There is a school in South Africa where the children are so excited about their learning opportunities that they are regularly seen leaving their classrooms singing and dancing with excitement. One of them, speaking by video-conference link, told a national education conference in the uk:
"Yes, we are able to learn because we have books and computers. We are very happy at our school!"
But life has not always been so good. In 1997, when I first visited Zakhele School, which is in the desperately poor squatter-camp area of the South African township of Mamelodi, on the outskirts of Pretoria, it was in a pitiful state. It was demoralised after 40 years of isolation under apartheid, a period when the education of black children was all but ignored. Even in the period since 1994, when the anc came to power, the enormity of social problems in the townships had remained overwhelming.
Equipping schools took second place to remedying social injustice on such a huge scale.
Headteacher Fikile Manzini painted a depressing view of the future of her school. "We don't expect anything to change for us for a long time," she said. The building was a shell of classrooms, each housing 50 children, plus chairs and tables, but with no books or other learning tools, aside from pencils and a few sheets of paper.
I returned to the uk determined to do something to help Zakhele School - and so the Mamelodi Trust was born. Thanks to it, and support from Naace, the professional association supporting ict in schools, and the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), life has changed dramatically for Mamelodi's students in the past few years.
Through the work of the trust, the school obtained its first books, some of the ramshackle buildings were repaired, pictures began to appear on the previously bare walls, and teachers began to think for the first time about how they could improve the quality of education. The self-esteem of the children went through the roof - they even received netball and football kits from the trust, so they could play against other schools. Computers and connections to the internet came from some of the uk's leading it providers.
Links with schools in the uk were also set up, including a key link with Turnditch Primary school in Derbyshire, followed soon after by one to Hermitage School in Tower Hamlets, London. The trust went on to fund a study visit to the uk by Zakhele's headteacher and a secondary school teacher.
Thanks to further support from rm plc and other educational suppliers in the uk, the school received more computers and has managed to set up a computer room and library. Reaching out to a community where almost the whole population is unemployed became a priority for the school. It has now set up adult computer training programmes and, gratifyingly, there is a huge waiting list for places on these courses.
With funding from the trust, John Bolton, a teacher from Turnditch School, was sent on a month-long secondment to Zakhele to provide much-needed educational support.
"This was the most amazing month of my life," John said on his return. "I knew about the legacy in South Africa, but had no idea of the devastating effect it still has on children living in those conditions." John worked tirelessly in Mamelodi, developing teacher skills and sharing his expertise and enthusiasm for the education of primary-age children.
More recently, another charity funded four teachers from Zakhele School to visit the uk to share in cultural and arts activities in London and Derbyshire. Roger Taylor, Derbyshire's chief education officer, said afterwards: "Our friends from South Africa have so much to contribute to the education of children in Derbyshire. It is a privilege to be part of this link between the uk and South Africa."
Besa adopted the Mamelodi Trust as its supported charity in 2002. Thanks to its fundraising, a science laboratory has been created at Zakhele. A previously derelict classroom has been refurbished and science equipment has been flown out.
Naace, Besa and The TES have jointly funded a further teacher secondment to the school. Charlotte Newton, a teacher from Camms Endowed ce Primary School, and Mike Kassai from Anthony Gell School, both in Derbyshire lea, worked in Zakhele School for a short period last term, sharing their science teaching expertise.
The Naace community and Besa members continue in their support for this initiative. They support Nelson Mandela's drive for quality education opportunities for all children in South Africa.
Recently, Mandela said: "In this world of such invention, there can be no excuse for not ensuring that all our children will have the knowledge and skills for success, and the capabilities to work with others to reach their full potential and transform their society."
Steve Bacon was ICTeducation advisor for Derbyshire LEA and is now general secretary of Naace and founder of the Mamelodi Trust
Mamelodi Trust www.mameloditrust.org.uk
Naace is the largest professional association in educational ICT. It seeks to advance education through the effective use of ICT. At BETT 2004, Naace extends its membership to include all educational professions who share its aims. www.naace.org
BESA, the British Educational Suppliers Association, represents the interests of the education supply industry.
The British Council provides invaluable support for the work of the Mamelodi Trust in South Africa. It also provides direct support for Zakhele School.
Visit the Turnditch School website for more details about its work with Zakhele.
During a recent visit to the UK, Professor Kadar Asmal, the South Africa Minister of Education, met members of the trust and promised support for Zekhele School. Government policy and information about education changes in South Africa at: http:education.pwv.gov.za
If you are thinking about starting your own charity to support education overseas, you can get free advice from the Charity Commission at: www.charity-commission.gov.uk
Besa's international conference takes place next week Monday, January 5, at London's Cavendish Conference Centre. Contact: 020.7537.4997; www.besa.org.ukinternational_conferenceBritish Council: 020.7930.8466; www.britishcouncil.org