School councils keep children from dropping out
Jeni Tito, 14, says she found it difficult to attend school on an empty stomach and without school materials and school uniform. So, last year, when she started a relationship with a boy and got pregnant, she decided to drop out of school. “My mother was angry and wanted me to find the boy but he had disappeared.”
It is the school holidays and Jeni has come to her school, the EPC Lobo Primary School, in Nicoadala, some 45 kilometres from the provincial capital of Quelimane in the northern province of Zambézia.
Smartly dressed in a denim skirt and T-shirt, Jeni sits on a narrow, rickety, wooden bench in her classroom which was built by parents using wood and mud. When it rains, water enters the gaping holes between the wooden planks but, fortunately, today is not wet.
Jeni places her new large school bag beside her, rather than on the dirt floor. The bag was bought by her grandmother, who now takes responsibility for Jeni and her younger sister, Ruth, 10, as their mother is very sick. “I got the bag, and Ruth got the uniform,” says Jeni proudly. Jeni lost her baby two months into her pregnancy. “Then, I wanted to go back to school, but I was ashamed. I had told my friend that I was pregnant, and she had told the whole class.”
Laucenia Luis, 15, a young reporter in Quelimane, is already in the second year of university. Yet she is aware that most children have not had the same opportunities as she has had.
“In urban areas, poverty makes some parents send their children to work when they should be at school.. and in rural areas some of the children do not have good conditions to learn. Some are learning under trees” — Laucenia,15.
After two months at home, Jeni had a visit from a member of the school council. The school council member told her she should return to school. “He said I couldn’t stay at home doing nothing and if I didn’t go to school, he would come personally to my home to collect me,” says Jeni.
Although Jeni was apprehensive about returning to school, it was much easier than she thought. “The other children treated me well, like I was their friend.”
Jeni is one of 39 children who the school council – made up of community members, parents, teachers and pupils – managed to get back into school last year. The school council president, Fina Viano, explains that in most cases hunger and lack of school materials had made children drop out of school. “Last year was particularly bad due to hunger caused by the drought. Other years, more girls tend to drop out, especially when mothers keep them home to look after the younger ones while they farm. We try to educate the mothers not to do this,” says Viano.
Keeping children in schools is a challenge for the whole country. Despite progress in primary enrolment, less than half of children complete primary education; many drop out in the first five years. About 1.2 million children are currently out of school. Even for those who attend, the quality of education is a challenge. According to the 2013 national learning assessment, only 6.3 per cent of third grade students had basic reading competencies.
UNICEF Education Chief, Iris Uyttersprot, highlights the important role played by school councils. “UNICEF assists the Ministry of Education with technical support who, in turn, provide training for school councils. Already we are seeing encouraging results, particularly in the case of vulnerable children who are being given that extra critical encouragement and support to stay in school. Moreover, school councils are also contributing their time to school administration activities.”
Joao Borges, 15 (left), who is in Grade 10 at a school in Quelimane, and is also a young reporter, points out that orphans are particularly vulnerable.
“They do not have their parents to show an interest in their schooling. I say this as I have a friend who lost his mother and his father abandoned him, and the family where he stays do not accept him. But he’s a talented poet. Lots of poems relate to his life. He expresses himself through his poems” — Joao, 15.
One of the first priorities at Jeni’s school is to make the school more conducive to learning. Viano highlights the poorly-built classrooms and the fact that younger pupils have to have classes under the trees.
“Last year, we held a meeting with parents and asked them to bring bricks to school to help lay the foundations of new classrooms. We will then hire local builders in the community to finish the job,” explains Viano.
The money for construction will come out of a fund called “apoio direito para escola”, a subsidy from the government that is managed by the school council along with the school administration. “The fund is important because it allows the school to operate without having to ask parents, many of whom are subsistence farmers and have no spare cash, for any major contributions,” explains Uyttersprot.
Besides improving the classrooms, the council also set aside money to buy school materials for vulnerable children, who are identified by the teachers. To help ensure transparency, the council has three commissions made up of school council members: one commission is in charge of planning how to spend the money, the second is in charge of purchases, and the third commission receives and monitors the use of the school materials.
Last year, the teachers identified 197 out of a total of 858 pupils as vulnerable, Jeni being one of them. Viano regularly visits Jeni. “Their house is in such poor condition, I don’t think it will withstand the rains we’re having,” says Viano.
As Jeni’s mother, a single parent, is so sick, Jeni is taking on more household chores, which includes fetching water from the public tap before she leaves for school at 6 a.m. They have no toilet or electricity and when it rains waters comes into their home. “Her mother is so sick now, she cannot even stand by herself. We are praying for her,” says Viano.
The director of the school, Carlos Lisboa, talks to Jeni, stressing how important it is for her to remain in class. He adds that, despite the challenges, the community is easy to mobilise as they want a better school for their children. “We need to move ahead,” he says.
Jenni is determined to move ahead too and says she wants to stay in school now. “I don’t want to marry. I want to know how to read and write first so I can live well in this world.”
“We need to sensitize parents that they must keep their children in school, especially in rural areas. Girls tend to drop out due to child marriage, poverty and early pregnancy. It’s not easy to study when you’re pregnant” — Iris Valeria da Silva Jamal, 14, a young radio producer in Nampula.