“The PM has a budget for the nation. Why don’t we have a budget for the school?” – Bal Sansad Student, MS Dalsinghsarai, Samastipur District, Bihar
With non-cognitive skills such as critical reasoning and the ability to engage in meaningful debates becoming ever-more important in a fast changing job market, enabling young people to articulate questions such as these is crucial.
The idea of Bal Sansad (or ‘Child Parliaments’) within government elementary schools is not new. A model United Nations program has been running internationally since the mid twentieth century, while the Indian government first proposed the idea of Child Parliaments almost twenty years ago. In practice, its implementation has been sporadic and inconsistent. In Bihar, where Quest Alliance run the Anandshala program in the Samastipur district, interventions to enliven the Bal Sansad Child Parliaments date back to 2012.
What has been a constant question over seven years of working on creating joyful learning spaces, is – when government school teachers are already overburdened, why is the Child Parliament something that needs to make its way up the priority list? Its benefits can broadly be thought of in three ways:
1) Child parliaments are a way for young people to learn about active citizenship and the concept of a democratic system.
2) Throughout the process there is the potential for the development of non-cognitive skills such as teamwork, leadership and critical thinking.
3) Child Parliaments have the potential to create positive forums in which student voices are heard, providing a concrete realization of the participation rights as articulated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In the Samastipur district of Bihar, the game-changing moment was an extremely successful Bal Sansad election process run by the MS Gopalpur, PUSA in April 2016. From self-nomination by students, to canvassing and campaigning for portfolios within the Bal Sansad, the process culminated in an election day which saw 96% attendance in school. Not only did it provide a model for other schools to follow, but the media coverage and excitement locally around the event made emulation a more organic process.
This was just the beginning of the development of a vibrant Bal Sansad in Pusa, and at other schools within the Samastipur district. Post election, the Bal Sansad needs to be maintained through regular meetings between the elected students and teachers, in particular the ‘nodal’ teacher assigned to oversee the Child Parliament. In Samastipur, an annual event in Dalsinghsarai brings together panels of Bal Sansad ‘Prime Ministers’ to field questions from students, as well as to interact with head teachers, teachers and representatives of the district administration. The idea was proposed by the Anandshala team, but the initiative was taken by the Dalsinghsarai middle school. Some of our learnings are summarised visually below.
That’s not to say that there are not ongoing challenges. While the concerned parties may agree to the idea in principle, the practical execution is harder to achieve. Some teachers are overburdened, and the task at hand is to win over their support by demonstrating the worth of activating Bal Sansad, so that it is not simply seen as another responsibility to fulfil.
Even once the Child Parliament is active, there are pitfalls. If not properly managed, it can be regarded as a body to help teachers rather than something autonomous and child-led with its own mandate. In certain instances, this can lead to Bal Sansad being less about student voices, and more about a body of student labour to assist under-resourced schools with practical and administrative help around the school premises.
Overall, though, in under two years of active Bal Sansad communities in Samastipur, there have been some incredible developments. In many schools, the Child Parliament takes responsibility for organising morning assemblies and improving attendance. Students have brought about real change in their individual schools – from setting up libraries, to establishing student banks. At the Shahpur Undi Middle School (Block Patori), the Bal Sansad really came into play when the school was affected by a flood. Not only did the Child Parliament mobilize students to help clear water from the school, they arranged the collection of funds for the school. As a result, a boundary wall was built to protect the school premises from further floods.
What has been equally compelling is the clear development of student voices. Bal Sansad students have consistently articulated questions to stakeholders within the government system at annual Bal Sansad conventions. Within their own schools, students across the board have questioned their peers running for office on issues as diverse as child marriage and dowry. At the recent block level Goshti held at the middle school Pagra, Dalsinghsarai, students demanded a block-level parliament space. The formerly shy Prime Minister of the MS Gopalpur, PUSA school Bal Sansad has participated in district and state level debates, and won awards. One school at a time, Bal Sansads are strengthening student voices, building student ownership of schools, connecting communities to school and more importantly creating space for students to experience democratic processes.
As the Anandshala program completes two years of focus on activating and enlivening Child Parliaments in Bihar, the focus now is on sharing our learnings and experience in this area, exploring how good practices can spread, and thinking of ways in which the impact of these interventions can be tracked and evaluated.
Read more about the Anandshala program here.