Gjelane and friends meet the system

I was marking the maths books when my phone rang this morning.  It was the Ministry of Education official responsible for minority community education.  She was ten minutes away and wanted directions to our classes.  She’d expressed a polite interest in coming to see our work, and I’d expressed a polite welcome for her whenever she could find time, but the phone call today was quite a surprise.

We had time for half an hour of conversation before the children arrived.  She assured me that education for this community in Fushe Kosove was a success story.  And she said that never, since 1999, had she received a request for education for children who hadn’t registered in the first two years of school (it was the fault of the parents, the community leaders and the MPs, she said).  ‘Well, you are receiving a request from 60 of those children now,’ I said, with a quaver in my voice.

She stayed to see some of the first class, admiring the children’s writing and asking them,

‘Do you like coming to these classes?’ Our kids can spot a leading question when it’s put to them by a Ministry of Education official with their nervous teacher standing behind her.  They chorused ‘YEEEEEEES’ with satisfying gusto.

‘And do you want to go to the big school in September?’ I held my breath.

‘YEEEEEEEEEESS!’

In fact this afternoon we started checking that out.  We had asked the children to bring in their birth certificates so we could keep a proper register of them, and these birth certificates have thrown up some interesting issues.   A few of the kids who told us they were nine (our lower limit, because it’s the age when the state-funded education registration window slams shut) turn out to be younger than that.  In some cases that may be because of a tradition here of giving your age by the year that you’re in (you are in your first year before you turn 1) so those who said they were in their ninth year are in fact only 8.  In other cases it will no doubt have been because the kids know that our lower limit is 9 so if they want to come to our classes they shouldn’t tell us that really they’re 8 (we had another case today of a girl whose brother informed us that she actually goes to school already – in the afternoon shift – and is therefore ineligible for our classes. ‘Why did you come to our classes if you already go to school?’ I asked her in that stupidly rhetorical teacherly way. ‘To learn’, she replied, over her shoulder as her brother frogmarched her back home. I had a lump in my throat while I watched her walk away).

But the good news for our eight-year-olds is that they need no special ‘request’ made to the Ministry, no change in policy; they can just go and register at school as long as they have their birth certificate, and then they’ll start in the first grade in September. (Kosovo’s schools allow children to start only in September each year – no mid-year admissions – so no matter how long ago we had got the birth certificate proof, the kids wouldn’t have got to school any quicker). We’ve identified seven children who can now do this automatic registration for September, and today I set off to make house visits to them and their families, together with Ferizi and Ferdona, home-school mediators from the Balkans Sunflowers working in this community, who will hopefully be able to support the children to stay in school once they have registered.

At the first family we got nowhere because the girl’s father was out in Pristina going through the bins and her mother died a few years ago so there was no-one for us to talk to.  In Cima’s house it was a similar story – she herself was still in Pristina (today was mosque day so she had been out begging, and hadn’t been to school) and her grandparents seemed overwhelmed by what we were suggesting – going together to register in school on Tuesday. Other parents said they’d come, though I’m not convinced they’ll all make it. One mother said she thought the school (about a mile away) was too far for her ten-year-old daughter to walk on her own.  I watched the daughter’s face as she said that, big eyes staring up at her mum, watching her educational fate being decided. With that mother we left it that she would come with us on Tuesday to try walking it and see whether she thinks Vjollca could manage it.

I don’t know what will happen on Tuesday.  How many of these sevent parents will remember the date we set, will rummage successfully for their child’s birth certificate, will feel that the walk to school is manageable, and will be well-enough received by the staff at the school when we get there, to be encouraged to come back?

Over the last few weeks we’ve developed some solid systems for special needs children who come to our classes, and I’ve spent more time than I’d choose on numberlines and numbercards. We’ve recruited more volunteers to work with children who need extra help and we’ve been discussing starting afternoon classes.  But in the end, if Vjollca’s mum decides that a mile is too much, then for all of the things we’re proud of in our classrooms, we’ll not get Vjollca or Gjelane to school.

Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon

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