When Steve Bacon made the decision to help a township school in Pretoria, he was determined to make a long-term commitment. Eight years on, the approach has delivered dividends, both in South Africa and the UK.
Steve formed the Mamelodi Trust, named after Mamelodi township. The focus was on supporting Zakhele School, a primary where the only equipment for doing science experiments was a single jam jar. Steve, who recently retired from his post as general secretary of Naace, says: "The last thing schools want is people buzzing in for two months and then just disappearing. So from the outset we worked to empower teachers to become self-sustaining, making their own decisions rather than having concepts thrust upon them."
ICT was one of the resources the Trust helped secure, and Zakhele linked up by email with Turnditch Primary in Derbyshire. A long-lasting friendship has developed, and staff from both schools have made exchange visits to work on projects. "Communicating with the outside world was one of the most powerful things that happened for Zakhele," says Steve. "And the partnership has been very valuable for the Turnditch pupils, who have been able to make authentic links with children in a very different situation from themselves."
As their confidence grew, Zakhele teachers decided to offer parents the chance to learn the basics of computers. Now, in an area where the unemployment rate stands at 99 per cent, several parents have secured jobs as a result of the course.
Once devoid of visitors, the school now hosts a steady stream of callers.
"Zakhele is an illustration of what can be achieved with a relatively modest input, and other schools are coming to see how they could begin moving forward in a modest way," says Steve.
The Trust was set up in a way that enabled it to support other schools in Mamelodi, and is now beginning work with Meetse A Bophelo, a township primary with almost 2,500 pupils.
Alan Mills, of the Specialist Schools Trust, believes schools have much to gain from collaboration. Around 30 specialist schools have paired up with South African partners on a wide range of projects, in an initiative which began when Alan met representatives of Khanya, an organisation dedicated to introducing ICT to schools in the Western Cape. Alan, head of the Trust's Affiliation Network, says: "We had so much in common that we were very keen to form a partnership. Together we facilitated initial meetings between schools, and we both offer various kinds of backup. But the real strength lies in the relationship between the schools, who are communicating on many different levels."
He advises against viewing projects as charitable exercises. "Obviously there is a disparity of resources - I was recently in a school with classes of 65 to 70 pupils, who were sharing chairs - and schools here always want to do something to help. But this is not about charity - it is about working together. We can help our South African partners avoid some of the mistakes we have made here. And we have a lot to learn from them, particularly in the area of managing change - and ICT represents a massive change."
He cites the Khanya approach to training, which is to send a facilitator into schools to help both teachers and pupils get to grips with ICT. "In February I watched a teacher use a computer to give a lesson - three months before, she had never even touched a machine. It is an incredible scheme."
He believes schools should take every opportunity to visit and host their partners. "The UK teachers who have been across to South Africa have learned new ways of dealing with large classes and minimal resources, and they have adapted the techniques for use in their own classrooms," he explains.
The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) has provided support both to the Mamelodi Trust and Khanya, and is working on a wider scale to develop links between suppliers and educators. Dominic Savage, BESA's director general, says: "We hope to see the educational industry in South Africa grow, through indigenous development and partnerships with the UK.
Eventually we hope it will push up into the whole of sub-saharan Africa.
That will benefit the South African economy, it will mean business for the UK and it will promote educational development more widely in Africa. It is one of those 'everybody wins' situations."
* Be sure you can sustain a project - a disappointed partner will find it difficult to re-engage with another school.
* Staff move on, so initiatives should not hinge on the efforts of one teacher. l Take every opportunity to visit, and host visits.
* Simply communicating regularly by email - and a few hand-written letters - can be very effective.
* Having support from an organisation which has links in both countries can help sustain momentum.
Making the link The TES Make the Link campaign aims to encourage schools in Britain to forge long-lasting partnerships with teachers and pupils around the world.
Visit www.tes.co.uk make_the_link for tips on how to get started, and to share experiences.
* Mamelodi Trust Tel: 01733 829849 www.mameloditrust.org.uk
* iNet The international arm of the Specialist Schools Trust www.sst-inet.net
* The Teachers' International Professional Development's visits programme can help provide funding for teachers to visit a partner school overseas. www.specialistschoolstrust.org.ukTIPD
* Department for Overseas Development Funding for reciprocal visits is also available through the Global School Partnerships programme. www.britishcouncil.orgglobalschools The Malmelodi Trust's Ulwazi E-learning Project has been shorlisted for Best Enterprise Development at the Wireless Broadband Innovation Awards