In the UK, children expect to go to school. Actually, they are expected to. It’s the law. And the privilege is free. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic removed children in almost every country from their classrooms. We chatted to some of our younger UK Tearfund supporters about the future-building privilege of education.
‘At first I wanted to not go to school because I thought it was very boring, but when lockdown happened, I realised how lucky we are to have a school. I am now excited to go back. Now I am never going to complain about not liking school. Lockdown has taught me to be grateful for something that we have to have. During lockdown we have been asking questions like “When are we going to school?” – I thought we would never need to ask that.’ (Kirsty, 12, starting Year 8)
Evan’s mum: What’s better about being at school?
Evan: The teaching – even though you’re a qualified teacher.
Evan’s mum: What do you miss most about school?
Evan: (Pause. Wobbly voice.) My friends.
(Evan, 8, starting Year 3)
‘Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, many people’s schooling has been disrupted... we were forced to work from home, which is full of many difficulties. My main one was concentrating when there are so many distractions… Also you are without true motivation as your parents are working and your teachers are hard to contact, so you are forced to motivate yourself. On days that that motivation is removed, you feel like crumbling on the floor sobbing. However, I am fortunate… There are many people who do not have an education and that is incredibly hard for them... It prevents them from getting well-paid jobs ...and many of them live with horrendously poor grammar... Since they didn't have any education, they won't be able to get certain jobs, thus they won't be able to afford school for their children and so the ever-growing cycle continues.’ (Simon, 14, starting Year 10)
‘What’s better about homeschooling? Nothing. Nothing is better. Nothing is better about homeschooling and being stuck at home!’ (Phoebe, 8, starting Year 3)
‘At home I get bored a lot. At school there’s lots of fun stuff.’ (Ben, almost 5, starting Reception)
‘Well school is fun because I can see my friends… I’ve missed my friends. I’m looking forward to going back to the normal way it is other than coronavirus reasons and things like that. You have to learn at school. It’s important. Well...children who don’t have a school to go to must feel sad. Yeah. Sad. I’m excited to go back to school.’ (Daniel, 6.5, starting Year 2)
Knowledge is power
Higher levels of education influence a wide range of things – including better all round health and wellbeing.1 It’s been shown that, on average, each added year of schooling increases a person’s earning potential by ten per cent.2
But, in many places where Tearfund works around the world, school is not the automatic right and expectation of and for each child. Poverty forces parents to remove their children from school because they can’t afford fees. Or children don’t have time for the classroom because they’re out earning money for food. In other cases, conflict or disaster rob them of an education. Those that might otherwise have been learning to multiply and divide, instead count the cost of the loss of their homes, their family members, their hope for a better future.
'You have to learn at school. It’s important. Children who don’t have a school to go to must feel sad. Yeah. Sad. I’m excited to go back to school.’
Daniel, 6, starting Year 2
Layan* is a mother of five. Her children are some of those who don't have the same expectation of starting a new, clean-uniformed, bag-full-of-labelled-stationery school year in the next week or so.
They’re from Syria. Life was already challenging for them – Layan’s husband was unable to work at his construction job after he fell from the fourth floor of a building and was badly injured. Then, the conflict began. Their house was badly damaged by a bomb and the family had to run.
They kept moving from place to place, trying to find safety. They fled all the way to Beirut, Lebanon.
Often they had no choice but to sleep on the streets. Tired, afraid and hungry. ‘It was very difficult,’ recalls Layan. ‘I kept wishing we had died in the war in Syria instead.’
At one stage, they managed to get work in a plant nursery and Layan really enjoyed working there with the flowers, but the work didn’t last and they had to leave.
Eventually, the family made it to the area of Beirut where our local partner supports the Tahaddi Centre.
A safe place
The Tahaddi Centre was able to help them with finding a place to live and paying the rent. Now the family is off the street, but they still have many challenges.
As many of us are preparing our children to go back to school – finding missing PE socks and discovering that school jumpers and shoes have been outgrown – Layan’s children are facing a very different set of concerns.
