IT WAS the first day of school but at Sekolah Bimbingan Jalinan Kasih in Chow Kit, the
day started off differently compared to other places.
Set up by the Education Ministry in 2013 to cater to street children, the initiative was to help undocumented children get a chance at education.
Teachers wearing smiles stood at the school gate, nearby registration counters, welcoming parents who walked in to enrol their children. In fact, parents in the area are encouraged to walk in for registration. While most came to enquire about donations (given to help such families), the school still managed to reach out to at-risk groups.
School counsellor Abdul Ghani Abu Hassan or Cikgu AG said 10 new students joined this year, and more were expected during the three-day orientation session.
A piece of good news for the teachers was that three children who completed pre-school education there are now enrolled at national school, following a recent announcement by the ministry that stateless children (with birth certificates) were entitled to enter national schools from Jan 1.
Previously, these children with birth certificates stating “Non-Citizen” were not eligible for an education in national schools.
If a Malaysian mother gave birth at a hospital, the child gets a birth certificate stating “Bukan Warganegara” (non-citizen).
I was surprised at the small number of children entering national school. However, as more than 95% of the students at Sekolah Bimbingan are stateless due to their parents’ citizenship status, only a few have birth certificates; even this small number is encouraging.
I then followed Cikgu AG to the school hall where all of the students were gathered.
High-spirited yet disciplined, the students aged from four to 19 attended classes between pre-school and secondary education here.
Unlike in other schools, some did not wear school uniforms but everyone is welcomed.
They are placed in classes according to their skills, interests and potential.
Teaching stateless children is a challenge for the 16 teachers here.
Some teenagers enter school with zero academic background.
Apart from the carefully decorated classes, students can enjoy other facilities.
One of the popular ones is the busking studio where a group of teenagers were practising for a gig.
Their musical talent was impressive.
A wide curriculum range is drawn up to pique children’s interest to keep them interested to come to school. This has proven effective.
There were a lot of anti-drug posters on the wall, reflecting the reality beyond the campus.
Many street children, in the past, were exposed to vice and exploitation, which eventually led them to begging, being involved in prostitution and drug peddling,
Allowing stateless children (with birth certificates) to enter government schools is a breath of fresh air and a breakthrough in handling the long-standing and snowballing issue.
However, it is hoped the Government stands by this commitment to help such children.
The first thing to do is give details on how this will be rolled out.
As mentioned above, only three children (with birth certificates) benefited from the Government’s latest policy to enter national schools.
Sekolah Bimbingan currently has 160 students. Although the school tries its best to help stateless children, the requirement to be eligible for enrolment is that one parent (of the child attending school) has to be Malaysian.
In other words, there are still thousands of migrant children and stateless ones without the chance for pre-school education at a place like Sekolah Bimbingan.
How prepared they are for primary education, even if given the opportunity, remains a question.
While we wait for details from the Government, the understanding now is that stateless children can start from Year One in national schools.
In other words, the window of opportunity is small and more has to be done to enable the older children with no prior education to be included in the national schooling system.
Also, Sekolah Bimbingan which is in the centre of the high-risk Chow Kit area, welcomes walk-ins.
There are also other various outreach programmes.
So, how will government schools reach out to other stateless children suffering in hidden areas? It is hoped that the Government will bridge the gap between national schools and stateless children.
Working with non-governmental organisations (NGO) can play a vital role in brightening the path for these young ones.
NGO Yayasan Chow Kit, a centre that provides education and training for any child whether or not the parents are Malaysians, raised a few questions about the implementation of this new policy.
Its chief operating officer Ananti Rajasinga said apart from highlighting the need to prepare the children for Year One, her concern was over discrimination and bullying issues these children may face at national schools.
Having said that, the new policy is still a bold step forward.
The authorities’ figures, two years ago, showed that there were 300,000 stateless children aged under 18 in the country.
It is indeed a colossal task to get education to them.
It is hoped that the Government will continue taking a compassionate approach in addressing this issue.
After all, the welfare of a generation of children is more important than showing “proof of proper documentation”.
It is not their own doing that they should be penalised from getting proper schooling.