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No to child labour! Yes to education! Teacher unions prevent primary school drop outs

published 5 June 2008 updated 5 June 2008

Sara Marbouh flashes a radiant smile at her teacher and settles into a front row desk in her Geography class at Abbas Benani School in this holy city. A conscientious 14-year-old, Sara knows every child has the fundamental right to an education. She also knows how precarious that right can be.

The fourth of five children in a desperately poor family, Sara is well-loved but not well-provided for. Her elderly father suffers from vision problems, so is unable to work. Her mother is illiterate and unskilled. Sara often goes to school without breakfast. The headmaster of her school knew that Sara’s family could barely afford to feed her, let alone buy textbooks. Mohammed Glioui said, “Sara used to come to my house and do homework with my daughter. She told me about the hard conditions Sara was living in, so in the mornings I often gave her milk and cake or other food.” Suddenly, at age 12, Sara stopped coming to school. “My mother forced me to go to work as a housemaid for a wealthy family,” she said. “I cried a lot and my mother cried too, but it was a must for us … It happened very fast. I just came home from school and my mother told me that tomorrow someone would come for me. I didn’t want to eat for the first five days.” Sara’s mother, Malika Hinda, felt humiliated that poverty compelled her to send her daughter to work. “The neighbours would ask, ‘Where’s Sara?’ I would lie and say she was visiting relatives,” Malika said. As a live-in domestic servant, Sara’s days began at 6:00 a.m. After preparing breakfast for the children, she faced hours of drudgery. According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of child domestics in Morocco work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for hourly wages of between five and 12 cents US (0.4 to 1 dirham). The mistress of the house was cruel. “She treated me like an object,” Sara said. “I was considered only a maid, not a human being. In that house I was deprived of many beautiful things in life – especially kindness.” As soon as Sara’s absence was noted, Headmaster Glioui and other teachers met to discuss her case. They visited Sara’s home and tried to convince her parents that long-term investment in her education was far more valuable than any short-term gain. They promised that the teachers’ union would provide Sara’s books, supplies and clothing. After six weeks, Sara’s parents agreed. “Thank God we could convince her family to let her go back to school,” said Glioui. Sara was overjoyed. “I can’t describe the feelings,” she said tearfully. “There is a huge difference between the cruelty of my employer and the kindness of my teachers.” Today Sara works hard at school, earns high marks, and dreams of becoming a pediatrician so she can take care of children, just as she herself has been cared for. “Sara is a lovely and lovable girl. She pays attention in class. She is a good student with strong motivation to learn,” Glioui said. “We will continue to help her achieve her goals.” ***** Sara’s rescue from the ranks of elementary school dropouts came about because of an extraordinary programme undertaken by the Syndicat Nationale de l’Enseignement, the leading teacher union in Morocco. Abdelaziz Mountassir, SNE Vice-President and a member of the Executive Board of Education International, says the union plays a strategic role in preventing child labour by keeping children in school. “As a union, child labour is one of our major concerns,” says Mountassir. “Once children go out to work it means a loss of jobs for grown-up workers. As educators we fight child labour because it’s our duty to defend the rights of children to learn.” According to the Moroccan Ministry of Education, up to 320,000 children quit school annually to work in domestic service, agriculture, handicraft industries and worse forms of child labour. While education is compulsory until age 16 and the minimum age for work is 15, children are often apprenticed before age 12 in family-run workshops in the handicraft industries. Fez is known for the beauty of its handicrafts, but the brass platters and silver teapots in the tourist shops shine with a brilliance that belies the dark and dirty conditions in which they are crafted. One young man, Karim, said he has worked since he was nine. After his father died, Karim had to help support the family. “I would like to be able to read a newspaper,” he says. “But if I go to study, who will work for my mother?” Poverty is the main problem, but it is compounded by illiteracy. More than 80% of Moroccan women in the countryside are illiterate, over 60% in the cities. The illiteracy rates for men are 50% in rural areas and 40% in urban. Parents often can’t comprehend the value of education for their children’s life chances, and how vital it is to breaking the cycle of poverty. Mountassir has been a strong advocate of the SNE child labour prevention programme since its launch three years ago in five primary schools in Fez. With a cadre of enthusiastic teachers and headmasters, supported by the skills of national union leaders, the project is making such a positive impact that it is expected to expand to four other cities. Glioui says one of the main factors contributing to the programme’s success is that 96% of the teachers belong to the same union, the SNE. “We share the same spirit of solidarity between the teachers and administration. We cooperate to solve the children’s problems, and the union has built good relationships with the parents.” It has also had phenomenal success in reducing the numbers of children dropping out of school at an early age. In the year before the programme began, a total of 1,381 children dropped out of the five schools combined. In the first year the number of drop-outs plummeted to 212, and then declined to 116 in the second year and 121 in the third. The programme is funded by three Dutch organisations: the labour confederation, FNV Mondiaal; Oxfam Netherlands; and the teachers’ union, AOb. Together they invested €300,000 over a three-year period. Trudy Kerperien, AOb International Secretary, explains that the program has four target areas: the teachers, schools, families and politicians. But first, they start with the basics: a clean, healthy learning environment. Ahmed Hraich is the programme coordinator at the 18 November School, where he has taught for the past 14 years. He described the formerly appalling state of the school, with broken windows, filth and garbage everywhere. The stench from the latrines in the central courtyard used to be overpowering. Now the latrines have been renovated and the whole stinking mess cleaned up. Pointing out the freshly painted walls, turquoise wooden stall doors, and running water, Hraich had a strong message: “This project has transformed our school. Look, you can see things are better, cleaner. The children