All seven of them sleep in one room. It’s very damp and they are always getting sick. When it rains, water comes through the many cracks in the walls or the ceiling. And that was even before a giant explosion rocked the city.
‘We survive by receiving food vouchers and help with rent from Tahaddi,’ says Layan, ‘and other than that, my husband rents a tuk tuk [electric motorcycle with a cart to carry things] and goes to the vegetable market to work. But because of his [injured] leg it is difficult for him to lift heavy baskets of vegetables and he struggles to even earn enough money to pay for the rent of the tuk tuk. My son also now works repairing motorcycles.’
Of Layan’s five children, only one is currently able to go to school – which is provided by the Tahaddi Centre. One of her sons has many psychological and mental health challenges and gets into a lot of trouble. Often he is bullied.
‘My husband is very violent with my children. He hits [my sons] a lot. Three years ago, both my older sons worked on the streets selling roses, my husband used to beat them if they did not bring enough money,’ Layan says. ‘Sometimes they would not come back before three in the morning; I cried so much for them. My son would sometimes sleep alone in the vegetable market for fear of being hit by his father.
‘My husband then went to prison, and that was a relief; I used to pray that he wouldn’t come back alive. When he came back from prison, he stopped sending my son to the streets because the Tahaddi Centre stepped in and threatened to call the police if he did it again. Now he is not as violent as before.’
Learning to hope
‘The Tahaddi Centre helped us in many ways… My husband goes for health check-ups to the Tahaddi Center and has been sent to hospital for wound treatment – [the centre] helped with fees. We also received a fan, household items, clothes, mattresses and blankets.
‘My son was referred to a centre for help with his mental health struggles. Our three older children took part in the Tahaddi Centre’s summer activities and really enjoyed it. My daughter is now in her first year of education at the Tahaddi Center. She has problems with her vision, and Tahaddi paid for her glasses.
‘As for me, I don’t know exactly why but I get angry and depressed a lot, sometimes I lose control, so I regularly see the Tahaddi Center’s psychologist.
‘It is a relief that we at least receive food vouchers and help for rent,’ says Layan. ‘We are no longer afraid to be on the streets or go through days without food in the house, this is a blessing. I am thankful that the Tahaddi Centre social workers or psychologists are there whenever I need to talk and whenever I am in a crisis. However, our life is not easy at all. It makes me feel less alone to know someone is here to listen.’
On average, each added year of schooling increases a person’s earning potential by ten per cent.
The horrific blast that happened last month caused widespread loss and damage in Beirut, but Layan’s is one of the families who are finding seeds of possibility for a more hopeful future. Staff at the Tahaddi Centre are still working to help people who have lost a sense of home and all the things that includes – a community, education, a place to feel safe.
During lockdown, this has been even more challenging. One of the ways the Tahaddi Centre helped, was by providing 200 families they work with access to the internet and an education programme run through WhatsApp.
In other places where Tearfund works, there is more to be done to help people have these basic things. When conflict came to his town in Iraq, ten-year-old Fadi* lost his father, his leg and his home. He lives in a temporary camp. He’s been there for three years already. For Fadi, the classroom is a distant daydream.
As our young friend Simon pointed out, without access to an education, the cycle of poverty continues into future generations.
The beginning of this new school year may feel strange in some ways. Social media seems full of arguments about wearing masks and confusion and frustration about grades. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is, please can we take a moment to remember Layan’s children. And Fadi and his sister Noor*. Please can we consider those for whom these (important) issues might look like a luxury.
A prayer by Mark, 18, starting a BTec.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to go back to school again. May you watch over the teachers and staff and protect them.
I pray that you also watch over all pupils and students as they settle back into routine. Will you help them cope with the new environments in which they are learning. I pray for protection over students and teachers from harmful germs and diseases in their schools.
May you also bless students and their new school life – securing their future and putting it in your hands.
Please be with those who aren’t able to go to school. Please will you have their future in your hands too.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
1. Source: UNESCO
2. Source: World Bank - World Development Report 2018