The strongest links

Abi Newman


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It's not just politicians who can change the lives of young Africans. A link with a UK school can make an extraordinary difference to pupils and schools on both continents. Abi Newman reports

Next month Jennifer Blockley returns to a land she has fallen in love with: Uganda. The history co-ordinator from Launceston community primary school in Cornwall will fly to Entebbe, near Kampala, then make the three-hour drive north-west from Lake Victoria to the small trading town of Masindi.

After a night in the colonial-style Masindi Hotel, she will start to focus on the purpose of her month-long trip to Africa: working with staff at Kyema school in a village close by.

The aim is to change the way both Kyema and Launceston work and think, staff and pupils alike. The link between the two schools was enshrined in a pioneering agreement signed on Blockley's first trip to Kyema last summer. People might think development is about overseas aid and grand government schemes, but these two schools demonstrate how a strong link can make a real difference to pupils in Africa and Britain. What started as an exploratory trip by Blockley's predecessor four years ago has developed into a contract between two schools, with targets to meet (see story, right) and practical help exchanged.

For her part, Blockley has been able to offer suggestions for improving school organisation which has enabled Kyema to reduce its class sizes. And she has created laminated flash cards and reading books in English and Runyoro, the local language, for the Kyema teachers to use.

But she has also brought back a wealth of knowledge and resources for her Cornish pupils. For instance, the geography curriculum has been revitalised by including Uganda. Pupils can visualise the place from Blockley's photographs of women carrying corn on their heads or men making sandals with old tyres in the market. She has been able to personalise the subject.

"It's nice to have a geographical link with an area we teach about," she says. "And the Ugandans are so resourceful that it makes us realise how wasteful we are."

Barbara Griffiths, Launceston's previous global link teacher, spent five weeks at Kyema in 2002 under a scheme run by Link Community Development.

The charity sends UK teachers to Ghana, South Africa and Uganda to gain and share leadership experience and build school links.

Barbara Harvey of Link Community Development believes the key to a successful link is a good personal relationship and clear goals. "UK schools tend to have very high expectations, but things move at a slower pace in Uganda, so there's not the same efficiency. The UK schools can lose interest if they think the Ugandan schools are not putting in the same effort. This is why we recommend that all schools set targets and goals as Kyema and Launceston have done."

Although Uganda has enjoyed sustained economic growth and rapid social development for the past 15 years, it still has many problems. One-third of the population is illiterate; two-thirds subsist on farming; a fifth of families are led by the children because Aids has orphaned so many.

Patricia Kemigisha, 12, lost both her parents to Aids. She is desperate to continue her education, but fears her guardian cannot afford the fees.

"I don't know what will happen to me," she says, looking dejected in her bright pink uniform. Kyema's Primary 4 teacher Catherine Kabwijukya, herself a total Aids orphan, interjects: "Don't worry I am looking after you."

Patricia's plight highlights one global issue that Kyema and Launceston have agreed to study jointly: girls' education. In Uganda, female advancement is not a high priority. But Julius Tibaingana, Kyema's head, is fighting hard to change that. He successfully lobbied the local council to introduce a byelaw forbidding child labour during school hours. Parents now face fines. He has also been working with an organisation campaigning to get rid of child labour in the local tobacco industry.

To encourage girls to stay in school longer, he has introduced monthly prizes for perfect attendance. It has improved by 40 per cent. And he is trying to boost their self-esteem. Two female counsellors have been designated for girls and he has moved his female teachers to the older classes where the girls are more likely to drop out. "We now have more girls in Primary 7 (Year 6 equivalent) than boys," he says, proudly.

Since Julius Tibaingana became head early last year, there has been a drastic improvement in academic results. It is now the highest performing primary school in the sub-county and its roll has increased from 400 to 592. This year 18 more girls than in 2004 are joining Primary 1.

He attributes this turnaround to Blockley's help with teaching methods and morale. "As well as Jennifer's advice and teaching methods, we tried to make teachers realise that not all motivation comes from finance. They soon realised that unless we worked to restore the school's reputation it would close."

He has just spent a month in England looking at how Launceston integrates the curriculum for its 200 pupils, consolidating schemes of work and involving gifted and disadvantaged pupils.

He has also agreed with Blockely the three tasks she will undertake next month: establishing new pen friendships by recording messages from the Launceston pupils; introducing Kyema staff to practical learning aids (the 100 square, a grid of numbers for simple calculations) for maths teaching; and taking pupils to the internet cafe to email pen-pals and learn basic computer skills.

Watching pupils exchange letters has moved Blockley, 59. "They have galvanised many of my colleagues and children. Cornwall is a monoculture so anything we can do to introduce our children to other cultures is very important."

She remains optimistic about the future. She is likely to postpone retirement for a year to write Launceston's global policy and work to secure the link for three more years. She will apply to Department for International Development's Global Schools Partnership scheme which supports good quality links.

Why does she push herself so hard? "I never realised what a powerful tool the agreement would be at the time," she says. And there is her emotional commitment: "Cello-taped to the back of my mind are the red road, the yellow acacia flowers and the green all around. When I go back this summer my feet will be following my heart."

Link Community Development a Link partner's Global Schools Partnership scheme www.britishcouncil.orgglobalschools.htm Kyema school tibainagnajulius@yahoo.comLaunceston School www.launceston-ji.cornwall.sch.ukThe partnership between Launceston and Kyema schools has been funded by HSBC, National Lottery money, the Rockefeller Foundation and DfID

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Abi Newman

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