School under the night sky

November 24, 2019

The open-air school set up in the slums of Faisalabad is run purely on solar power

While there is a myriad of organisations that run traditional school models for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, one school in Faisalabad is offering an innovative educational model for child labourers. Constrained by financial responsibilities of their struggling families, these children are often unable to spend the entire day at school when they could be off doing odd jobs to earn money. Rohayl Varind’s initiative – Students Learning Under the Moon (SLUM) School – addresses this gap in our educational system for the underprivileged children.

Varind considers his school an alternative educational model that has still not been fully explored, both by the government and the private sector. Speaking about the idea behind his initiative, Varind tells The News on Sunday that children who feel obliged to spend their day earning money for their families could still be given an opportunity to get education through his night school. “These children are considered a burden on their families and so start working at a young age. This means they cannot follow a conventional school system,” he says.

“These children come from such backgrounds that they don’t have access to clocks to check the time so we try and schedule our classes around sunset. This way everyone knows when to come,” says Varind. However, being based in a slum means that his school is unable to get an electric connection which becomes a problem for his evening and night classes. Varind had a solution in mind: he invested in solar panels to provide electricity to his school. The open-air school set up in the slums of Faisalabad is run purely on solar power.

Initially the school started out as a regular educational charity initiative. It was meant to be a school targeting children, of various age groups, who could not afford education. However, Varind observed that many of the children in the local slums dropped out soon after they started. Once these children reach the age of 10, they are considered ‘eligible’ to go out into the ‘real’ world and earn for their families. While there are laws against child labour in brick kilns and in hazardous conditions, children as young as ten years old are still seen working in other environments – a practice prevalent throughout Pakistan.

Rather than sticking to traditional academic subjects, the school focuses on teaching children essential skills. The SLUM School offers a unique focus on digital literacy by offering subjects such as information technology and graphic design. Students are provided with laptops to learn skills that they would otherwise not be able to learn in traditional schools.

Another unusual subject offered at the SLUM school is self defence. Many of the children and young adults that are regulars at the school face tough working conditions and are at a constant threat of harassment because of their vulnerable age. Varind explains that the curriculum is tailored to provide these children not only with the platform to further build on their traditional education, but also to gain practical skills that will help them ensure safety in their day to day environments.

One of the biggest challenges that the school faces is nature. Faisalabad suffers from air pollution and smog, which according to last year’s rankings was worse than Lahore and New Delhi. But this is not widely known. Varind and his students are at the mercy of the weather. Given that there is no proper school structure or roof, classes are subject to cancellation because of rain or other weather conditions. Moving away from the slums to a place where they can establish a proper structure leads to many dropouts because families are unable to send their children further away from home in the evening for something that they do not always consider a priority.

The SLUM School runs six days a week. Classes start around 6pm in the evening and run up to 3 hours each night. It is open for children and youth between the ages of 3.5 years and 28 years. Varind tailors curriculum for his students regardless of age by constructing artificial class levels that students can progress through. At the school he offers free food and keeps the students intrigued through movie nights and family events.

Varind also takes a lot of personal interest in students’ familial problems to ensure that they maintain a regular attendance. Speaking to TNS, he says that he is often left in a perpetual balancing act between the interests of the children, their parents’ need for them to earn a decent income, and the interests of those who employ the children studying at the SLUM School. These employers often contact the school when they feel that the work of these children is being affected because of school timings and school work.

While the school gets local volunteers from other schools from time to time, Varind runs this project mostly by himself. The SLUM School does not accept cash donations from any organisation, national or international, and only accepts donations in the form of clothes, food, stationery and classroom equipment, such as projectors and laptops.

The SLUM School spreads its message through social media and by word of mouth, in the hope of getting more people involved. For those who want to get involved in the project, Varind suggests they start by adopting the school’s ethos in their personal lives. Rohayl’s philosophy revolves around making change starting at homes by educating maids, drivers, and their children, about the importance of education and its lifelong implications.

For now, Varind hopes that the government would introduce similar alternative models of education. He also hopes that the government and the society seek to understand that education must be tailored according to the needs and constraints of those who suffer the most due to lack of education. Until then, Varind is committed to visiting slums every evening to set up his classroom and continue educating the children of Faisalabad.

The writer is a barrister-at-law practicing in Lahore. She writes on various social issues.

Educational model for Faisalabad's children: School under the night sky