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Head south for a career pick-me-up

Classes of more than 150, few classrooms and practically no resources? Welcome to Africa. David Mansfield recommends it

Want some decent professional development? Then take Liz Nesbitt's advice and go to Africa. Ms Nesbitt, who spent five weeks last summer in a Ugandan village, maintains that her international experience was "fundamental" in helping her to gain her new post as head of Longwood infants school in Pinkston, Derbyshire.

She says: "Before I went to Uganda, I'd given up the idea of being a head, but when I got back I realised I had coped in a school of more than 1,000 children with no resources and few classrooms. If I could survive that, what could I do with a well-equipped school over here? It inspired me to put through another application."

Ms Nesbitt's African adventure was arranged as part of the Global Teacher programme. The programme was organised by Link Community Development, a London-based charity that supports school improvement programmes across Africa, and is funded by the Millennium Commission. Link plans to send 60 global teachers a year, over three years, to the African sub-continent, with the intention that on their return they should pass on their experiences and become ambassadors for the developing world and for education's role in particular.

Ms Nesbitt worked in a large rural primary school, consisting of a few basic classrooms, in the Masindi district of north-west Uganda. Lessons were often taught outside under the trees, and she had to be creative in making resources for her classes - which could contain up to 150 pupils.

She advised on management issues, gave training on teaching and learning strategies and modelled best practice for local staff. "The experience rekindled my love of teaching and made me believe that I could run my own school," she recalls. Africa even loomed large in her headship interview: she chose to work with Ugandan artefacts for her observed exercise.

Ms Nesbitt is one of 58 British teachers who last year spent five life-transforming weeks in schools within some of the most deprived rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them agree with her that the time they spent in these disadvantaged schools provided the best professional development of their lives. Despite working in conditions undreamt of in the UK, teacher after teacher relates with wide-eyed passion their experiences of the summer visits and the pleasure gained from follow-up work with pupils and colleagues after their return.

As the Global Teacher programme enters its second year, marked by an official launch yesterday at the House of Commons, it is obvious that most of the first global teachers are continuing their African involvement, motivated to use their professional skills in new ways. This is supported by research published last month by Voluntary Service Overseas and the Institute of Education, which found that volunteer teachers who worked abroad for two years had higher retention rates on their return, and an increased commitment to remaining in education.

Global teachers were housed with African families or in hostels, working mainly in rural communities. In South Africa, the schools were in the hills of Transkei, south of Lesotho. Here, Alan Foster worked with a school undergoing massive transformation from a previously all-white to a predominantly black intake. Back in England, he was appointed as Kent's county adviser for PSHE and citizenship - after 31 years working in north Tyneside.

Mr Foster says his experiences in Africa, offering management advice as well as first-hand exposure to the global citizenship agenda, helped him to get his new job. "The trip put us all into new situations that we would never meet in England. It was a fantastic experience. You get into the habit of thinking on your feet," he says.

The Ghanaian schools - in Bolgatanga, in the northern reaches of the country - were even more basic. The teachers were housed in mud houses, often with no washing or toilet facilities except a bucket and a long-drop. The enormous range of need in these schools made flexibility a necessity. Resources had to be created from local materials and teaching strategies adapted to large classes.

As part of the follow-up work done since returning, the global teachers have had opportunities for personal and professional development. Many have given talks to a range of audiences, illustrated by multi-media presentations. Most have been interviewed on radio and television, or been the focus of newspaper articles.

Resources have been produced, publishing contracts negotiated, local education authorities mobilised, new learning partnerships formed. Many have discovered talents for planning and management, writing, designing and creating resources, and media work. Overall, the project has generated a level of commitment and enthusiasm that has renewed and redirected many teaching careers.

Frances Hillier found her time in Ugie, northwest of Umtata, Transkei's capital in South Africa, clarified her intentions. "I had a much clearer sense of the direction in which I wanted to go," she says. She has taken early retirement from her post as head of special needs at girls'

independent school Roedean, to do voluntary work with Link and the British Executive Service Overseas. In September she'll be in Antigua, training teachers who support dyslexic pupils.

David Mansfield is deputy head at King Edward VI grammar school, Chelmsford, and was a global teacher last year to South Africa. For more information visit http:www.lcd.org.uk or contact Anna Campbell, Millennium awards, Link Community Development, Unit 39, Kings Exchange Business Village, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH. Tel: 020 7681 8763

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