School Community Democracies’

This blog discusses the chronic deficit in global  education, focusing on the efforts of two aid charities in Kanchipuram, a district in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu.   It highlights projects from the 2017 reports of the NGOs ‘Children Watch’ and ‘Assisi’.

(i) The Democratic Input To Education

The contemporary picture of the chronic deficit of Indian education is revealed in the annual reports of two aid charities working with children and their communities in Kanchipuram.  Their approaches to improve the lot of young people of the IRULA tribal group are highlighted in the 2017 annual reports of Children Watch and Assisi Aid  Two project areas from these reports  have been singled out because the NGOs are funding remarkably similar children-led out of school bonding and communication channels within and between village communities.  

(ii)  The Children Watch Project

Children Watch, had undertaken awareness creation about ‘Ecology and Environment Preservation’ among the school students in Kanchipuram and Uttiramerur  It was found that 540 school students from 9 schools in Kanchipuram and Uttiramerurblocks, had participated in ecological awareness programmes. Information about Green Cover, Solid Waste Management, Wastewater Management, Disaster Risk Reduction etc had been prepared and distributed to the school. Eco Clubs.  Twelve students in each school, totaling 108 members, had been organized in 9 schools.  The children, fortified with awareness on eco and environment preservation, had planted seedlings in the schools campuses and also promoted garbage free, clean and healthy environment at the schools. The school students became the peer educators to the members of their families, friends and the community members in motivating to ensure their villages were garbage-free with clean and healthy environments. 

(iii)  The Assisi Project

The Child Parliament initiative engages children aged 11 to 16 years of age. Children are articulate on Child Rights, however the component of Child Protection is seen as an emerging need (due to parental alcoholism). It is recommended to promote initiatives like Children`s groups, Child Protection Units, Life Skills Education that have greater scope for inclusion and age specific engagement. Hence the capacities of the Community leaders, Children, Animators and Staff need to be built.

 Children’s Parliaments (CPs) have helped in creating social awareness among children and they are engaged in village development activities like planting trees, cleaning public places, creating public awareness on evils of plastic etc. Being part of the Children Parliament the children have been empowered and have gained knowledge on Parliament procedures, learnt about child rights, child protection, gender,  and environmental protection. Children mentioned that there is better health and hygiene in the community.  Open defecation has reduced as a result of toilets being constructed in the communities and increased awareness on their use. Streets are cleaner now and communities have become more child friendly. Due to the contribution of the Tuition Centers (TCs) the Parents and school teachers reported that the children have developed learning skills and improved School performance. In a few communities children are involved in savings programmes and it helps the children to meet their needs. The study on Learning outcomes among children, both among boys and girls, who are enrolled in the TCs versus the children those who are not attending the TCs proved that the performance of the former group was better than the latter.  This shows that learning at the tuition centre is contributing in enhancing the learning outcomes of the children. 

(iv)  Engagement of Children: Key Findings

Only selected children in the villages have been exposed to the concept of a Children’s Parliament (CP) as the activity is age appropriate. In Kovendakurichi village the CP sessions are conducted in the school (for children in 7th or 8th standards) and not in the community. – Children have some knowledge on Child Rights and Protection, but it was felt it has not been rolled out in a formal way.  Child Protection Units (CPU) are absent or nonfunctional.

There is a need for Children, parents and Animators to be equipped, trained and capacities built in the area of Child Protection to ensure Child Wellbeing. For example, there is a need for a Child Protection Unit to be formed in the communities and Animators need to be equipped to handle protection issues, counsel and guide the children and their parents.  As there are no Child Protection Units (CPU) there is no formal system of reporting incidences of child abuse. 

(v)  Recommendations

Child Protection Units to be in place in all communities. All the Children, Parents, Animators and staff to be formally trained in Child Protection so that there is zero tolerance to child abuse in any form (emotional, neglect, sexual, physical, domestic and family violence). This awareness will help in raising an alarm, reporting and addressing issues relating to child abuse.

