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Hands across the continents

As the TES launches its Make the Link campaign today, Raymond Ross looks at an inspirational exchange programme between schools in Edinburgh and Kenya

Visiting Chogoria Girls' High in Kenya last March, as part of a school link between Currie High in Edinburgh and Chogoria in the Meru District, was a humbling experience for Currie's headteacher Eric Melvin.

"The girls at this boarding school wake at 4.15am, wash in cold water and then work unsupervised until 5am when they have breakfast," he recounts.

"They then clean their school before resuming work. Apart from short breaks, they work until their bedtime at 9pm.

"For the last two hours of their working day they are studying in their classrooms unsupervised.

"It was a humbling experience to arrive at the school for supper at 8pm and to walk past full classrooms with the girls working in total silence."

Currie's partnership with Chogoria began in June 2003, when Edinburgh hosted a visit by Kenyan educationists, instigated by councillor Ewan Aitken, executive member for education in Edinburgh. He had spent his early years in Kenya and was keen to establish friendship links between the city and Meru District South.

Among the visitors was the headteacher of Chogoria, who spent some time at Currie and discussed the idea of a links partnership. Two students from Chogoria represented Kenya at the Commonwealth Youth Conference the following October and spent time at Currie.

Now the two schools are working together in both curricular and pastoral areas. Communication is typically maintained by email with an exchange of news, information and ideas at least once a week.

The main aims of the partnership are to develop curricular links, share staff development, share information about the schools and their communities, exchange staff and students and share the work of the partnership with other interested parties.

S2 pupils at Currie are learning about aspects of Kenya as part of their modern studies and ICT courses, while Chogoria pupils are accessing information about Currie from the school's web page, and both are sharing information about their environmental work.

Work is also being planned for curricular links in music, art, English and drama.

Currie is one of only six schools across Scotland participating in the sustainable secondary schools project (SSSP), which aims to implement education for sustainable development. So the schools exchange information about their respective communities and environmental programmes, and Currie, which is an Eco School, is supporting Chogoria's application to become an Eco School.

As part of their sustainable schools project, Currie pupils are investigating a variety of issues that impacted on it 50 years ago, looking at the current situation and then trying to envisage life as they would like to see it in 2050. Through this they gain and share with their Kenyan peers an understanding of the concept of sustainable development and issues relating to sustainability in the 21st century.

This month, deputy headteacher Peigi Macarthur and guidance principal Sheila Murray will visit Chogoria with two senior girls, Emma Campbell, head girl, and Lauren Drysdale, to look at learning and teaching in general and personal and social education in particular.

"Given the length of their working day and the pressure the students are under to do well, they have huge problems of stress," says Mrs Murray.

"For these girls there is only entry to higher education - if they can afford it -or work in the fields. This is their life chance.

"We want to help develop PSE to combat this stress, as well as addressing the huge issue of HIVAIDS."

Secondary education in Kenya tends to be residential and segregated according to gender, but it is not state funded. Primary education has only been partially funded since 2003.

"But even here the cost of education has to be subsidised by the parents as the government grant covers only a small proportion of the costs," explains Mr Melvin.

"As a consequence all the schools that we visited were seriously short of teaching materials - textbooks, equipment, library resources and in some cases even basic stationery.

"All the headteachers were faced with the constant struggle of trying to make ends meet. For staff and pupils alike, it is a heroic struggle to achieve.

"Sadly, despite the best efforts of the schools, many children simply do not get the chance of secondary education as their parents cannot afford it," he says.

In some instances parents work in secondary school grounds to fund their children's education.

Learning and teaching tends to be very traditional with a lot of rote learning and dictation.

"We want to introduce them to new methodologies such as learning styles, memory techniques, how to study, target setting and tracking - all the things that have come in recently here," says Peigi Macarthur.

"We want to give them the confidence to experiment, to take ideas and adapt them to their own conditions.

"We're not educational missionaries. We're there to learn and share and we'll learn from their richnesses. I think their commitment and motivation will impact on us greatly," she says.

The two senior pupils will take part in classes and will deliver talks about life in Edinburgh and school strategies they are involved in, from anti-bullying and mental health awareness to conservation, recycling and renewable energies.

"I think it'll be inspiring," says Emma Campbell. "They seem so motivated, so goal-driven. Our lifestyle is so much more relaxed."

Lauren Drysdale says she can't believe she's going: "It'll be a whole different culture. I think there'll be a lot of shared issues and discussions about future projects and prospects, but there will be differences, such as religion, as they appear to be very religious compared with us."

Chogoria is a committed Christian school founded in 1922 by a medical missionary from Scotland. The Church of Scotland influence remains strong, as Mr Melvin discovered on his visit last year.

"We joined the Sunday congregation at the local presbyterian church in Chogoria. The singing was inspirational. At the end of the service we met Dr Alison Wilkinson, who had been playing the organ. Alison was born in Chogoria and was baptised in Nairobi by Ewan Aitken's father."

Staff meetings are usually opened with a prayer and religious assemblies are the norm.

"The Kenyans we met during our last visit displayed great dignity and warmth," says Mr Melvin. "They were extremely welcoming and delighted with the continuing link with Scotland. All those associated with the Chogoria schools were sustained and inspired by their deep Christian faith."

Last year, thanks to the efforts of the pupil council, Currie donated Pounds 1,800 to several South Meru schools, which allowed Chogoria Girls'

High to equip two new science labs, Kimuchia Secondary to build a new kitchen, Kimuchia Primary to buy four sheep and install a new water storage tank, and Chogoria Primary to buy their first computer with a DVD-Rom and scanner.

The two schools hope to start a student exchange and Currie High intends to sponsor a pupil at Chogoria Girls' High, paying for her four years of education.

As part of the growing partnership, Currie recently hosted a visit from schools inspector June Ngari, from Meru District South. "June was looking at learning and teaching and, in particular, at the weighting we give to creative and aesthetic subjects which are not certificated in Kenya," says Mr Melvin.

"She was very interested in school leadership, ICT, and PSE as well as the pupil and parental voice. Parents are very disengaged from education in Kenya.

"She also had what was a unique experience for her on her first day here.

It was snowing when she arrived. She'd never seen snow before."

Mr Melvin says that everyone involved in the partnership at Currie High feels a great responsibility to take it forward beyond the official three-year partnership period. He retires at the end of this term but is determined to remain as involved as he can be with Chogoria, including visiting again.

"My visit was truly memorable, finding staff and pupils working so hard together in circumstances that were very challenging. The lack of resources was overcome by the dedication and determination of both the staff and the pupils.

"It was genuinely moving to see pupils arriving at a local primary, for example, early in the morning, dressed immaculately in their uniforms and having walked, in some cases, considerable distances to get there for their lessons. Many of them were coming from very basic homes."

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