In Livingstone's footsteps

Summer does not mean a break for one group of Scottish teachers, Bob Doe discovers in Malawi

Eleven Scottish primary teachers who are giving up their summer holidays this year to work in remote rural primary schools in Malawi appear to be thriving on the challenge.

They are faced with classes of up to 200 pupils with few or no books or other teaching resources, in unimaginably shabby classrooms that are literally falling down in some cases. Mostly pupils sit and work on dusty floors because there are no chairs or desks. Few schools have toilets or running water.

The 11 teachers - all women - are pioneers of "Global Teacher", the scheme to link teachers and schools in Scotland with their counterparts in the mountainous Dedza region of this small but beautiful country in southern Africa.

The first schools in Malawi were set up by another Scot, the missionary David Livingstone, and once formed the basis for the best primary education system in sub-Saharan Africa. But the Aids pandemic has devastated the teaching force. And the switch to free primary education in 1994 has swamped ill-prepared rural schools with new pupils.

Around 80 per cent of children now enrol in primary schools in Malawi, but less than a quarter complete the full eight years.

The Scottish global teachers I met in Malawi this week spoke of the dedication and skills of some of their Malawian colleagues trying to provide education for all in impossible conditions, often with little or no training beyond two years of secondary education. They have been humbled, too, by the generosity of the ordinary village people whose simple homes and basic diet of nsima (maize porridge) they are sharing for five weeks.

Many have found the experience a life-changing event.

They are the first of many more global teachers the Edinburgh charity Link Community Development Scotland will send following the co-operation agreement entered into last year by both governments. The scheme is sponsored by the Scottish Executive and HSBC bank, with support from the Educational Institute of Scotland and the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

Link Community Development in London has been sending teachers from all over the UK to South Africa, Uganda and Ghana since 2001. The idea is to help improve teaching and learning in African schools by sharing expertise and good practice. The scheme also creates longer-term links between schools in Africa and here to help both continents develop a global perspective in their teaching.

Susan Arnott, a teacher at Dean Park primary in Edinburgh, is currently at Gwengware primary school, Malawi. She said: "I'm absolutely loving it - more than I had expected. Living with a host family makes a real difference. Sleeping in the house with a local family in a village where they have never seen a white person before has made a real difference. It would not have been the same if we had been put up in a hotel."

She has her own small room, bed, mosquito net and paraffin lamp in a tin-roofed hut shared with a friendly young couple and their three children. A fourth child died. She uses their pit latrine, washes in a bowl in an outhouse and, after family prayers are said, shares their meal cooked over a wood fire lit on the floor of another outhouse, with no chimney.

"These people have nothing. I thought I understood what that meant but these people really have nothing. So for them to share with me what little they have is really humbling. I go to sleep to the sounds of people singing and drumming in the village. I love it."

Few of this year's global teachers are themselves headteachers, so many find themselves taking on a far greater leadership role than they are used to. They receive training from Link before they go, and there is a support team on hand in Africa.

In Malawi, most are helping the headteacher of their assigned school to improve leadership and management as well as sharing practical teaching skills with other staff. Much of the teaching is highly formal and passive, with little involvement of pupils.

Few Malawian primary heads have had any training for their responsibilities. Nor are they paid any more than ordinary teachers.

Susan Arnott has helped Thomas Fungatira, Gwengware's head, draw up a development plan prioritising reading. When I visited, she was organising, with a global teacher at a nearby school, a joint training session in phonics for schools in their area. "Chichewa (the local language used in the first three years of primary) is ideal for phonics but they don't teach the sounds of letters, only the names," she said.

Ms Arnott has shown teachers how to read a story to pupils and is encouraging them to label things to provide more "environmental print". Not only do rural Malawian children never see books or magazines, but they see little other print: there are few signs and they don't buy things in packages.

The global teachers have clearly raised morale in Malawi. Mr Fungatira said: "The whole staff was very, very excited when we heard a global teacher was coming. She has trained us to improve our lessons very well and taught us about brain gym and group work, and helped us draw up a code of conduct and development plan."

But he is under no illusions about the problems remaining in a school with 843 pupils, no proper toilets and just eight teachers - a teacher-pupil ratio in excess of 100:1. The Malawi standard for primaries is 60:1 and even where teachers are available few want to teach in rural areas.

There are 195 pupils in Gwengware's standard 1 class, but by standard 8 poverty and failure have reduced numbers to 59. No money at all is provided for teaching resources, upkeep of classrooms or to build the low-rent teachers' houses that might attract more staff to this remote school.

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