Move in more interesting circles

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Experienced staff are needed in Ghana to develop leadership skills in rural schools. Bob Doe reports

Looking for a challenge? Are you ready for a sabbatical, a chance to test your leadership skills, launder your outlook on life and supercharge your CV? And can you put up with the odd python in the playground?

Ten experienced UK primary teachers or heads are needed for five-week attachments to rural schools in Ghana in October.

If that describes you, imagine this: while your colleagues settle down to the long, dark autumn term, you could be enjoying a sunny secondment in this beautiful African country, famed for its cocoa and gold - and its history as a centre of the slave trade.

The educational charity Link Community Development has been sending what it calls "global teachers" to South Africa, Uganda and Ghana for the past five years. As the 253 GTs who have been to Africa so far will tell you, it can change your life forever.

GTs live and work alongside local teachers in rural schools. They see village life in the raw, and they face the challenges of teaching in schools which often lack the basics we take for granted - electricity, running water, chairs and desks, books or paper.

They work with their African colleagues, many of whom have had little or no training. The aim is to share understanding about each other's lives and bring much-needed improvement in children's learning by demonstrating good practice.

"One of my most vivid memories is doing my lesson plans by candlelight in my mud hut in the evening and listening to the drumming and singing from the village," said Alan Williams, now head of John Shelton primary school, in Coventry.

He went to Ghana in 2001, the last time Link sent global teachers to West Africa. At that time he was a deputy head. The experience not only changed him personally but also helped him to land a headship soon after.

"It certainly came up at my interview," he said. "I think they admired me for doing it. It made a big difference."

Mr Williams was attached to Duusi primary school, near Bolgatanga, in Ghana's arid northern region. This year's GTs will be in the lusher south of the country, near Ghana's second city, Kumasi, home to the Asantehene (king of the Ashanti) and the legendary spider god of the Anansi stories.

But the opportunities to exercise leadership skills, initiative and self-reliance and to experience life in an African village will be just the same.

"Being a GT teaches you to think on your feet, to work under pressure and to draw on all your own resources to support others," Mr Williams said.

As a deputy, he found it particularly rewarding to be working with nine other global teachers, many of whom were already heads.

"Working with the local headteacher at Duusi and sharing good practice with colleagues there was excellent professional development," he said. "But it was a wonderful personal experience as well - the sort of package you couldn't buy as a tourist. The children were so appreciative. Education for Ghanaians is so important. It's their way out of poverty. It puts into perspective the cynicism towards education here in the UK."

As many GTs have found, life is never quite the same again afterwards. Many review their priorities, change jobs or get promoted.

"Coming back and going into Sainsbury's or seeing so much food wasted after living in an environment where the next meal might depend on the weather - it made a huge difference to me as a human being," Mr Williams said.

He was touched by many things - the neighbour who begged him to take her baby daughter home with him to offer her a better start in life, and the local hospital packed with children suffering from malaria, waiting all day to be seen by a doctor.

There were some surprises, too. One day, a crowd of children in the playground parted as he approached to reveal the object of their attentions: a massive python.

Mr Williams received almost a royal welcome at Duusi. His accommodation was the local chief's palace - a round mud hut with grass roof that would normally be set aside for official audiences. There were no toilets - villagers usually made their own hole in the ground when they needed to, but Mr Williams had the luxury of a wooden box over an old oil drum. All he had to do was overcome his inhibitions about its rather public siting.

Any teacher with four years' experience is eligible for the global teacher scheme and full support is given by Link before, during and after the placement. This includes provision of clean drinking water, which otherwise might not be readily available.

Most GTs take up their placements during our July and August summer holidays, when schools in many African countries are in session. But Ghana follows the UK school year, so volunteers must go during term-time.

Experience suggests it is heads who are most likely to get time off. Most applicants in the past have found governors very supportive, recognising the development opportunities for heads and the deputies who stepped in for them during their absence.

For details of the Global Teachers scheme or linking your school with one in Africa, see Link Community Development:telephone 020 7691 1818. Placements in Ghana are from October 19 to November 25, 2006. Closing date for applications is May 31

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