A working life less ordinary

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Whatever your skills, Voluntary Service Overseas could use them. Diane Spencer reports on what must be the ultimate school excursion for teachers.

Jaded, depressed, demoralised teachers looking for an escape route, not only from their classroom but out of the country, should consider a secondment to Voluntary Service Overseas. It can offer postings "from the mountains of Pakistan to Pacific island beaches" and is hoping to meet teachers at the Education Show who are interested in volunteering.

VSO has supported education in poorer countries since its founding in 1958 as part of its aim to work alongside local people "to share skills, build capabilities and promote international understanding and action in pursuit of a more equitable world". Forty years later, half of the 1,800 volunteers working in 60 countries are in education.

Demand is higher than ever for such posts as teaching English as a second language, mathematics, science, computer skills, vocational subjects, primary, special needs and teacher training. Postings are usually for two years.

When VSO was founded, volunteers were mosty school leavers filling in their gap year, but now they are qualified adults with at least two years experience, aged between 23 and 68 with the average age of 35. But there are opportunities for recent maths and science graduates.

The charity emphasises that volunteering has two-way benefits. Volunteers pass on their skills to local people, ensuring that their work continues long after they have gone. In return, they gain invaluable experience which stands them in good stead for their careers. And on a personal level, they have the chance to explore a different ountry, learn about its culture and language and form friendships.

Recruits are not out of pocket either. Apart from providing pre-departure training and practical help on returning to the UK job market, VSO pays for flights and accommodation, a local level salary, medical insurance, national insurance contributions and up to three cash grants over two years.

Many applicants have a clear idea of where they want to go, but often find themselves, happily, in a totally different place. One volunteer was set to teach in a small rural secondary school in Nigeria, but ended up in north-west China, a 35-hour train journey from Beijing, "where I spent four of the happiest years".

Another volunteered to teach English in China, but instead spent four years in Sri Lanka. "I have absolutely no regrets about this, and am secure in the knowledge that China is still there for the visit I continue to plan. In the meantime, I have learned much about an equally intriguing place and culture."

The organisation says that there is no typical VSO posting as each job is unique, but before anyone is sent abroad, they are invited to meet returned volunteers from their destination country who can give them a realistic flavour of the VSO experience. It regularly organises information evenings and open days where people can speak to returned volunteers, and has a resources centre in London and Birmingham. The charity's recently published education policy, From Disadvantage to Opportunity, sets out its rationale for its education work.

VSO stand PV108 Enquiries Unit, VSO, 317 Putney Bridge Road, London SW15 2PN Tel 020 8780 7500 e-mail enquiry@vso.org.uk www.vso.org.uk

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