22 pupils, 700,000 sheep... and too many penguins to count;Teaching abroad

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty joins the roving teachers whose classrooms are half a world away

The school day is done and Karen Green is a free woman. She leaves the primary classroom and drives, past bright red volcanoes, to the beach. There she joins dolphins and turtles basking in the warm Atlantic.

At night, when the sands have cooled, she watches mother turtles heave themselves up the beach and lay hundreds of eggs. Afew weeks later Karen will return to watch the tiny snouts and flippers of the young as they emerge from their nests and scuttle in the moonlight down to the sea...

For most of us, it sounds like an alluring but impossible dream. For 28-year-old Karen it is everyday reality. Here on Ascension Island she is 4,000 miles from the grey skies of Manchester which she left 10 months ago. "It's like living in a fantasy world," she says.

It all started with a job advert in the TES when Karen noticed that the quaintly-named community of Two Boats on Ascension Island, 4,000 miles north of the Falkland Islands, required a primary teacher and curriculum co-ordinator. (The name originates from the two boats that were propped up to provide shelter for people collecting water from a source on Green Mountain.) "I needed a change," says Karen, "and wanted to do something that would take my career on further. It was the perfect job. It is a totally different way of life here. The people are so friendly."

This is, in fact, something of an understatement. There is a history of romance and love matches for British teachers who've come out over the years.

Rosemary Christie had been teaching in a Plymouth school for 14 years when she picked up The TES and found herself applying for an Ascension Island job. There she met her future husband, an RAF catering clerk, in an amateur dramatics group. "I had a great time here," Rosemary tells me on a flying visit to the island from her husband's posting in the Falklands. "Three of us came over and we all met our husbands here."

Nightlife in downtown Georgetown, the one-shop and post office capital, isn't exactly swinging, but there are six bars on the island and regular beach parties.

The weird lava-sculptured landscape, with 40 dormant volcanoes, is made even stranger by huge aerials, dishes and giant golf ball structures - all reminders of the island's role as a military listening post for British and American forces. A garrison was first set up here in 1815 to keep watch on Napoleon, who was being held on St Helena. It was a staging post for the air force during the Second World War and was host to ships on their way to the Falkland Islands in the 1982 conflict.

Karen had to get the atlas out before her job interview. "I knew nothing about Ascension except that it had played a part in the Falklands conflict. When I got the job, I was put in touch with the teacher I was replacing and she filled me in."

She was interviewed at Bush House in central London - the BBC and Cable and Wireless have a joint venture on the island - and her employer is Ascension Island Services, a commercial company which charges the armed forces, contractors and other employers for use of the school. A house near the school came free as part of her two-year contract.

Two Boats school is the only one on the island and caters for around 100 children aged three to 16. Most pupils and teachers are from St Helena - there is no indigenous population - and the Helenan government contributes to secondary education.

Since Ascension Island is a British dependency, the school follows the British national curriculum. As the only member of staff from Britain, Karen is seen as a major resource for the school and she was employed partly to introduce the literacy hour to the primary section. When she's home on leave this summer she's planning to talk to ex-colleagues about the numeracy hour. Surreal though it may seem, all those directives from Sanctuary Buildings in Whitehall eventually find their way on to the desk of Betty Joshua, the headteacher at Two Boats.

"We get our monthly bulletin from the DfEE," says Mrs Joshua, "but it is difficult to keep up to date, especially as we cannot take up the training that goes with the changes. We follow what we can in the most practical and appropriate way."

Two Boats staff and pupils can also keep in touch with the rest of the world through information technology. A school computer room has been built by the Royal Engineers and is stocked with BBC computers. Cable and Wireless has provided 90 hours a month free on the Internet.

TO MARIE COPPING, another roving teacher from Britain, Karen's 4,000-mile journey is small fry. Marie stayed on the plane from RAF Brize Norton for a further 4,000 miles - and landed in freezing, swirling winds on the Falkland Islands.

Again, it started with a job ad in the TES. Marie applied, got the job, and earlier this year swapped her life as a primary teacher in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham for a school on a windswept military base on the other side of the world - amid 2,000 people and 700,000 sheep.

