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School social workers’ crucial role in protecting children and their right to education

Alena Sherman's picture

A social worker speaks with children at a school

Written by Marion Huxtable, Coordinator of the International Network for School Social Work

As coordinator of the International Network for School Social Work I have been keeping track since 1992 of how school social workers protect schoolchildren and their rights. 

Global goals for education are captured in UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the 2030 agenda. The last decade saw accelerated progress especially in primary education and gender equity. However in many countries there are disadvantaged groups of children who lag behind. This has dramatically increased since 2020 through the impact of the pandemic. By April 2020, 188 countries had closed schools, affecting 91% of total enrolled learners. Many children could not participate in distance learning and so dropped out of school completely. As schools started to re-open, it is clear that some, especially girls, have not returned to school.

There are around 50 countries where social workers are part of the school system. In these contexts, terms equivalent to school social worker and education social worker are used in many languages as job titles. While school social work is well established in countries in Western Europe and the United States, plus a few Asian and African countries, the approach is now being applied in a wider range of Asian countries, and other countries in Africa, Central and South America have started to locate social workers in schools.

School social workers work as part of the school team to reach children and families and provide the help needed. Using basic social work methods, school social work adapts to the local culture. Examples include a social worker at a village school in Laos organizing construction of toilets and gardens along with many other programs, and, in Burundi, social service workers rescuing and providing education for the youngest and most neglected children. During the pandemic school social workers everywhere reached out to children and families in creative ways to support mental health and engagement with school.

Schools need help to deal with schoolchildren’s complex problems, including the ramifications of poverty, the impact of civil strife, family problems and disabilities that impede learning. Since the pandemic, emotional and behavioral problems in schools have increased and many children have dropped out. School social workers help address all these challenges.

It is time for a deeper look at the role schools could play in protecting children and their education, and reaching the SDG 4.  UNICEF, the World Bank and UNESCO, in their report Recovering Education in 2021, call for “tailored services needed to meet learning, health, psychosocial  wellbeing and other needs”. School social work is a crucial part of this. We must foster the political will in all sectors including government, international organizations, education ministries and universities to fund, determine needs, and develop national plans to train and place social workers in schools. This commitment is needed to help schools become the safe place where children want to learn and their families want them to be.