To address stress among children and to enable them to enjoy their childhood, the project could roll-out interventions like Life Skills Education (LSE) and ‘Play for Peace’ in networking with NGOs who have expertise in these interventions.

(vi) Community Democracies

It is interesting and significant that the two charities working to meet the needs of young people and adults in Kanchipuram have independently settled upon the educational ideas behind schooling and community as the route to actions for improving the community.  These ideas are expressed in peer educators, animators, child protection units, parent classes and children’s parliaments.

 The Children Watch Project emphasises eco and environment preservation through awareness programs involving 540 students across nine schools. It includes activities like planting trees and promoting a garbage-free environment. The Assisi Project focuses on integrated skill development for disadvantaged children, utilising initiatives like Child Parliaments and Tuition Centers. It aims to empower children, improve health and hygiene, and enhance learning outcomes.

Key findings of both NGOs include the need for formal child protection mechanisms and training for children, parents, and staff. Recommendations include establishing Child Protection Units in all communities and providing formal training in child protection. Additionally, interventions like Life Skills Education are suggested to address stress among out of school children.

Both charities emphasise the importance of school and community democracies as a means to improve well-being. This approach involves peer educators, animators, child protection units, parent classes, and children’s parliaments  as out of school activities. 

This then was the starting point for International Classrooms On Line to create a partnership with Children Watch in 2023, when the Bellamy Fund supported  four bus loads of Kanchiporum children and parents for a day out at the local Chennai Zoo.    The idea  is that a trip to the zoo or a local nature site can be much more than just a fun day out; it can also be an educational experience that brings children and parents together and develops a wider and deeper view of the world. Here’s how:

  1. Biodiversity Awareness: Zoos and nature sites typically care for a wide variety of animal species.  Seeing these animals up close can help children and parents appreciate the diversity of life on Earth and understand the importance of preserving habitats and protecting endangered species.
  2. Conservation Education: Many zoos have educational programs and exhibits focused on conservation efforts. These programs teach visitors about the threats facing wildlife and what can be done to help protect and conserve natural habitats.
  3. Animal Behavior: Observing animals in a zoo or nature site setting can provide valuable insights into their behavior, social structures, and adaptations to their environments. Children and parents can learn about how different species interact with each other and their surroundings.
  4. Environmental Awareness: Zoos often incorporate themes of environmentalism and sustainability into their exhibits and messaging. This can spark conversations about issues like climate change, pollution, and resource conservation, helping children and parents understand their role in protecting the planet.
  5. Empathy and Respect: Encountering animals face-to-face can foster empathy and respect for other living beings. Learning about the individual personalities and needs of animals can help children and parents develop a greater appreciation for all forms of life.
  6. Critical Thinking: Visiting the zoo encourages children to ask questions, make observations, and think critically about the world around them. Parents can engage their children in discussions about animal behavior, habitat conservation, and ethical considerations related to zoos.

Overall, the 2013 trip turned out to be a valuable opportunity for children and parents to explore and appreciate the wonders of the natural world while also gaining a deeper understanding of their responsibility to protect and preserve it.

(vii)  Future Work

The next steps after the successful trip to the zoo are further integration of such experiences into the village educational curriculum and community engagement initiatives that emerged in the 2017 report for Kanchipuram.  Here are some potential next steps:

