Child Friendly Schools
By Jens Laerke
TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, December 2005 -
“You see a Muslim mosque, a Christian church, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple - and our school. This painting says that all communities should work together to find solutions for peace”.
Gobitha, a 15 years old Tamil girl, is one of some 25 school children gathered in a tsunami affected school in Sri Lanka’s conflict-ridden north east for a workshop with a colourful and highly visible outcome: Large oil paintings on the walls in two classrooms, drafted and done by the children themselves.
Child participation is the key concept in this workshop that brings together teachers and children from 8 schools in Trincomalee district. Children themselves take the lead in drawing, drafting, sketching, and finally painting their own pictures for the classroom walls. The school principal will, however, have a final say on which paintings go up.
It’s all part of the Child Friendly School (CFS) approach which has been adopted by the Sri Lankan Government with UNICEF support in the wake of the devastating tsunami in 2004, that wiped out or damaged many schools in Sri Lanka.
We are listened to
Schools will be reconstructed and repaired following the CFS guidelines which set out standards for the “hardware” of schools, such as bigger and better ventilated classrooms, better sanitation facilities and so on. The “software” of the CFS approach is child participation, and the concept is being tested here in Nilaveli school, which was damaged, but not destroyed, by the tsunami.
“This is the first time that we have been allowed to participate in decisions in the school”, says Jeruba, 15 years old, taking a break in the paint work. “This is the first time we are listened to”, he says.
Child participation is an inclusive process – the idea is that everybody should have their say. At the same time, participation in decisions gives the children a feeling of ownership of their school. That in turn will likely lead to higher school attendance and improved performance.
Tsunami affected schools
The initiative targets all the tsunami affected schools that UNICEF has supported with semi permanent structures, as well as a number of child friendly schools that existed before the tsunami.
“The murals allow children to engage in a creative process. They are allowed to express themselves and their ideas while making their school environment more attractive, more child friendly,” says Gabriela Elroy, Head of Unicef’s office in Trincomalee.
“The fact that children are engaged and allowed to influence the process from the beginning to the end promotes their overall ownership of the final result. This is empowering for the children themselves, but it also sends a strong message to the adults both in the school and the community of the gains we all can make when allowing children to truly engage in processes and decisions affecting their lives”, she says, adding that the participation should be kept in line with the child's age and mental maturity.
800 students engaged
The first phase of the project is workshops for teachers. Through learning-by-doing they are trained In child participation methodologies as well as in how to plan and paint a mural. Emphasizing the importance of child participation from the beginning, the teachers have decided to invite between 1 and 3 students from their respective schools to participate in the training workshops. The ideas of child participation are thus incorporated from the outset.
In the second phase the trained teachers and students will go back and engage 15-20 students in their own schools in the same process. In total 800 students will be directly involved in the mural painting project in Trincomalee.
“The painted murals in themselves enhance the school environment. But they are also useful in communicating important messages about peace, how to protect environment, and the importance of education,” says Gabriela Elroy.