Marie is head of Mount Pleasant primary school, 35 miles from Stanley, the capital. Her employer is the Service Children's Education, the Germany-based organisation which looks after the education of military personnel children. She has free use of a three-bedroom house and is allowed to share the officers' mess where she takes most of her meals.

Marie has no regrets. "I love the dramatic weather: the deep blue skies and the rolling sea. I've seen blizzards and gales and brilliant sunshine. I've never had any doubts since I arrived."

The Falkland Islands are 300 miles from Cape Horn, the tip of South America, and are two-thirds of the size of Wales. It is not unusual to experience hail, brilliant sunshine and driving rain all in one day. Getting around isn't easy. There are a few roads, but high winds can make it too dangerous to drive.

Most of the people live in Stanley and the rest in outlying farming settlements in what is known as Camp.

Mount Pleasant is a two-class primary school with 22 pupils. "We teach the national curriculum," says Marie, "but also make full use of opportunities here. We've been for trips on helicopters, visited ships and the fire service here on base. It's wonderful for the children and has been the answer to my dreams. There is a great social life and everybody has been very supportive. The children are lovely and very well behaved."

Getting used to military life has been a learning experience. Marie's new friends are wing commanders and army captains. She says: "Normally you have to go to Greek myths and legends to learn about heroes, but I am very aware that every day at the dinner table I am sitting next to one."

One drawback is the ever-shifting population. Marie has signed a three-year contract, but most of the military personnel are serving four- and six-month tours. Rachel Huff, the school's second teacher, says: "You can get very friendly and close to people here. They work hard and play hard. There is a brilliant gym, swimming pool and squash courts. There are also 35 bars. But you get to know people and then they move on."

Rachel has rooms in the officers' mess, but shares shower facilities. "It is a bit annoying when you have a hulking male officer banging on the door telling you to hurry up," she says.

Certainly it wouldn't suit everyone. Being 8,000 miles from home and relying on the weather to be calm enough for a Tristar to land on the airstrip with fresh fruit and mail can cause frustrations. The bitter winds make thermal underwear a necessity, and the road to Stanley from the base can be closed for days.

Yet Marie is certain she will stick it out: "When I saw the advert, I said, 'I can do that Lord', and I guess he did the rest. As I left Britain, I saw a rainbow and took it to be a sign of God's promise."

MOUNTPLEASANT primary school is not the only educational facility on the Falklands. A small sitting room, cluttered with family photographs and trinkets, is Myra Pitt's classroom the day the TES visits her and her pupil, six-year-old Robin Berntsen. Outside the house, sheep and ducks wander around while Robin's two-year-old sister plays with the dog.

This is San Carlos, the bay where the British troops first landed in May 1982 to recapture the islands from Argentina. Myra's home is here for a fortnight, and then the travelling teacher will move on to stay with another family.

She often travels by dinghy bouncing over the freezing foam, or, increasingly, drives herself along pot-holed roads to her remote destinations. Once there, she lives with the family and may take part in farm duties once the teaching day is over. She knows that after a heavy snowfall she could be marooned for weeks.

There are 42 children in farms dotted around the islands and it costs the Falkland Islands government almost pound;10,000 per child to sending travelling teachers like Myra to their homes and arrange telephone lessons with staff based in Stanley.

Myra comes from New Zealand and has been a "Camp" teacher here for nine years. She says: "You have a very special relationship with the families. You do have to be flexible and tolerant. If the power is switched off at 11, then you put up with it. I like the islanders - they are mostly very laid back. I started doing this when I was 43, but younger people have coped. It depends on your personality. In some places, when I'm there during the weekend, I'll help out marking sheep." It helps that Myra was brought up on a dairy farm.

She works generally to the British national curriculum, but with a few Falkland Islands and New Zealand flavours thrown in such as local history and geography. Things have changed since Myra started work here. She now has a laptop computer and more roads have been built which means she can get about, weather permitting, in her car.

"Some people might say this is a Godforsaken hole. There is a rugged beauty, but some days - like yesterday when the hail was horizontal and the temperature freezing - I could give the whole place away."

The Service Children's Education provides education to service and support civilian staff pupils in Belize, Brunei, Cyprus, Denmark, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Naples, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. All the schools, except the Ghurka school in Brunei, teach the national curriculum. SCE, Building 5 Wegberg Military Estate, BFPO 40, tel 0049 2161 908 2396

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today