Cinderellas at the charity ball

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Tired of being the poor relation? Victoria Neumark looks at teacher networks run by non-governmental organisations. This weekend sees the latest in a series of workshop weekends run by the VSO Primary Teachers Network. Sessions on using specific resources for development education, working with Southern visitors in the classroom and stress management and counselling will be on offer to the more than 40 participants, all VSO returnees.

Set up only a year ago, the Primary Teachers Network boasts more than 100 members; its sister organisation, the VSO Secondary Science Teachers Network, more than 200. With a pool of some 21,700 returnees to draw on, VSO is perhaps ideally placed to develop such a network, but how far are such networks the way of the future for development education?

With a 40 per cent cut in its UK education budget currently inflicted at Oxfam, Save the Children nearing the end of a 25 per cent cut over the past two years and ActionAid's education department now completely restructured after a 30 per cent cut three years ago, the big non-governmental organisations are not in a position to expand their education work in UK schools. Overall income is falling and education, not usually protected by dedicated funding, is especially vulnerable to cuts.

Oxfam now runs three national offices (at Cardiff, Glasgow and London, with a London resource centre) having axed four regional offices (at Newcastle, Brighton Bristol, Southampton). Direct contact with teachers or teacher trainers is restricted to a small network centred on its London office: Hilary Atchison, head of education, says "servicing the huge database" of teachers interested in its large catalogue of publications is the way forward for an organisation which has also experienced deep cuts in overseas budgets.

At Save the Children (SCF), the cuts have been smaller but still significant. Though in Scotland SCF still works with teachers directly and sees such work as "important", according to Andrew Hutchinson, head of education, funding contraints have restricted direct work in England. A major grant from the Department for Education and Employment has allowed it to branch out into youth education through the Girl Guide Association and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, where SCF works to promote a deeper understanding of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child through training youth leaders. For these youth leaders, SCF runs a network called Linkup, with its own newsletter.

Elsewhere, the picture is much the same. Education in the UK is very much the Cinderella at the development ball for NGOs. Christian Aid has had to radically reassess its support for development education in the UK. At ActionAid, the three-year-old system of funding a network of 50 or so part-time teachers, paid and trained by ActionAid, by fees demanded from schools is, says head of education Sue Davison, coming good, with a part-time manager newly appointed to oversee teachers' annual training weekend and ongoing reviews.

Compounding the problem of falling NGO funding is the policy of the ODA, itself strapped for cash, only to fund UK education work run by UK organisations. Doug Bourne of the Development Education Agency (DEA) says that "with next to no funding available from central government" that leaves development education centres (DECs) as the main purveyors of development education .

In a picture which seems increasingly narrowed on to the DECs, the grassroots network option seems increasingly attractive.

UNICEF runs a network of about 45 volunteers. Paid only their expenses, these are trained professionals, often working in DECs, who develop links with local schools. They offer tailor-made, free sessions on a variety of curriculum-related topics, ranging from the rights of the child to conflict resolution, for primary and secondary schools. UNICEF is expanding its network and appointing education officers to co-ordinate it.

Set in this bleak climate, VSO's burgeoning networks of secondary science and primary teachers offer an alternative and bright way forward for many teachers isolated from new ideas in development education. Offering the benefits of get-togethers with someone to talk to - "teachers get very isolated," as Eleanor Kerchner of VSO points out - and practical suggestions, like their Tried and Tested booklet on classroom suggestions, it is networks like VSO's which will carry development education forward, even if on a shoestring. After all, says Doug Bourne, teachers in such a network may be best placed to tap the country's "huge reservoir of good will and expertise on promoting global perspective and understanding in the classroom".

Details from VSO, 317 Putney Bridge Road, London SW15 2PN. Tel: 0181 780 2266

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