During the time I spent with Suas Educational Development in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India, I was exposed to a broad cross-section of the complex society of the country. We got to know students, business professionals, rickshaw pullers, IT workers, street vendors and of course the children we taught.
Throughout my childhood, I was afforded a comfortable existence and an environment which enabled me to achieve to my potential in school – as is the case for a lot, but not all, Irish students. In part due to some innate egotism we all have, in tandem with support from teachers and my parents, I left school after my Leaving Certificate believing my good results were exclusively due to my hard work and commitment. Witnessing the barriers faced by the children we worked with in a marginalised community outside of Delhi offered me a unique perspective on my good fortune and provoked me to reflect on the inequalities faced by those in the lower social strata of developing countries, as well as their analogues in the western world who similarly are victims of circumstance.
Experiences in India
It is difficult for us to genuinely fathom the hardships faced by some of these children. One student of mine, Azad*, caught my attention on the first day with both his interpersonal skills and intelligence. At the age of eleven, Azad was amongst eight and nine year olds in his class. I could not understand why he was in this younger class group given his overtly obvious intelligence and confidence. Slowly, I began to see beneath his veneer of charisma and jocularity to observe a child under enormous stress. A recent migrant to the area from a small rural village, he periodically missed days of school – working in a local hotel to help support his large family. This was a child with unique emotional intelligence and maturity, one who grieved enormously for a young girl electrocuted outside of school one morning – an event to which other students reacted with childish curiosity and a lack of understanding. Through very little English, he lamented the loss of such a young child – not a family member, not a neighbour, but a fellow human. Yet, Azad’s sporadic attendance at Raina Shine NGO-run school means that he will have much difficulty in his attempt to move into a mainstream institution and stay in education after the primary stages.
Obviously we can all plainly see the obstacles placed in Azad’s path, but more insidious hurdles impede the successful completion of second level education to youths across Ireland. Systematically down through the years opportunities have favoured the privileged. Up until recently, a significant proportion of schools offered places based on prior attendance by family members. What to the middle class may have appeared as a legitimate means to stemming the gross swelling of school numbers, proved ultimately inhibiting to those who did not have educated family members. This categorically punished those who were already at a disadvantage.
Even more subtle barriers to equal access and completion of basic education exist in many complex guises. Although our educational system has undoubtedly improved, many parents have a severely negative perception of school – seeing it as a hostile institution which discriminated against them. These residues of friction seep into the mindsets of their children and precipitate in low attendance and concentration. This is not to blame the parents, as their memories of school and monotonous rote learning are valid – but we have developed to focus more on the students and their needs since. Perhaps adopting a more parent-centric model may enable us to further cut drop-out rates, which thankfully are now at an all-time low. I am aware of a number of schools which now consider this a fundamental tenet of promoting retention of students. Regular adult classes (such as yoga and art) and meetings to culture parent inclusion in education have proved successful, but are not found in enough schools. Students are still falling through the cracks.
During my time in Raina-Shine school in Noida, India, I saw students voraciously devour their school provided lunches daily. For many of them, they may not eat again before the following school lunch. We may all like to believe that this is an issue that we can ‘tut’ about, comfortably thousands of miles from developing countries, but it is not. Children are going to school hungry in this developed country as well. Unable to concentrate through the hunger pangs, can we truly expect these children to achieve their potential? Organisations such as Barnardos are doing all they can to reach these children in under-privileged schools with their Breakfast Clubs, however funding is of course a limiting factor. In conjunction with this, we all have to appreciate the kaleidoscope of backgrounds from which students in all schools come, deprivation is not always geographical.
Through the concerted action of a range of organisations, we can evolve the Irish system into a more inclusive model. Suas is one of those organisations, running a fantastically successful literacy programme in disadvantaged schools throughout the country. In tandem with this, their work abroad impacts significantly on the prospects of hundreds of children every year. I hope that we can all recognise that dreams and potential are not bound by nationalities, and we must all do our bit to support a two-pronged approach, working at home as well as internationally to strive for equal access to education.