I went to school in Africa

24th October 2003 at 01:00
As Edinburgh prepares to host the 15th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers next week, the Scottish Executive has promised funding over the next three years for the global teachers programme. Raymond Ross reports on the experiences of two teachers who have taken part already

The Scottish Executive has announced it will contribute up to pound;108,000 from its education professional development budget over the next three years to the global teachers programme, which gives experienced teachers five-week placements in rural schools in Uganda, South Africa and Ghana.

The programme was launched in 2000 and is run by Link Community Development, a registered charity. So far, 14 Scottish teachers have taken part, 12 of them this year, and more will follow. Most placements are during the summer break but cover for term time is provided.

Global teachers live in their assigned local community and learn about the way of life, culture and development challenges. The placements provide an opportunity to develop peer support and training skills by supporting colleagues in a school where chalk may be the only resource and where class sizes regularly exceed 60. They also offer the opportunity to forge a lasting partnership between the African school and the Scottish teacher's own school back home.

LCD programme manager John Addison says: "In its first three years our emphasis has moved towards concentrating on school leadership because that's where we believe sustainable change can be made for both the teachers' placement schools and their own schools."

For information on becoming a link school or a global teacher, contact Anna Colquhoun, UK Programme Director, Link Community Development, Unit 39, King's Exchange Business Village, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH, tel 020 7681 8763 www.lcd.org.uk

What first struck Douglas Lawson on his arrival in Ghana from Midlothian as a global teacher two years ago was the immense poverty.

"It was a shock. Although we sort of knew what to expect from the two training weekends we'd had, nothing really prepared us for the reality.

"In the capital, Accra, there were extremes of wealth and poverty, which was a cultural shock in itself. But in northern Ghana, where I spent my five-week placement, it was poverty and unemployment.

"This is an area of subsistence farming - millet, groundnuts, some chickens, cattle and goats - and the teachers also farm in order to feed their families. In the dry season it is near famine conditions.

"There are only nine doctors for 3.5 million people."

The party of 10 British teachers sent by the Link Community Development to Ghana was welcomed by the Minister of Education. Their contribution to the global teachers programme was to focus on teaching English, Ghanaians'

second language. They worked alongside local teachers, advising and team teaching with them. All teaching is in English.

Mr Lawson, who is a teaching head at Pathhead Primary, which has a roll of 95, was attached to Gbeogo Primary in the district of Bolgatanga. The average class size was 60, with 100 children in P1. A lot were orphans, many because of AIDS.

There was no P2 class teacher because it is difficult to attract teachers to rural areas. A volunteer covered for the headteacher when she took this class.

Many children walked for an hour to get to school. The classrooms were almost bare, with benches and basic desks which Link support had provided.

Books and jotters were minimal and shared and the children bought their own pens or pencils.

"They don't have teaching aids," says Mr Lawson. "The blackboard was a wall painted black."

The school roof was corrugated iron. There was no electricity and no drinking water. A different class was delegated each week to fetch water from the nearest well 15 minutes away on foot.

Pupils also cleaned the school before classes every day. Everyone pays a school fee, whether in money or in kind.

The school day was from 8am to 2.30pm with two breaks, one for 15 minutes and one for half an hour. The pupils were fed at the end of the day.

"The girls received more food than the boys. This is to encourage families to send the girls to school," says Mr Lawson.

He believes the British teachers learned more from the experience than the local teachers from them. "We have so much here and yet we complain. The conditions they teach in are extreme but they still achieve highly and the pupils are very enthusiastic," he says.

"Ghanaian teachers are open to improving learning and teaching but it's naive to think we have all the answers.

"It's not a question of transferring our curriculum to Ghana. It's about assisting them to develop their own.

"In a class of 60 the teaching has to be different. It was whole class teaching. It was hard to differentiate at first and to get groups at the same level to work together.

"Teaching was hard, not only because it was stiflingly hot but also it is very text-based in Ghana. Moving away from textbooks was something new; getting children to come out and explain things, doing role play and drama, for example.

"Teachers had a tendency to teach conversation from the text, simply read.

It was new to them to get the pupils to have an English conversation away from any text. Drama was completely new to them."

Two other benefits Mr Lawson's visit had were the idea of a library and the gift of a football.

"There is a real hunger to read there," he says, "in the community as well as the school. They had a lot of library books which were not used much for fear of being damaged, so I suggested a library.

"They've since built walls around an open shed used for school assemblies and put in shelves for the books.

"Football is Ghana's national sport and most kids play it in their bare feet. They had a football team but no ball: it had burst. So I bought a thick plastic one. It cost the equivalent of pound;2: a lot of money for them. There was a day of celebration."

Mr Lawson says the experience has changed his educational outlook. "It has made me question things that we think are so significant, like testing.

"In Ghana they test and publish the results. If a pupil or a school isn't doing well it is taken as a very bad thing. That's not helpful.

"Human values and qualities are more important but they can't be measured.

What is truly important in education can't be assessed," he says.

Being a global teacher has changed his attitude to things African.

"Stereotypes still need to be challenged. We have a long way to go in really thinking about people in Africa as equals," Mr Lawson says.

"We think our way of life is the way of life for the whole world and that our values should be their values. Well, they're not and they shouldn't be.

"I do think we have more to learn from them than they do from us.

Despite the poverty and sometimes desperate conditions, the children there seem happier."

He also believes that only lip service is paid to the global dimension in the Scottish curriculum. "It's tokenistic and should be more central. We need to make the links real to create harmony," he says.

Global citizenship is part of Pathhead Primary's religious education and environmental studies curriculum, the latter focusing on children in Africa in P6 and P7. It is decorated with African art, which is the result of a project which also brought Ghanaian drummers into the school. "It was the first time many Pathhead children had seen a black person," says Mr Lawson.

The school raises more than pound;250 a year for their Ghanaian twinned school and pupils communicate by writing at least three times a year, sending letters, profiles of themselves and posters.

This year's preparations for the school's harvest festival were focused on water, with pupils measuring how much they use at home every day and agreeing to give a donation to their twinned school based on the amount.

Mr Lawson explains how the twinning came about. "I saw an article in The TES about the Link Community Development. I made enquires and took the information to the pupil council, who agreed to linking with an African school, even though it meant raising pound;250 a year for four years, which is no mean sum for a small school.

"A few months later I saw visits were possible. There was great anticipation among the pupils about me going and it's made the link real," he says.


A 22-minute film entitled Closing the Gap - Music for Life illustrates the difficulties of access to education in Uganda through the story of the African Children's Choir, which will perform at the opening ceremony of the 15th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers.

It is presented by 17-year-old Lesley Murray of Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh, who went to Africa to film the choir in their home environment. The video has been sent free to all schools by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Commonwealth Online is a complementary web-based resource that will give P7-S2 pupils an understanding of the history and modern role of the Commonwealth. It features lesson plans for teachers, a library of Commonwealth images and information on democracy, human rights and development. Access is through www.15ccem.org.uk

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