Turning Point has been returning out-of-school children to school in Kibera since 2004. Our School Transition Programme is a one-year programme that helps children to catch up on what they’ve missed so they can integrate back into the school system. The children we serve are out of school due to poverty, not forced to stay home by a global pandemic. Coronavirus school closures may only last a few months while some of the children we work with have been out of school for years. We’ve been working with kids on the margins, kids who slipped through the gaps. But now across the world, we find 9 out of 10 school kids are not in school. Out of school is the new norm, at least for a time. As more countries start to reopen schools or make plans to do so, perhaps we have something to share from the years we’ve spent returning children to school. We thought we would pull together some of the lessons we’ve learned from working with out-of-school kids over the last 17 years…

1) Understand each child’s experience

What children are experiencing at home varies widely. Some have detailed timetables with zoom lessons. Some homes are full of educational toys and arts and crafts materials. Some kids have their own room to study in. At the other end of the spectrum, there are kids who have no books at home. There are kids whose parents can’t read. There are kids who don’t have internet access or a laptop, smartphone, tv or even a radio. There are school staff teams who phone up their students every week or even every day to check up on their welfare. There are some students who feel forgotten about. Some schools are finding ways to make sure kids who rely on their school meals get a hot meal or a packed lunch each day at home. There are a lot of kids going hungry.

While many kids will do just fine during school closures, some will even thrive. Others will have had a really challenging time, some will have lost loved ones or experienced other trauma. Some will have fallen far behind academically. We need to prioritise taking time to listen and understand each child’s out-of-school experience to be able to help each child be ready to get back into school.

2) It’s not just about academics

When Peter first joined the School Transition Progamme, he barely talked. He was extremely shy and kept to himself. Each day, our project staff slowly encouraged Peter to take part in circle games like nimetpoteza mbuzi. One child enters the centre of the circle and chants, “Nimepoteza mbuzi!” “I’ve lost my goat!”, all the kids reply “wapi?” “where?”. The child eventually selects another child, points at them and shouts “here!”, now it’s their turn to enter the circle and continue the game. This game probably terrified Peter at first but by the end of the first term, he was joining in and singing as loud as the rest.

We see children take an amazing journey during the year they spend in our transition programme. Learning to play with other kids, take turns, interact with adults are just a few of the key social skills that children pick up over the year. How will children be doing after the coronavirus school closures? We need to be ready to support children as they readjust to the school environment and catch up on some of those key social skills they’ve missed out on using at home.

2) Class set-up matters

We’ve seen that how many students are in a classroom and how children are grouped within a class makes a difference. Normally in school, children are put in classes according to their age. But the children we serve have all dropped out of school at different stages, the quality of the schools they attended varies and each child has been out of school for different lengths of time. Some have been out of school for as long as four years. Age is, therefore, a poor indicator of their academic ability. We, therefore, group children by ability rather than age. After the school closures, how will kids who fell further behind be given extra help to catch up?

We also make it a priority in our programme to keep the teacher: pupil ratio super low so each child gets the individual attention they need. The return to school may need to be phased to ensure social distancing. Will this provide an opportunity to reduce the teacher: pupil ratios in some settings where classrooms have been overcrowded, at least for a time?

3) Creativity keeps them captivated

When Meshak was out of school he would roam the streets, begging for money and use any money he got to buy snacks and play video games in small shacks in Kibera. He was free to do what he wanted, there was no adult following-up on him. When he joined our programme, sitting in class and engaging in lessons was a real challenge for Meshak.

There will be plenty of children who have experienced similar freedom while out of school during the pandemic. When kids have been out of the school routine for a while, it takes time for them to settle into a timetable and concentrate on an activity. This points to the importance of maintaining some form of routine with your children when they are out of school, as recommended by KICD and other actors. An out of school routine will help ease the transition back to school. 

 Our teachers work hard to keep the school work interesting with simple crafts and learning through games. Gluing and sticking ndengu (lentils) to create a picture, building cars out of cardboard boxes, the resources are simple. The kids have a great time, and inadvertently learn something! When schools reopen, can we jump on this opportunity to introduce more play-based learning I settings where learning by rote has been the norm? In Kenya, the CBC is moving in that direction but teachers need more training. Can we invest in professional development for teachers while schools are closed?

4) Parents are teachers

We’ve learnt from experience that when parents take an interest in their children’s education, their child does better in school. When a parent is negligent and uninterested, their child often struggles. As parents, we’ve certainly gained deeper gratitude for the effort teachers put into teaching our kids. Is this a moment for parents to learn new ways of being involved in their children’s education going forward?