in this neighbourhood are very poor. Having a good toilet is important for children’s education!” The programme also funds textbooks, school bags, uniforms and other supplies for needy children, as well as modest libraries in all five schools. Thanks to the French teacher union UNSA-Education, there are French books along with the Arabic collections. Basic literacy programs for mothers are also offered. “We are in very great need of this library,” said one mother. “We don’t want our children to play in the streets. I need my children to be able to come here after school and read books I can’t afford.” Abdellah Hijazi, programme coordinator at Al Quods School, said being able to see the blackboard and printed page is also critical. Teachers began to realise that many students who were not succeeding actually suffered from short-sightedness. After supplying glasses to those who needed them, they found many children’s grades improved. “I love my glasses,” said little Said. “Before I couldn’t see the blackboard and now I can. Without them, I think I might have dropped out of school.” Another crucial element in the programme is family and community outreach. Teachers meet with parents’ associations, and make consistent efforts to communicate with families. Every year, they do a risk analysis of every child. Criteria that signal high risk for dropping out include: • Extreme poverty • Illiteracy of parents • Unemployment of parents • Divorce or family breakdown • Domestic violence • Illness or death of parents • Mental or physical health problems • Low marks in school • Frequent absences from school Because so many students come to school from stressful homes, teachers try to create an oasis of physical and emotional safety. Corporal punishment is not practised in the programme, and this freedom from violence at school is often in sharp contrast to the dangers lurking in the streets, and even at home. Walking through the playground, Glioui chats and strokes the face of a little girl named Kawtar. She’s eight, he says, but she looks more like a five-year-old. Unlike the other girls, she is wearing the traditional headscarf and long jelaba. She has a cut over her right eyebrow, a purple greenish bruise on the cheekbone, and deep shadows under her anxious brown eyes. After her teacher reported Kawtar’s wounds, the headmaster asked her father why he had beaten his daughter. The father, recently released from prison, claimed it was because she had not done her homework. Kawtar said that wasn’t true; she was just playing with her cousins when it happened. With anger and sadness in his voice, the headmaster explained: “It’s because her cousins are boys. That’s why he beat her.” Kerperien says that this kind of caring is at the heart of the programme’s success. The union aims to improve the quality of education through professional development for its teachers, enabling them to improve classroom practice and encouraging them to deepen relationships with students and communities. Most important, she says, is the professional attitude of the teachers, their willingness to learn new skills and to change their traditional ways of working with children. “We’ve seen extraordinary results since we began giving after school tutoring and extra lessons for slow learners. It’s been a good initiative,” says Rabia Mouyssi, a teacher at Ouinat Alhajaj School. Mouyssi says she has benefited professionally from meetings with partner groups and workshops on children’s rights and the pedagogy of listening. “It has changed the relationships between me and my students. I’m much closer to them now. We seek solutions together and I give them support – pedagogical and personal. We always have a sense of solidarity between us,” she said. “I’m their teacher, but also their mother, their friend, everything. They are like my own children.” Young Mohammed is a student who faces a lot of problems, Rabia said, putting her arm around his shoulder. His father is an alcoholic and so his mother suffers a lot. “I try to keep him close to me, support him, talk to him. Now he doesn’t think about dropping out of school anymore.” One of her students recently did drop out, but she and some other students convinced him to return. “I am very proud. It’s a victory for me,” she said. “When a student leaves school and is abandoned to the streets, I feel really heartsick.” ***** Making school more fun is another important part of the union’s work. The silly clown bumped his head on a balloon and almost fell down, prompting howls of laughter from hundreds of children packed into the courtyard at 18 November School. The stage was just a dozen desks pushed up one against the other and the blaring loudspeakers squealed with feedback, but the audience was exuberant, clapping and singing along. “No to dropping out! Yes to education!” That was the steady refrain during the performance by activists from the Association Maultaika des Jeunes pour le Developpement (AMJD). These animators cooperate with teachers to offer after-school classes in painting, ceramics and creative movement, as well as dramatic performances with a strong message about staying in school and becoming good citizens. Association President Mohammed Ataiche is convincing about the key role of art and cultural activities in preventing school dropouts. “We want to show the children that school is not just about studying and discipline, but about fun and creativity too,” Ataiche said. “A child who lacks play is not going to be able to study well.” ***** M’hammed Yazzough, headmaster at Ouinat Alhajaj School, praises the extraordinary efforts of the teachers who work so hard and give so much to their students. “I bow down to my teachers,” he said humbly. But the national government is not doing enough. “They have invested lots of money in less worthwhile programmes,” said Yazzough. He called on the government to address problems of poor school infrastructure, overly large class sizes and a crowded curriculum. SNE activists agree, lobbying the Ministry of Education for increased funding and political support. They have had some success; ministry officials have provided space for the programme headquarters, and are expressing support for expanding it to other schools and other cities, where it can benefit up to 15,000 children. There can be no doubt the union’s programme is changing attitudes and saving lives. “Leaving school can be like a death sentence,” says Boughour Houssin, headmaster of 18 November School. “When they go to the streets, the children can be so easily influenced by drugs or criminals.” “When we bring a child back to school, it is as if we are giving him a new life. It’s like taking a plant that is dying, and we give it care and water and bring it back to life. Many of these children [who dropped out] now are good students, and we hope they will become good citizens and contribute to our community and our country.” By Nancy Knickerbocker

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 26, June 2008.