Change the world and remain in teaching

Ever heard of a prime minister who talks about "education, education, education" and a teaching profession which is underpaid, undervalued and stricken by a crisis of morale? Well, let me introduce you to Ethiopia.

The figures are as dire as anywhere in the world. In a nation of 65 million people, most under the age of 15, only 51 per cent of the children enrol at primary school and more than a third of those drop out before the end of their first year.

Class sizes range between 50 and 100 or more. On average, one textbook has to be shared between seven pupils. The adult literacy rate is 15 per cent. Not surprisingly, most teachers (who have just had a pay rise taking their monthly earnings to pound;67) get out of the classroom as soon as they can find another job.

Prime minister Meles (who, a decade ago, gained an MBA through the Open University with the highest mark ever recorded while at the same time struggling to stop his country disintegrating into anarchy) is in earnest and in a hurry. Education is his passion.

And that is why more than 60 British teachers are in Ethiopia devising new curricula in the education ministry, training Ethiopian colleagues in "student-centred" methods, and demonstrating best classroom practice.

They are all volunteers with Voluntary Service Overseas. Some have taken early retirement but others have taken time out from their jobs in the UK. I have never met more inspired or inspiring people. They face a huge challenge but, working in partnership with a government that is listening and learning, they are starting to move mountains. And they delight in their work. They are helping to make the future and they know it.

Does this appeal to you? If so, do read the report which VSO and the Institute of Education are launching today (see www.vso.org.uk). It has a clear and simple message for heads and local education authorities: don't miss the chance to let your teachers make that kind of difference - not only for their sake but for yours as well.

You don't need me to remind you that almost every school in the UK suffers an alarming rate of attrition as teachers fall by the wayside, often after a few years in the classroom. You know how much talent is seduced away from the pressures of teaching by firms hungry for their skills who can come up with packages - career breaks, flexible working, not to mention higher salaries - that seem irresistible. As a result, keeping the brightest and best in the classroom becomes ever more difficult.

This is where VSO can come to your rescue. A VSO placement not only makes a lasting contribution to "skill-sharing" and "sustainable development" in the poorest parts of the world but can also have an impact on teacher retention in the UK.

Our joint report reveals that, among that critical group aged between 31 and 35, more than 78 per cent of primary and almost 60 per cent of secondary teachers return to education here after VSO placements.

And that is not all. Not only are retention levels significantly higher among returning volunteers but so is their commitment to stay in education. VSO offers a "win-win" option: a win for education in the developing world and a win for education at home.

Far too many heads still fail to grasp this. They regard a two-year placement with VSO as "time out". They don't seem to appreciate what happens to a teacher whose character and personality have been tested to the limit, who has had to adapt to a different culture, acquire new skills, forge new relationships and take on unprecedented responsibilities.

By contrast, the corporate sector is fast waking up to the value of VSO. Shell, Accenture and McKinsey are just some of the international firms seconding high-flyers to VSO - knowing that providing such opportunities helps them to recruit and retain the brightest graduates.

So, headteachers, have a re-think. That six-week "sabbatical" suggested in government guidelines is hardly enough to re-enthuse stressed-out teachers. A two-year sabbatical is more likely to keep teachers at school in the long term than keeping their noses pressed to the blackboard. Encourage them - do VSO and help change the world.

Broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby is president of VSO

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