  1. Community Outreach Programs: Expand outreach efforts to involve more families and communities in similar educational experiences. Organise regular trips to zoos, nature reserves, botanical gardens, or other relevant sites, ensuring that a diverse range of individuals and groups have access to these opportunities.
  2. Capacity Building: Train educators, community leaders, and volunteers to facilitate meaningful learning experiences during these trips. Provide resources and support to enable them to effectively engage children and parents in discussions and activities related to biodiversity, conservation, and environmental stewardship.
  3. Evaluation and Feedback: Continuously assess the impact of these initiatives on participants’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours towards environmental conservation. Gather feedback from children, parents, and educators to identify areas for improvement and refine programmatic approaches accordingly.
  4. Partnerships and Collaboration: Strengthen partnerships with local organisations, government agencies, and other stakeholders to leverage resources and expertise in promoting environmental education and community engagement. Collaborate on joint initiatives and campaigns aimed at raising awareness and fostering action towards sustainability.
  5. Sustainability and Long-Term Planning: Develop a sustainable framework for sustaining these efforts over the long term. Secure funding, establish institutional support, and create mechanisms for ongoing monitoring and evaluation to ensure the continued success and impact of educational initiatives focused on biodiversity and conservation.

By taking these next steps, organisations like the Bellamy Fund and Children Watch can continue to build on the momentum generated by the initial trip to the zoo, empowering children and parents to become informed and active participants in efforts to protect and preserve the natural world.

This requires the training of teachers to meet the the following 7 targets:

  1. Teacher Training Workshops: Organize workshops and training sessions specifically aimed at teachers to enhance their understanding of eco and environment preservation, integrated skill development, child protection mechanisms, and the importance of school and community democracies. These workshops should cover topics such as biodiversity awareness, conservation education, child protection, peer education, and critical thinking.
  2. Incorporate Experiential Learning: Provide opportunities for teachers to participate in experiential learning activities related to environmental conservation and child development. For example, organize field trips to local nature sites, facilitate hands-on activities such as tree planting and waste management, and encourage teachers to engage with community initiatives like child parliaments.
  3. Resource Development: Develop educational materials, lesson plans, and teaching resources that align with the objectives of the Children Watch Project and the Assisi Project. These resources should be designed to facilitate interactive and participatory learning experiences in the classroom, covering topics such as eco-awareness, life skills development, and child protection.
  4. Collaborative Learning Communities: Foster a culture of collaboration among teachers by establishing learning communities where they can share best practices, exchange ideas, and support each other in implementing innovative teaching approaches. Encourage peer learning and mentoring to facilitate continuous professional development.
  5. Inclusive Teaching Strategies: Train teachers in inclusive teaching strategies that cater to the diverse needs of disadvantaged children, including those with disabilities or from marginalized backgrounds. Provide guidance on how to create inclusive learning environments that promote equity, diversity, and respect for all students.
  6. Monitoring and Support: Implement mechanisms for monitoring the progress of teacher training initiatives and providing ongoing support and feedback to educators. Establish regular check-ins, mentoring sessions, and professional development opportunities to ensure that teachers feel equipped and supported in meeting the targets set forth by the aid charities.
  7. Evaluation and Feedback: Regularly evaluate the impact of teacher training programs on student outcomes, well-being, and engagement. Gather feedback from teachers, students, parents, and community members to identify areas for improvement and inform future training initiatives.

Regarding training initiatives, International Classrooms On Line is producing and evaluating Catchpost, a computer/smart phone self learning algorithm for training educators in collaborative bilingual networking among groups and the communities they serve. Catchpost is an IT platform that promotes nature conservation and the  local Agenda 21 by creating Digital Postcards and Booklets within and between Groups of Learners. These materials aim to raise awareness and encourage collaborative networking among the communities regarding local flora and fauna, conservation tips, success stories, and calls to local action.

Statistics collected by Express newspaper from the Panchayat Union Middle School at Siruvathur shows that in 2012-13 academic year, 32 Irula children studied in the school. In 2013-14, it was 29. The numbers sharply dropped to 18 in 2014-15 and to a mere 4 in 2015-16.  Looking back on his schooldays an Irula man put it this way.  “The caste Hindu students would not sit with me during lunch. I was  always isolated. Although teachers never discriminated us, I was constantly reminded of my caste by the other students and villagers while walking to the school,”.  Caste discrimination at a community level still inhibits in-school learning.

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