Kathmandu here we come
Mary and Pat Doohan, both 50 this year, had talked for years about a teaching sabbatical with Voluntary Service Overseas, but only recently were they tempted to make it a reality. Their two eldest daughters, Maria and Carmel, had finished their education and the youngest, Mairead, 20, was settled at Glamorgan University. "And if we'd waited any longer we might not be up to it," laughs Mary.
Just as important, however, was VSO's decision to reduce the minimum placement from two years to one. "We couldn't have considered two years," explains Pat, headteacher at St Cuthbert's RC primary in Birmingham. "It would just have been too long. " Pat is a busy man. He has to oversee three building projects at St Cuthbert's, finalise the budget planning and make several grant applications. Then there's the small matter of mastering the Nepali language by the end of January, when he and Mary will swap suburban Sutton Coldfield for a 15-month sabbatical in Kathmandu, capital of the world's fourth poorest country.
"Sometimes it seems wildly exciting; at other times we question our sanity," admits Mary, who is deputy head at nearby St Mark's RC primary.
"Our governors were very supportive when we asked them for a year away.
Then VSO asked us to extend it to 15 months, to include training, and they agreed to that, too," adds Pat. But VSO has found that few schools are willing to hold posts open for more than a year, which has meant teachers having to hand in their notice and look for a new job on their return.
Unsurprisingly, many potential applicants find the prospect of quitting their job a step too far. The one-year placement scheme - currently a pilot aimed only at primary teachers - will, VSO hopes, make it easier to take leave of absence, then return to a post.
Not that coming back to your job after a year is necessarily straightforward - particularly for a headteacher. "Decisions made while you're away are going to affect you when you return," explains Pat. "It's difficult to relinquish control, but you have to trust people, and accept that the school could change in your absence."
At St Cuthbert's, the deputy head did not want the added responsibility of taking Pat's place, so a deputy from another school in the authority has been seconded. In Mary's case, St Mark's has opted to employ someone to teach her timetable, but to split the deputy's responsibilities between four members of staff. Both schools will save money through the new arrangements.
"This was one aspect we stressed to the governors," explains Pat, "that it wouldn't cost the school anything. We also let them know that what we brought back could be genuinely beneficial - new energy, new perspectives, new ways of doing things."
"And both working at Catholic schools made a difference," says Mary. "Our governors saw that what we were proposing to do - making a difference to others - was all part of the ethos of the school."
The Doohans are quick to point out that the professional challenge of the placements is what appeals, not the opportunity to do a spot of sightseeing. "I work hard because my job is important to me," says Pat. "If I find myself taking it easy in Nepal, I'll be disappointed; it will mean the job isn't really engaging me."
His task is to introduce the concept of a "whole-school ethos" to Kathmandu, but Pat is planning to be flexible in his approach. "I'm not there to impose my way of doing things. I'll be learning, coming up with ideas where I can, just trying to build confidence. We have the chance to make a lasting difference, to put structures in place that will be of benefit for years to come."
His only concern is the possible frustrations. "I'm used to being able to make things happen, usually pretty quickly. But out there I won't be the boss, I'll be dependent on others. The infrastructure might be lacking, or there might be too many meetings and committees. I hate committees. And I've heard they have a fairly relaxed view of timekeeping, which might take some getting used to; I only have a year."
If Pat is anxious about aspects of the job, Mary, who will be raising the profile of education within the community, finds the prospect of some of the lifestyle changes more daunting. "I like my home comforts. We sometimes talk about what we're going to miss," she admits.
"Newspapers," suggests Pat, "and perhaps a round of golf, and just going out for a beer or a meal. We like travelling but we're not seasoned backpackers by any means. We don't even like camping."
Once settled in Kathmandu, Pat and Mary will be living as locals on local wages. Although they are guaranteed running water, this may be cold water only from a hosepipe, which will have to be boiled before it can be used for drinking or cooking. They have heard that electricity supplies are erratic and are expecting standards of sanitation to be "challenging". Mary says: "I just hope we have some privacy. It will be hard if the accommodation is crowded."
As the time comes for the Doohans to pack up, their nervousness is palpable. Practical arrangements need to be tackled, such as finding storage for their belongings. They plan to let their house, but that involves making sure all appliances, furniture and fittings meet stringent health and safety standards. "And then there's Mairead," adds Mary, "She's old enough to be independent, but that doesn't stop the feeling that we're abandoning her."
Their next VSO training weekend, Preparing for Change, couldn't come at a better time. But for all their nervousness, Pat and Mary remain positive about what lies ahead. They look forward to tackling the language and hope to learn a Nepali musical instrument. Above all, they want to have a long-term influence, not only in Kathmandu but also in the UK.
"We want to come back and tell others to go for it. If it goes well for us, that'll have a ripple effect. Lots of teachers still don't know the opportunity is there."
And if it doesn't work out?
"We're not thinking like that," says Pat. "Even if it's not everything we're hoping for, at least we'll have tried for it. We'll be able to say we did our jobs well and had some fun."