In the few weeks he has been in office, the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment has shown himself as concerned as his predecessor to promote the rights as well as the interests of those entrusted to the care of his Ministry. He is also concerned with the wider dimensions of his responsibilities, as was seen when he decided to institute a campaign to ensure Sufficient Leisure for Children.
This was based on a focus area in the National Human Rights Action Plan which we had not concentrated on in discussions of the Task Force, concentrating instead on what seemed more vital issues such as the prevention of abuse. But the Secretary is of course quite right to look at all aspects, and in particular to worry about the ‘holistic development of children’ which is now adversely affected because of educational overload.
I am not certain however about one point in the directive he sent to senior officials of the Ministry to prepare ‘an enabling environment for children to enjoy leisure’. Amongst areas in which he sees overload are extra-curricular activities. My recent investigation during Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings of what goes on in schools in the regions suggests however that the real problem is the lack of extra-curricular activities.
Whilst I can see his point with regard to what goes on in some urban schools, I believe that extra-curricular activities are generally on a voluntary basis. Such activities, entered into by children because they are interested in them, are not a problem. Of course those activities which are forced on children, such as the elaborate concerts for which they have to spend vast amounts of money, for concerts and for tickets, are another question, and these are for many a waste of time and energy and money. But making sports and cultural and social service activities available for children as a matter of course is something which must be, not just encouraged, but enforced.
At meetings of the Consultative Committee on a new Education Act – meetings which have now gone on for over two years, with little sign of conclusion – it was agreed that the draft which mentioned encouragement was inadequate, and that all schools should be required to offer a menu from which children should choose at least a couple of activities. This will require better organized deployment of teachers, and the need to ensure their involvement in such activities. Management capacities and systems will need to be improved for this, which may be difficult in a context in which Principal appointments are now on hold, but I presume the Ministry will at some stage be able to get over this problem and start functioning productively instead of seeing more and more elaborate plans for capital expenditure as the answer to all problems.
The need to work on the holistic development of children is the more essential given what seems to happen widely when they do have free time. The Secretary also notes overload with regard to ‘absorption in television’, and this is certainly a problem since, even if what they see is fun – which is not always the case – it is a passive occupation, whereas we should be encouraging them to act and think for themselves.
Where such encouragement does take place, it would seem from complaints I have received in several Divisions, is through video parlours and mobile phones which show them what amounts to pornography. I was asked often to suggest that stricter censorship be imposed, a plea that relates also to the excessive scenes of violence that are seen on television, and heard so often on radio. These, as I have noted on long car journeys, occur not just late at night, but also on early evening programmes that claim sometimes to be relating true stories of violence and horror.
I am not sure that censorship is desirable, since it might lead to heavy-handedness with regard to simple romance, while more ugly stimulation goes unchallenged. In addition, I am not so sure that it will work, though I would certainly agree that we must encourage both the media, and mobile networks, to try to limit access to material that might inflame rather than simply entertain.
A better, and positive rather then negative, way of dealing with the problem is to ensure that children have other activities to occupy their time. The cult of games, which as a totally incapable child in that respect I used to abhor, I now realize is a vital element in a rounded education, because it develops the capacity to synergize, while also deploying productively the excess energies that bedevil adolescents. But synergies should also be developed through performance, of dance and drama and music and the visual arts (photography included), and these often provide scope for organizational and technical talents too.
We should also ensure that there is scope for social service activities in all schools. Scouting and guiding and cadeting obviously help to mould character, but so do debating and environmental study and agriculture. First aid skills can be developed through St. John’s Ambulance Brigades, and Disaster Awareness and Response through Disaster Management Clubs, which should indeed be a requirement in coastal and hilly areas.
Such activities also contribute to employability, as can be seen from the skills required in the private sector and the questions asked at interview. Sadly children from urban schools who have had the opportunity to participte actively in extra-curricular activities reap the benefits of this, while those who suffer academic deficiencies in rural areas are deprived in this respect too. I can only hope therefore that the initiative taken by the Secretary leads to active efforts also on the part of the Education Ministry to develop and implement a more positive approach to leisure activities.