(Contribution to the Global Teacher Blog Series)
Gosh, what a difficult question!
The answer so depends on where you will be when you are not in school. When talking to youngsters in the UK about our youngsters in Sierra Leone, I often find myself saying, ‘…but please don’t imagine that if they can’t go to school that means they have a life of endless pyjama days, playing with iPads and watching TV, while eating biscuits and crisps.’ No more school can sound like unremitting heaven to an unaware western teenager.
When our children are not at school, the chances are they are out on the streets selling stuff (one of the most vulnerable tasks, particularly for girls); out in the farm, planting, weeding and harvesting; in shallow open mines panning for gold (sounds glamourous but is everything but!) or out scouring the bush for firewood to be sold so there is money to buy supper with, which will be their first meal of the day. End of term does see the majority even of our live-in students head off to see family because we encourage the continuation of strong relationships with relatives. If the danger of vulnerable dependency has been averted by their living mostly with us, it is important to still provide safe spaces for these relationships to thrive. However, while some will come back with happy tales of their holiday doings, when others come back one is aware that the holidays may have seen more than one hungry day and that plenty of hard work has been done.
The other worry in Sierra Leone for girls going back into less-educated family contexts during the holidays can often be the danger of being initiated into a secret society, via female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM).
Does this mean that children should be in school 24/7, 365 days a year? No, of course it doesn’t.
Does it mean that children should not go home to their families if they can? No, of course it doesn’t.
Does it mean that we think very carefully before we add days to a holiday? Yes, it does.
Does it mean that we do everything possible to make sure that school is the safest and happiest place possible, so that children are always happy to stay in the holidays if they need to? Yes, it does.
Does it mean that we prepare our girls, so they know what to do if they suspect there are plans afoot to initiate them? Yes, it does.
Do very long holidays feel like a great thing for vulnerable children? No, they don’t.
When we reopen in September after the summer holidays, will we find that some don’t return and then discover later that it would have been so much better for them to have stayed in school? Yes, we will.
Here, I have only really considered the welfare issues associated with being in and out of school. There are of course the issues relating to academics and other concerns but, for us, our first priority is safety. We can think about all the rest, when we have worked that one out!
These tinies in a nearby village do not attend school. They are not unhappy per se, they are unaware of what they do not know, but they will never fulfil their potential. Their days are spent hanging around in the village, going to the farm to plant, weed and harvest, helping their parents out and going to bed as soon as it is dark. There is no water for 2 miles, so that keeps them busy too and the lack of sanitary conditions has accounted for so many unnecessary child deaths!
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