All the world's a classroom
Science teacher Jim Eltringham spent his half-term holiday in a school with no labs and no test tubes. Classes of 70 were the norm, and the school day started at 6.45am. His trip to Durban in South Africa with other Sheffield teachers was made under the joint auspices of the British Council's Teachers' International Professional Development Programme and the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.
"We started off in a place called Umhlanga Rocks on the Natal coast and had a cultural day with a visit to a game park, some Zulu dancing and a tour of a couple of townships," he says. "We were briefed on the recent educational history of South Africa, where the apartheid categories of black, Asian and white schools have now given way to disadvantaged and advantaged.
"The disadvantaged ones are, of course, all black and the advantaged ones are mainly white, with other races beginning to appear," says Jim, who teaches 11 to 16-year-olds at Fir Vale school in Sheffield.
After the entertainment and the briefing came the disadvantaged reality of the 1,300-pupil Zwelibanzi high school in Umlazi, where pupils have study time before 7.30am assembly because many of them have no electric light in their houses. For the same reason, the school stays open until 4pm, two hours after the end of lessons.
Lessons are taught in English, though the Zulu mother tongue is sometimes used as well. There has also been a return to some learning of Afrikaans, so that the doctors of tomorrow can talk to their richer patients, as Jim puts it.
As soon as they arrived, Jim's party saw something they had never seen in their own schools. "The children were cleaning the place: gardening, sweeping up and washing things. It was really evidence of the school's high standing in the community. The school was seen as a major jewel, something to be proud of," says Jim. "When some computer equipment was stolen, the police, the male teachers and older male pupils did house-to-house searches until it was recovered.
"The community did a lot to build the school: it has produced doctors and lawyers, and they are very proud of it. We saw and heard some remarkable things. Like the whole of Africa, the school was affected by Aids.
Therewere child carers; there was a 17-year-old boy whose mother had died of Aids and who had been an Aids counsellor for three years. There is still some social stigma, but also remarkable maturity.
"One thing that was massively impressive was the revision session we saw being given by a visiting expert. It was supposed to be just for a group from Zwelibanzi high school, but the word had spread to other schools and between 150 and 200 kids had turned up. It was like seeing a university lecture. There was no discipline issue. If anyone talked the other kids shushed them."
The experience has left Jim, 32, with the desire to teach abroad at some stage, but that's not all. "It was a brilliant experience on many levels," he says. "It was great to sit down in the class and be with the pupils. It was also an opportunity to network with other teachers from the LEA and talk to colleagues outside school.
"Obviously, it would be an expensive way of doing it if that were all, and, as I suspected, there wasn't much we could learn from their teaching methods. They don't have the money to do anything but straightforward large-class instructional teaching. Outcome-based education isn't really an option for them.
"The school had no lab. It has no test tubes, so the teacher draws one on the board and explains how they are used in experiments. It's the only way they can do it.
"But one of the biggest impressions made on me was the way those children took responsibility. It made me question whether we give ours enough. I've taught long-term in three schools and done a fair amount of supply and I've never seen responsibility delegated to pupils like that. It was like dealing with adults.
"The student representative council is modelled on the government. This is a young democracy and they are teaching by example how important it is to vote and to know their rights.
"Pupils are allowed into the staffroom by invitation. They sometimes run the assemblies. They do their own fund-raising. If a teacher is away on a course there is no money for cover but two elected class captains keep order. Giving them responsibility improves their behaviour and their learning. That was my main African lesson."