Brighid Golden talks to students in India and the Philippines about what ‘back to school’ means to them.

‘Back to school’ is an inescapable phrase heard every year in Ireland from mid-July. The material elements of this ritual are advertised relentlessly as students are encouraged to purchase uniforms, books, lunch boxes and stationery in order to be fully prepared for the year ahead. But what else does this concept mean, here in Ireland and around the world?

Education has transformed my life; it has given me opportunities to travel the world and work with inspirational people. Personally, back to school has always meant a new year and time for fresh opportunities, for both students and teachers. I loved school as a student, became a teacher and now continue to love it as a lecturer.

What does ‘back to school’ mean to you?

Back to school takes on a more profound meaning in the aftermath of humanitarian disasters, war and civil unrest. Following the chaos, destruction and tragedy of typhoon Yolanda (also known as Haiyan) in 2013, back to school meant a return to learning, security and some form of normality for the children of the Philippines. When asked about the the significance of going back to school, students attending a GOAL school in the Philippines identified the ‘fighting spirit to go to school’ shared among classmates: ‘a determination to continue our goals in life’ and ‘not let big problems overtake us’.

One student referred to school as a ‘refuge for all the heart aches that struck my heart from the typhoon’. Another student described going back to school as ‘hope: hope in a way that after Yolanda devastated our school, people lent a hand to build our school slowly and slowly build up our dreams that were shattered’.

“One student described going back to school as hope: hope in a way that after Yolanda devastated our school, people lent a hand to build our school slowly and slowly build up our dreams that were shattered”

For children who have been kept out of school for reasons ranging from illness to child labour, ‘back to school’ or indeed, attending school for the first time, is an opportunity to be a child, make friends, feel safe and develop confidence in themselves.

Chandana, a 12-year old girl from Delhi, India, is one of the lucky children who has returned to primary school with Suas partner, the Shine Foundation, following a two-year gap spent working. She aims to get a good education, gain knowledge about the world, establish a good career and help her family. UNICEF estimates that roughly 24 million children worldwide are experiencing gaps in their education due to being involved in child labour.

What changes in your life when you go back to school?

For me, life definitely becomes more scheduled when ‘back to school’ time rolls around. I set my alarm earlier and replace leisurely evenings with lesson planning, research and making resources.

Chandana also has to get up earlier each morning to ensure that she finishes her chores. She finds it difficult to balance her school and home responsibilities. However, it also means that she is now able to teach her younger siblings and expresses her confidence that she will have a bright future.

“UNICEF estimates that roughly 24 million children worldwide are experiencing gaps in their education due to being involved in child labour”

We can take for granted that back to school means wrapping brand new school books and replacing shabby school bags or in the case of a teacher – refreshing classrooms with new displays and resources.

The children from the Philippines described how back to school meant relying on NGOs like GOAL to replace blackboards and provide new books. Damaged schools had to be repaired and tables and chairs had to be replaced so children and teachers had safe spaces to return to. Students from the Hiagsam Annex school in the Philippines did not know when they would return after the building was so heavily damaged. Back to School for these children meant they could relax again, enjoy life and be brave in the face of challenges.

Impact

The increase in education levels worldwide has coincided with an increase in women’s representation in the political sphere and management positions. Back to school empowers people to gain knowledge of their rights and responsibilities, to influence their own situations and stand up for their fellow human beings.

Find out more about Suas partners and GOAL

Author: Brighid Golden

Brighid is a primary school teacher, with a masters in International Studies in Education with Development from the University of Birmingham. She volunteered on the Suas programme Kolkata in 2009 with Suas partner, DAS.

Photo credit: Students from Hiagsam National School in Jaro municipality on Leyte Island in the Philippines, GOAL

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