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To Malawi with a mattress

A mattress, a mosquito net and a lamp will be among the constant companions of a group of 12 Scottish teachers who will spend their summer holiday working in 12 rural schools in Malawi. Only a mobile phone will keep them connected to the rest of the world.

Their visit will come just a little more than a year after Jack McConnell, the First Minister, made his well-publicised trip to the central African country. Contact is being maintained this year by Patricia Ferguson, Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, who flies out tomorrow (Saturday).

The trip by the Scottish teachers is an early tangible sign of the contacts Mr McConnell is keen to encourage. Moves are already under way to build up the teacher training system in Malawi, with the help of Strathclyde University.

The school initiative has been made possible under a new programme set up this year by Link Community Development (LCD), a charity which has been facilitating visits by "global" teachers to Africa since 1989. It is the first aimed solely at Scottish staff.

Developed out of the co-operation agreement signed between Scotland and Malawi last year, it is part-funded by the Scottish Executive but the biggest funder is the HSBC Educational Trust.

"These women are the pioneers in Malawi, following in the footsteps of that other famous Scot, Dr Livingstone," Jim Aitchison, project manager for LCD's Scotland-Malawi school improvement project, said. "They will live with a family in the village and work with the teachers and school management to help develop education provision."

The project is currently limited to the Dedza region of Malawi, a mountainous area to the south-west of Lake Malawi. It covers 209 primary schools, although initially the project is building partnerships with just 60. Only 12 have been identified as ready for a global teacher, and they have been carefully matched with the 12 Scottish visitors. The charity hopes to place a further 20 teachers next summer.

Each participant has contributed pound;1,000 towards the pound;6,500 it costs to send out a teacher, with Educational Institute of Scotland members receiving some financial support from their union. In return they will be given a mattress, a mosquito net and a lamp.

They have also spent two weekends training for the experience, which will last for five weeks from June 24 to July 30. They will be supported in Malawi by two former global teachers, Frances Hillier and Liz Bartley, who are based in the town of Dedza.

Malawi is recognised by the World Bank as the 10th poorest country in the world, with most of its population of 12 million living in rural areas.

Universal free education was introduced in 1994 but has brought massive problems. Enrolments jumped from 1.9 to 3.2 million overnight - without a corresponding rise in teachers.

This shortage of staff has been exacerbated by the HIVAIDs epidemic.

"Headteachers and skilled class teachers have just disappeared," says Mr Aitchison, a former headteacher of Boclair Academy in Bearsden. "In Dedza alone, they need 3,000 teachers but there are only 2,000. Few are educated beyond second form in secondary. Resources are even more scarce."

The programme, based on well-established projects runs by LCD in Uganda and South Africa, aims to provide expertise to improve schools, rather than class teachers. The teachers sent out will work with headteachers to improve leadership and management skills, helping ensure schools are run in the most effective and transparent way. They will also train teachers in literacy and numeracy.

At Mwenje primary school in the Mthandiza zone of Dedza, 1,326 pupils share just eight teachers. In standard one, there are 444 children, but no furniture, so the class learns under a baobab tree. In standard two, the number falls to 261, still a huge task for one teacher on her own. It highlights a further problem facing Malawi - high drop-out rates.

Audrey Kellacher, from Central primary in Inverness, will spend her five weeks at Mwenje. A health scare last year made her determined to do volunteer work. "It is something I had always wanted to do, but the time never seemed right," Mrs Kellacher said. "Then I decided just to go ahead and do it. My headteacher has been very supportive. When I told her I wanted to go, her eyes lit up."

A major aim of the project is to develop links between Scottish schools and those in Malawi, and one of the recruitment criteria during the selection process earlier this year centred on the plans each applicant had for building on their experiences once they return.

Mrs Kellacher is looking to build links between her primary and the Malawi school, and to develop a relationship between the local community and Inverness Caledonian Thistle football club, where she is education adviser.

Olive Caldwell, headteacher of Kirkcowan primary in Newton Stewart, is keen to build on global citizenship education through fostering a link with the school she is assigned to in Malawi.

Heather Cameron, a special needs teacher at St Joseph's primary in Blantyre, is planning to use her knowledge to encourage links with the primary schools she works with in Blantyre.

"This visit will be equally beneficial for us and the schools in Malawi,"

commented Sarah Richards, who works in a special unit, attached to Banff Academy. "It is a reciprocal partnership, where our schools will get something out of it as much as the schools in Malawi."

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