Lessons in a war zone

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Education is everything for children whose lives are full of misery, deprivation and fear. Nick Morrison talks to the British teachers who are making a real difference

It was Alan Dane's last day in the camp and he was eating his lunch in the canteen when two 15-year-olds approached him and offered to give him a guided tour. Alan had seen much of the camp over the previous week, but the next few hours proved to be a humbling experience. "They wanted us to see the camp from a 15-year-old's point of view, to understand the daily fear and lack of rights in their lives," Alan recalls.

"They showed us where a landlord wanted to evict a refugee family, so the police came in and demolished the building. They told us about the gangs from outside who terrorised the camp, and the drug problems.

"The squalor, the deprivation and sheer human waste were horrible, but those boys had the most incredible optimism and maturity about how they could make their situation better."

Alan teaches at The Grey Coat Hospital School, a state secondary for girls in central London - a far cry from the notorious Shatila camp in Beirut where he was staying.

The camp is about one square kilometre in size and home to more than 12,000 Palestinian refugees. His trip last year had been arranged by Education Action, a charity which works with children in war zones. Although he taught some lessons in UN schools, the main purpose was to observe and then share his experiences with children back home.

"As an RE teacher, I had always found the Middle East particularly fascinating, and when the chance to go came up I just jumped at it," he says. "I had always believed that education was the key to so many things, and I wanted to put that to the test, to see whether it was different in a more challenging environment."

Alan was full of admiration for the way the teachers, who had little in the way of training, dealt with classes of between 40 and 50 students and a dire shortage of resources. But most inspiring was the continuing faith in education, despite the misery and the lack of opportunity.

"The refugees have nowhere to go beyond education; they are barred from most occupations in Lebanon. There is a real disparity between what they are able to do and their desire to learn something and feel they are going somewhere," he says. "There is an incredible feeling that the only way things might change is through children having an education."

Exchange trips organised by Education Action raise awareness in UK schools of the plight of children in conflict-hit countries, and give an insight into how teachers work under different conditions.

Sally Hewlett, schools manager, says: "We take a variety of teachers, primary and secondary, heads and class teachers, and from a geographical spread, but the main thing is they should be passionate about what they're going to do. It is important to go with the right attitude."

Jane Scott went to Sudan with Education Action and spent a week visiting schools in camps around Khartoum, home to refugees from the south of the country. Her trip coincided with an influx of refugees from the conflict in Darfur in western Sudan.

"It was absolutely heart-rending but amazing to see how they coped in primitive situations," she says. "What those teachers do is unbelievable.

They have no resources and huge classes, but there is such a willingness to learn, because pupils know that is the only way they can escape."

Jane, who is head of Sarum Hall School, a preparatory school for girls in north London, was greeted enthusiastically wherever she went, the children singing to her constantly. She witnessed sandstorms and floods within the space of a few days, and stopped throwing away water bottles once she realised how highly prized they were by the children.

Some schools were mud huts, others were more flimsy and could be destroyed if the weather changed. Some didn't have their own furniture. "We often saw the children walking to school carrying their own chairs on their heads,"

Jane says.

But the worst sights were reserved for an overspill camp, a precarious collection of buildings and tents liable to be bulldozed by government troops at any moment. "People were just scavenging; it was awful. We went into the school when the children were being fed - it was gruel and their only meal of the day. They were so hungry they couldn't work properly."

In one secondary school the students were young men in their twenties with badly scarred faces, who had fled the war zone to Khartoum in search of an education. Children of nine and 10, meanwhile, were enrolled in kindergartens, having never been to school before. One school catered for disabled children, whose families had been ostracised by their communities.

Jane had taken a packet of photocopy paper to another school and saw the children almost cry to see so much paper. In a third, she played London's Burning on a recorder as the children sang along.

On her return to the UK, Jane's school chose Education Action as its charity for the term and her talks to the girls inspired them to organise their own fundraising.

But perhaps the most telling moment was when a Sudanese teacher visited Sarum Hall in exchange and handed over a toy made by her class - a car made from mud.

"That was when it really hit home to our pupils and they just looked at it for ages," Jane says. "It's quite fragile so we put it in a cabinet, and the girls still come to look at it."


The charity works in war-torn communities in Africa and the Middle East, to help rebuild lives through education, as well as with teachers and refugees in the UK to educate young people about the realities of war.

The charity is holding a conference on post-conflict education at National Union of Teachers headquarters in London on February 26.

Places on the conference cost pound;30 including lunch, but Education Action is offering 10 free places to TES Magazine readers. The half-day event is an opportunity to bring international development issues into the classroom, and includes a chance to take part in workshops with teachers who have been on field visits, and to hear from a headteacher from Rwanda.

For a chance to win, email features@tes.co.uk or write (postcards only) to TES Magazine, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1BX, marking your entry "Education Action". The first 10 entries picked out will be the winners. The TES will not use your personal details for any other future communications. The closing date for entries is February 8. Details of how to get involved are available on 020 7426 5802 or through www.education-action.org


Deborah Haines goes where disaster calls. The 43-year-old gave up her job as a primary teacher in Newham, east London, to work with children in the developing world, and is now emergency education adviser for Save the Children.

Her work has taken her to Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Java, among others, co-ordinating the response to both man-made and natural catastrophes.

"My role is to ensure that education is an integral part of every emergency response," she says. "It is relatively new compared with other humanitarian areas but it should be a priority and we should start doing it as soon as we start talking about child protection and shelter.

"School is a stabilising factor for children, although it is often hard to convince people that is what is needed and is what children want." During last year's conflict in Lebanon, children were pleading to go to school, even though it was the holidays, she says.

Deborah's work often involves setting up temporary schools, supporting teachers and providing basic teaching materials. In areas hit by natural disasters it might also include explaining what has happened.


Save the Children aims to ensure all young people get access to a good education. For details on opportunities and how to donate, contact 020 7012 6400 or visit www.savethechildren.org.uk

Voluntary Service Overseas: the international development charity, offers opportunities for teachers to work in developing nations. For details call 020 8780 7500 or visit www.vso.org.uk

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