Magic happens when educators put children at the centre of what they do. I remember a session organized by RELI Kenya in July 2022 when children were invited to speak with educators, policy makers, parents, and school administrators.
A full range of education practitioners and policy makers presented their most recent projects and educational innovations. They provided insights into the development and advancement of education policy, but it wasn’t until the children told us how they would be affected that real progress was made.
The Dignified Storytelling Handbook and the pledge it espouses encourage organisations to treat interviewees and children with regard and dignity. For RELI, doing this was not only a show of respect, but was also advantageous. They learned much more than they otherwise would have done.
The Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) is a peer learning network, comprising 70 organisations. It brings together members working to ensure inclusive learning for all children in East Africa by leveraging local knowledge and expertise to influence education policy and practice.
At this meeting, eleven boys and girls shared their difficulties and worries about their school experiences.
It became clear early in the meeting that such forums are important. It created alignment between what children need to succeed in school and how decision makers can most align to create an enabling environment for them. One of the highlights of the event was the right of students to be heard and understood and most importantly contribute to decisions that impact them in their schools and to have their views and opinions taken into consideration.
The stories shared by the children were personal, detailed, relevant and inspirational: rich conversations between all those involved. Some challenges that the students shared included: accessing clean water to drink or wash their hands, too many students in a class, absentee teachers, loud music near the classrooms, filthy toilets, small classrooms and few lessons, exposure to adult vices like drugs and alcohol around the school.
One student said,
“I sit in a cubicle size classroom oozing with other little children. It’s made of “mabati” (corrugated iron) that’s next to a busy road where loud distracting hooting and blasting music from public transport buses and a clandestine “church” fills the air and makes it impossible to learn.”
Although none of these issues were new, hearing them from young children made it clear how crucial a supportive school environment is to students’ wellbeing. Children’s needs must be taken into consideration by the community and the community must come together to support them. The education policymakers and practitioners also made a few important commitments and pledges to enhance the students’ learning environments.
It became apparent quite fast that the teenagers were far smarter and more articulate than we gave them credit for, especially in a culture where children are seen not heard. When thinking about why we do the work that we do in education, centring the voices of students and children cannot be understated.
Stories give meaning and purpose, and they help us relate and empathise. Hearing these stories only further solidified the reasons why those in the room take children’s education seriously, and why it was a matter of urgency to either advocate for specific inclusionary policy or fast track implementation of already enacted laws.
To complement the stories, members of RELI presented data that supported what the children were saying. People’s stories and research data go hand in hand in persuading target audiences in a certain direction.
RELI Africa was recently registered as an NGO and is testament to the infinite possibilities that a group of committed people can have when they come together to share resources, amplify their voice in pushing for the enactment or implementation of education policy that prioritises the voices of students and children in their mission to provide equal access to a quality education for all children.
Dignified Storytelling seeks to distribute power between different actors, especially in the development and humanitarian emergency fields to ensure understanding and consensus in developing strategies that work for all those involved. Even if the actor is a child, their voice matters and giving that voice a hearing multiplies impact.