Kabul calling

26th February 2010 at 00:00
When Steve Lancashire helped to mentor heads in Afghanistan he found that, despite huge cultural differences and the struggle of daily life there, he shared a key aim with his new colleagues - provision of a thriving education system

Steve Lancashire quickly became accustomed to his new morning routine. He would wake early, anticipating the morning call to prayer, and pull back the bedroom curtains to greet the guard outside his window. When he was ready to leave, he would reach for his bullet-proof vest and helmet before going outside.

"I knew the morning call meant it was about 5am, but I also know that in any case I would not be travelling out of the compound for a few hours," he says. "The morning rush-hour is favoured by suicide bombers."

Mr Lancashire, 46, is headteacher of Hillyfield Primary School in Waltham Forest, east London. But for two weeks last year he was training school leaders in Kabul.

His brief was to create and deliver development courses for headteachers under the Connecting Classrooms project, a scheme linking UK and overseas schools run by the British Council, which promotes cultural relations overseas.

He had been approached about taking part while on a leadership course. A fellow delegate was working for the British Council and asked if he would be interested in going to Afghanistan. He jumped at the chance. "I like giving myself challenges," he says. "I think she was a bit taken aback by my enthusiasm."

In preparation for his visit, he flew to Dubai for two days to plan the content of his course with officials from the Afghan ministry of education. They decided the course would concentrate on school improvement issues, the quality of learning, and monitoring and assessment problems.

As head of a school where 40 languages are spoken, Mr Lancashire is sensitive to what he calls "cultural understanding", and before he went he threw himself into studying Afghanistan. "I really wanted to understand the people's beliefs and I didn't want to offend anyone," he says.

His first visit was in March last year, when he was accompanied by his deputy Kate Jennings. Any concerns that Ms Jennings would face problems in a country where women were required to wear the burqa in public until recently were swiftly dispelled.

"We expected issues, particularly because Kate would be delivering a course, but we got none," he says. "The very first time we walked into the training room one of the Afghan delegates stood up and said through an interpreter: `We all want to thank you for coming to our country.' We had such a warm welcome."

he training was held in a girls' school and delivered to mixed gender groups of 20 high school principals from across Afghanistan. The group prayed separately, but otherwise men and women worked together.

Despite the cultural differences, the common bond between them helped Mr Lancashire form a connection with the Afghan heads. "I want the same as a principal in Afghanistan: we both want our education system to do its best for the children in our care, and we both know the power of education in helping children to change their lives and make their own decisions," he says.

The similarities did not stop with the heads. Mr Lancashire saw teenagers back-chatting their teachers. "Young people are also the same the world over," he adds.

The Afghan heads had little experience of Western culture, but were curious about its schools. "The principals were not interested in Western goods. They were far more interested in what a school day was like for me and were always asking questions about Hillyfield, the children and the routines."

At the top of their wish lists were more technology and less central control - the Afghan curriculum is quite prescriptive. While Mr Lancashire may not have been able to do anything about the first wish, he suggested that if they couldn't change the content of the lessons they could look at the structure and breaking up the timetable. "We helped them to teach the curriculum within the constraints that they have got," he says.

In schools of 3,000 pupils, classes of 100 are the norm. For discipline problems, Mr Lancashire suggested home-school agreements and establishing better communication with parents. But this highlighted one of the main differences between schools in the UK and Kabul. "Some parents are just glad that their children are safe at school and they don't think further about what they do there."

Mr Lancashire admits that some of these differences left him in turmoil. He was embarrassed to be driven around in a four-tonne armoured car with bullet-proof glass when he would see families of six or seven on one motorbike and people travelling by horse and cart. Another familiar sight was beggars trying to sell tin cans containing an essence to ward off evil spirits.

"I was staring like a child because so much of everyday life was different and obviously a struggle," he says. "Even the fruit and veg out on the stalls was dusty and dull. I thought I was used to it until we arrived in Dubai to pick up the flight to the UK. I felt disorientated and didn't know why until I realised that it was because I could see colour - Dubai with its cultivated green grass and plants was a complete assault on the senses."

His arrival in March coincided with a sense of optimism in Afghanistan. Security was relaxed enough for him to enjoy escorted tours of indoor markets and a drive to a vantage point outside the city. "What touched me was that as we drove up children were playing on the hill and every single one waved. Their only visible toy was a sheet of metal which they were using to pull each other up and down the hill, but they were laughing and enjoying themselves."

However, the atmosphere on his return visit in December was very different. Security was tighter in the aftermath of disputed elections, and the winter temperatures were unforgiving.

"It was upsetting to see the conditions of some children who were not wrapped up against the cold," he says.

On one occasion he discovered his tea breaks came at a cost to a small child. He learnt that when the water was not boiling for his tea, the lady who made it would wrap a blanket around the kettle so her little boy could hug it to keep warm.

And while food was delivered to the school every day, and he enjoyed a meal in a hotel in the evening, he was embarrassed when he realised the principals on the course were taking leftovers home for their families.

The school had no central heating and was so cold he was shivering through five layers of clothing, but the Afghans still took a pride in their appearance. On one visit to a university building the group was asked to take their shoes off to protect the floor, and he could see the principals' shame as their threadbare socks were exposed. "It made me so sad for them," he says.

When it came time for him to depart, Mr Lancashire was presented with gifts, traditional hats and embroidery, which have all gone on display in Hillyfield. In return, the school has sent examples of work and photographs to schools in Afghanistan.

On his return to the UK, he was approached by a parent at his school. The woman, an Afghan herself, had brought her husband in to see the display on Kabul and was eager to find out how the city had changed since she had last seen it.

The experience has given Mr Lancashire confidence in talking in assembly about how people and countries can help each other, but it has also had a more lasting effect. "I came away impressed by a people who are proud of their country, and who just want peace and stability," he says. "I would go back to work there again."

Make a connection

Connecting Classrooms is a school partnership programme, between schools in the UK and overseas, run by the British Council. It aims to embed an international dimension into education systems worldwide and to equip all young people with cultural understanding.

Steve Lancashire was involved in designing courses for headteachers in Afghanistan. The programme looks at the role of the principal in leading change, including how to build effective teams, and how to monitor and evaluate the quality of what happens in the classrooms.

The content is now being used in Connecting Classrooms programmes around the world, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, with the aim of helping headteachers and teachers to better interact through their international partnerships.

The Connecting Classrooms programme is free to join. It is open to all schools and local authorities or federations of schools in the UK.



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