When the new term starts in January, 50 excited six-year-olds will join us for the first time. These children are from the impoverished, crime-ridden and violent communities that surround our school. They live in shanty towns where gang crime rules – Guatemala has the second-highest rate of child murder in the world. Their parents are mostly uneducated and many suffer from ill health, unemployment and alcoholism. Yet these children are the lucky ones – they attend our school only because their siblings are existing pupils here or we hear about them on the grapevine.
In Guatemala there is no formal system for identifying children and allocating a school to them. There are no social workers scouring the countryside for children who have slipped out of the view of the authorities. The previous government attempted to address the problem by paying impoverished mothers every three months for sending their children to school, but the system was riddled with corruption, so ended.
It’s up to teachers like us to drive to these neighbourhoods and look for children out of school. We have to explain to parents why their children should be educated, rather than kept at home to help with chores or go begging. I don’t know how many are slipping through the net, but there must be hundreds in our area. Those in more remote rural regions are seldom reached. Official statistics show that 86 per cent of children enrol in school in Guatemala but that is hiding the true scale of the problem as hundreds of thousands of those who enrol drop out within a few years.
It is a continuing battle just to keep the 604 students we have enrolled at our school in regular attendance. For the older ones there’s pressure from parents to get a job, or the lure of the local gangs. Teenage pregnancy is a major reason for dropping out too. We can’t afford to bribe children to come to school, but we can tempt them with decent food as most of them will go hungry without the meals we supply. We also have regular motivation sessions and we heap praise on students for regular attendance and any academic or behavioral improvements.
We have a strict absence reporting system that most parents adhere to. If two days pass without explanation for a child’s absence, a teacher will drive to the family home. It’s not part of the job description but it’s something we all do regularly and it involves quite a few negotiation skills and, often, considerable bravery. There are some pretty strong characters out there, not to mention their huge scary dogs.
In these situations I try to remain ultra-calm and continually assure the parents that I understand their situation: mutual trust is key. It’s the same technique I use in school with volatile pupils. I try to pass my negotiation skills on to my colleagues, but it takes years of practice and a great deal of patience.
We generally manage to get these situations resolved and children do return to class, but we have no legal powers. No one is ever fined or arrested for not sending their child to school – there are so many more greater crimes for the police to tackle.
After years of social upheaval, political corruption and natural disasters, Guatemala is still in economic crisis. We are promised more schools in rural areas, more money for education, school transport, social support and so on, but it never happens. Education should be a right, but in Guatemala, for thousands, it’s still a luxury.