In my work as Plan International’s Global Adviser on Education, I am constantly amazed at the way young people are able to rise to the challenge when they are given a voice and afforded a say in the world around them.
I have seen this when children, especially girls, are included in the running of their schools with the support of Plan International’s programmes to promote children’s right to participate as citizens. The benefits of this activity can be quite astonishing and range from higher individual self-esteem right through to better human rights embedded in education.
For many years the focus in my sector has been on access to education. It is still an important issue. More than 60 years after global acceptance that education is a fundamental human right and almost 15 years after agreement of the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All, universal education is still far from being a reality.
Engaging girls and boys in education
But we are seeing that access is not the end of the story. Evidence from numerous studies around the world tells us that the focus must also be on engaging boys and girls in their education in a meaningful way. Allowing young people to help shape their learning environment greatly enhances the benefits of that learning.
In addition, the world’s new Sustainable Development Goals emphasise the fundamental importance of people’s participation in decisions that affect them, as well as stating that: “People who are vulnerable must be empowered.” The SDG’s vision for global transformation by 2030 depends on states taking measures to support participation by marginalised groups.
Student councils are an example of a key component of children’s participation. They are the cornerstone of well-supported child involvement and offer a unique opportunity to teach invaluable life and citizenship skills.
For boys and girls who may never have been given a voice before, the experience of organising and taking part in elections with the chance to sit on a children’s representative body can be transformative.
The Tororo Program is one of our projects in rural Uganda. Schools in Tororo District organised student council elections which incorporated an element of positive discrimination at the application stage to allow support to be offered to those from vulnerable homes and those with special needs. Candidates’ school attendance levels were also considered.
Voting irregularities such as handing out sweets to encourage support led to immediate disqualification. This built the framework for free and fair elections.
In all, 13 children were elected to the councils with every single student having a vote. Led by an elected president, the councils then met three times each term to consider issues they wished to raise with staff and management. The children had a voice. From the student president down, all were given a sense of inclusion, influence and participation. They mattered.
I have had the opportunity to see the Tororo Program in action. When I arrived at Kisoko Boys Primary it was long after the school day had finished but the building was packed with parents, teachers and members of the local community. They were gathered for a discussion on education in the community and it was one of the most inspiring events I have ever seen.
The meeting was highly organised and clearly run by deeply committed individuals. The highlight was a wonderful speech on the value of children’s empowerment and education delivered by the President of the Student Council. The boy was 10 years old.
When I talked to children at the school about how the student council had changed things, one told me simply: “When we know our rights, the whole community benefits”.
When we know our rights, the whole community benefits.
This is the kind of thing we see across all of our participation projects.
By embedding broad support for children’s participation amongst parents, teachers and the community, we create the greatest possible chance of success.
There are more immediate benefits, too. Where participation has increased, we have seen violence and other harmful behaviours reduced, both amongst students and staff. Teachers become more respectful and responsive to children’s views and their rights.
Having a voice and being heard
Participation also helps to hold school management and governance bodies to account for their actions, encouraging transparency and responsiveness.
That is why Plan is developing Global Programme Models in child participation in school governance that provide a number of options for low cost, scalable programmes which can be used in different contexts to support positive change at the community level.
Child participation is often initially received with mixed feelings by adults. There can be a sense that children should simply do what they are told, that adults always know best. But in my experience, once a community has tried it, the benefits become clear to everyone.
Small changes can have an extraordinary impact. By demonstrating to boys and girls that their views matter and that they have influence we can profoundly affect their development.
Participation is about having a voice and being heard in a meaningful way. If honoured and implemented in the right way, it genuinely influences decision-making and creates meaningful change.