Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Investing in a new generation of leaders in Timor-Leste

Vilma Gloria Espirito Santo, a 12-year-old Grade 8 student of Soro Basic Education School
in Ainaro Municipality was elected as president of the school’s Student Council.
UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education re-establish
Student Councils in Timor-Leste’s schools.
©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
Ainaro Municipality - The newly-elected committee president sits patiently as she waits for her colleagues to join her. She’s wearing a crisp, pressed white blouse, and her long hair is neatly clipped back from her face, which breaks into a professional smile as her colleagues sit down.
“So we have a problem,” she announces. “Last year, we planted flowers at the school, but the animals got in and ate then. We need a fence.”

Her colleagues nod in agreement, and the president makes a note to request funding for construction. She immediately clips along to her next agenda item and as she speaks, swings skinny ankles above the ground where she sits, perched high on a chair. She wouldn’t be more than four feet tall, but that’s normal for a 12-year-old.

Vilma Gloria Espirito Santo is an eighth grade student at Soro Basic Education School in Soro village in Timor-Leste’s mountainous Ainaro municipality. In a mock election held as part of a UNICEF-supported training session, she was elected the president of her school’s new student council.

Participating in democracy

Student Councils are an initiative of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Education and Culture, supported by UNICEF Timor-Leste. It aims to support the country’s future leaders with citizenship education.

Student councils provide opportunities for students to participate in elections and democratic processes, organise and manage school activities, and to work closely with teachers and with other students, giving them opportunities to practice communicating, decision-making, leadership, and to take a more active role in school life. 

It’s a novel concept for Timor-Leste. Previously, children were seen as passive learners, only following instructions of the teachers. But now, teachers and school leaders are working together to create an environment for students to find their voices.

Students taking the lead

Alexio de Jesus has been the director of EBC Soro since 2014, and has worked as a teacher since 2000. He’s quick to clarify that students are the ones who drive the committees; not teachers.

“The activities are students’ activities, not teachers’ activities, so students should be in charge,” he says. “With the Student Council, the students can arrange and manage their own activities and promote things like good hygiene and health in the school. It gives them an opportunity to learn public speaking skills, to be managers, and to take responsibility.”

Alexio highlights the student-run committees offered under the student council structure as an opportunity for EBC Soro. What kind of groups will be established at the school?
Alexio grins; looks up. “That’s not up to me. That depends on the students.”

Their first taste of democratic participation

All students are part of their school’s committee, and may choose to run in an election and take a committee leadership role. On a rainy Saturday afternoon in a remote school two hours’ bumpy drive away from Soro village, young facilitators are enthusiastically running a training session, showing attentive kids how to run their own election at Hatu-Udo Basic Education School. They’ve never seen something like this before.

A tiny girl marks tally lines on the board as votes are counted in as part of the Student Council election – hesitantly, at first, glancing towards the facilitator, and then quickly, efficiently as the lines grow and the watching students start calling out numbers; pointing at the board from the back of the room.

Peer-to-peer learning

Bebiona Soares is a 21-year-old engineering student acting as a facilitator. She found out about the student council programme through her involvement in Timor-Leste’s Youth Parliament, and praises UNICEF for trusting young people to support the implementation of the programmes for young students.

“This is the first phase of learning,” she says of the training session, which aims to socialise the election concept in the school and encourage students to run for election. “They don’t learn these skills in school. They can’t speak in public; they’re shy and confused; they can’t express ideas.”

But by the end of the programme, they’ll realise what they’re capable of, Bebiona says, and know their ability to lead.  What they’re doing, she says, is preparing themselves for acting as the leaders of their tiny half-island nation – the first new democracy of the 21st century.
Students at Hatu-Udo Basic Education School in Ainaro Municipality cast their votes
as part of the elections for the Student Council.
UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education re-establish Student Councils
in Timor-Leste’s schools. ©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
Future leaders

In Soro, Student Council president Vilma pushes a pigtail behind her shoulder as she answers a cursory question about her goals for the future. “I want to replace you,” she matter-of-factly tells Vicente Lopes, UNICEF Timor-Leste’s education officer.
They exchange a grin, and he praises her motivation.

But before that, she has her council to conquer.

“Students must go first to show an example,” she says earnestly. “Without a leader, nothing will happen. With leaders, people will follow. It’s important to have students lead the activities.”

Somehow it feels like it won’t just be the students at Soro Basic Education School following Vilma into the future.

By Sophie Raynor, UNICEF Timor-Leste Consultant


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