaranteed them admission in government schools. It also contacted various private schools and as a result all these children now attend government, public and private schools, though the share of private schools enrolling them is miniscule.
Having admitted them, these schools grapple with how to integrate these children with the rest of the class so they may feel comfortable in the new environment and often this integration is a ‘one-way’ process.
One such self-financed minority school in Delhi, admitted 17 street children, gave them workshops on ‘life-skills’ to teach them how to talk, share and behave. These ‘workshops’ assumed that the children did not know how to speak politely, dress up properly, needed to learn discipline and regularity; all values attributed to the middle class and considered important to do well in school. These children too, had their own rich and diverse life experiences that went unrecognized. Busy fitting them with the rest of the children in the class, the school saw them as a group of street orphans who had to be educated. The children however saw themselves as future doctors, pilots and policemen. The older children were more realistic as, they said, they wanted to do anything apart from what they were presently doing in order to break away from their cycle of poverty.
Before they could join regular classes, the other children were told that they had to be sensitive to the ‘children from the NGO’ as they were ‘bin maa baap ke bacchey’ (orphans) though most of them had parents. Recognizing them as such, delimited their identity choices, as now, they were seen merely as orphan, poor, in need of help.
Their introduction made the teachers and the children refer to them as ‘NGO ke Bacchey’ (children of the NGO) marking them as different and disadvantaged. They felt patronized and said they felt the other children were inhibited to forge friendships with them and treated them differently when they were referred to as such. The children resisted being called so, and approached the hostel managers to communicate to the school that, “We think if we wish to make friends with someone, he will think that we are from the NGO. He doesn’t have a mother, doesn’t have a father. That they have come from the street.” They suggested that, “They should refer to us by name in school, our name. Like, if some volunteer comes, then it would be easy to tell them that there are some who study under freeship, some from the hostel. Only they should be told that we are from the NGO.”
These children clearly showed they did not want to be patronized and rightly so, as education is their guaranteed Right. Schools admitting disadvantaged children provide a ray of hope in the education system stratified on the basis of class but they need to take a step forward and look sensitively at their own assumptions guiding the process of integration. This re-examination can help develop accepting and reassuring classroom spaces that lead to better learning for all students. Most of all, prejudices inherent in actions as simple as introducing them to the rest of the group prevent forging of friendships across class lines which is crucial in order to question why we tend to look away from the child begging at our car window, wishing that the light at the traffic signal turns green.


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