Havens in a hostile world

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Torn asunder by civil war, Colombia is one of the world's most violent countries but, as Dorset teachers discovered at first hand, its schools are showing their pupils love and affection, and training them to make peace

aime Garzon College is a 40-minute white-knuckle ride from the affluent tree-lined boulevards of up-town Bogota. It lies in the poverty-stricken and ramshackle neighbourhood of Kennedy, where many houses are half-built and the roads are half-finished, and which is home to many of those forcibly displaced from other parts of the country by the 40-year civil war.

When the yellow taxi screeches to a halt outside, avoiding yet another stray dog, two middle-school teachers from Dorset, Carmen Diment and Sarah Cotterill, step out. Pupils wearing immaculate uniforms greet their British visitors with hugs and kisses. "Were you afraid to come to Colombia?" they ask.

The Dorset party is part of the Teachers' International Professional Development Programme, sponsored by the British Council. Its aim, says group leader, David Kenyon, the county's music co-ordinator, is "to observe how citizenship is taught, with the aim of sharing ideas".

At Jaime Garzon, attended by 950 primary and secondary pupils, peace seems to reign. Flowerpots line the corridor walls, and trees planted by "little scientists" shade the basketball court.

The headteacher, Jorge Barra, enters a Year 6 class. Forty students immediately stand to attention, falling silent as he raises his hand. Then he greets his flock with kisses."Teachers don't display such affection to children back home," observes Carmen Diment.

Citizenship is integral to the curriculum. "It has to be in the middle of a civilan war," says Mr Barra. "If Colombia is to have a future, we have to instil the message that life is sacred."

By law, schools must have an elected student council, a board of governors and an academic council. Pupils are involved in the decision-making at every level - within limits. The aim is to give them a voice and a stake in the school, rather than encouraging them to make changes to how it is run.

Each teachers' council and board of governors has a student representative on it.

"That's unusual," remarks Carmen Diment.

"We're talking about democracy," replies the headteacher.

Mr Barra points to a poster advertising a student council meeting:

"Elections here are smaller versions of national elections," he says.

Ballot cards, manifestos and campaign speeches are common. "Once a candidate resigned because of accusations of buying votes by offering pupils sweets," he says.

Last year, Ana Virginia, a Spanish teacher, initiated a peace conflict- resolution group, the "young mediators". Made up of students from all grades, and led by three from Year 11, it intervenes in disputes between students, and between students and staff, attempting to resolve differences peacefully.

"Pupils speak to us first about their problems, feeling safer knowing we get involved, rather than a teacher," explains Claudia, a 17-year-old mediator. She says most problems arise from arguments between friends, "particularly between boyfriends and girlfriends". The mediators speak to both parties separately, even during lesson time, and encourage students to talk through their differences rather than resort to fighting.

"The project has helped me manage my own aggression; now I know what to do when I get angry," says another mediator, Camilo, 17. The school, cannot shut itself off from the violence outside its gates. Last year, local gangs threatened staff. Three teachers were compelled to travel to and from school with bodyguards. The tension rose further when a student became the girlfriend of a prominent gang member.

"One way of tackling this is to make school a place that people respect and want to attend," says Mr Barra. So staff meet gang members on school premises to show them the resources available, including computer access, sports clubs and free lunches. Mr Barra believes that this approach deters troublemakers because they think, "Maybe I or my brother might come here."

The college also reaches out to the community in other ways. It offers literacy classes to adults, and allows Year 11 students who have failed or dropped out to return and re-sit their graduation exam in six months rather than a year.

Citizenship in Colombia isn't just about rights and political systems. It is also about shared experience. Looking after the school and each other, and enjoying group activities such as singing and dancing, is seen as a means of enhancing community and co-operative spirit.

During the trip to Bogota, four other teachers from Dorset walk in on the final moments of a tense basketball match at the Gustavo Restrepo secondary school in the south of the city. Their presence causes a stir; curious pupils stare through window grills.

When students return to class, two remain behind to sweep the court. "They were late to lessons, so they have additional duties," explains the headteacher, Anaflor Alvares. "Pupils contribute to the maintenance of the school because it helps them acquire a sense of ownership and responsibility," she adds. The Dorset teachers agree that it is hard to imagine pupils doing this in Britain, although Dave Brooks, a music teacher, is heard to say that "it might make pupils think twice about throwing litter around school".

A short walk away from Gustavo Restrepo is its sister school, Gabriel Turbay, attended by 110 special needs pupils. A dance lesson is under way in a small, shack-like classroom. Dave Brooks and Angela Brook, a special needs teacher, attempt the traditional Joropo dance. "You're supposed to hold each other the other way around," another dancing couple instruct them politely.

Next stop, Medellin, Colombia's second city, infamous in the 1980s for its drug cartels. Secretary of Education Olga Henao is keen that some of the Dorset teachers visit the Young Girls Farm College because it is "an oasis of love in the midst of violence".

The tropical rural areas around Medellin are at the heart of the conflict between the national army, right-wing paramilitary groups, and left-wing guerrilla movements such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). "In some areas," says Ms Henao, "schools are the only permanent presence and symbol of the state."

The Young Girls Farm offers 218 girls, of whom 118 are boarders, a refuge from rural violence. As you enter the pristine colonial courtyard of an old farmhouse, pupils' handicrafts and artworks hang from the ceilings and walls. With its landscaped gardens and swimming pool, it seems more like Club Med than a school. The British teachers find 20 parents sitting in the shade, learning their fractions with the aid of wooden shapes. "We show them what we're teaching their children, then they can help them at home," explains the headteacher, Sister Jacqueline.

The school boasts strong ties with the local municipality. Juanita, aged 11, is the elected "little mayor", acting as a link between the school and local government. "At meetings, I represent the school and get councillors to help with fund-raising," she says. She has been to Bogota to meet the President.

The Dorset teachers began to appreciate that an important part of citizenship, often overlooked in the UK, is the placing of trust in students and the breaking down of barriers between staff and pupils. "We've become obsessed with assessment, losing sight of the importance of human contact," says David Kenyon.

What did the teachers in Colombia gain from the visit? "I hope it has helped to shed our notorious reputation and show that good work is done by dedicated teachers," says Jorge Barra.


Each year the Department for Education and Skills' Teachers' International Professional Development Programme gives 2,500 teachers in England the opportunity to experience good educational practice around the world and share expertise with colleagues. Visits are funded and organised through three bodies:

The British Council: www.britishcouncil.orgeducation

The Specialist Schools Trust: www.specialistschoolstrust.org.uktipd

The League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers: www.lect.org.uklect

The General Teaching Council for Wales also funds international visits. For more information see: www.gtcw.org.uk

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