Three rooms of promise

25th February 2005 at 00:00
A Derbyshire high school is celebrating its 140th anniversary by building a new school - in Burkina Faso. Former pupil Jane Mulkerrins reports.

Like all the best ideas, this one came to headteacher Tom Moore when he was thinking about something else entirely. A new sports hall was opening at his school, St Mary's RC high in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, and he had a speech to make. Searching for inspiration, Mr Moore decided to flick through the old school log books, beginning with its foundation in 1865 and the description of an impoverished establishment, with one room, no furniture, and appalling attendance. He was struck by the contrast between the St Mary's of 1865 and the school today, often ranked the best performing state school in the county, with more than 1,200 pupils and excellent facilities.

"I realised that in January 2005 the school would celebrate its 140th anniversary, and we should do something to celebrate how far we had come," says Mr Moore. He decided the best way to mark the occasion would be to start all over again, to build another school from scratch: in Africa. He began by calling several charities to ask if they could help. Each one said they could, but that St Mary's would have to hand over the money it raised, and relinquish any control of the project. This wasn't what he had in mind.

"Eventually, I remembered a magazine I used to receive, from the White Fathers, a group of Catholic missionary priests working in Africa," he says. "After several phone calls, and lots of explanations on my part about what we hoped to do, one of the White Fathers put me in touch with Father Terry Madden, from Stoke-on-Trent, who was working as a parish priest in Burkina Faso."

Burkina Faso was exactly the sort of place Mr Moore was looking for. A land-locked French-speaking country bordering Ghana, Togo and the Ivory Coast in the south, Niger and Benin to the east, and Mali to the north, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. Only 10 per cent of the land is suitable for cultivation, although the majority of people survive on subsistence farming. The average wage is around pound;117 a year, and almost half the population lives on less than 50p per day. Adult literacy rates are low: 34 per cent for men and 14 per cent for women. The average life expectancy is 42 years.

In spite of their dire poverty, families have to pay for their children's schooling, finding the money for fees, books and equipment that the state cannot or will not fund. Consequently, just 34 per cent of children in Burkina Faso enrol in primary school and 8 per cent in secondary. Few complete their schooling.

The Catholic church in Burkina Faso is attempting to ease the situation by building schools and subsidising the education of local children. Through Fr Madden, Tom Moore learned of a project planned by the Bishop of the diocese of Ouahigouya, in the north of the country, to build a primary school in a remote village called Titao. The three-room school, including furniture and equipment, would cost around pound;30,000. St Mary's had found its project. "Although the church had plans to build the school, it will be for children of all denominations and religions, and will focus in particular on trying to educate more girls, who often get little or no schooling," says Mr Moore. "It is going to be called St Mary's, though." He smiles.

On January 21, St Mary's (Chesterfield) launched an appeal for pound;30,000 to build St Mary's (Titao). Every penny raised in the school this year will go to the appeal. For the launch, a sponsored 24-hour sports event was held in the new sports hall, with sixth-formers (who are coordinating the appeal), staff, parents and former pupils (including me) running, cycling and rowing 5,000km, symbolising the distance between Chesterfield and Titao. Proceeds from the school's annual sponsored walk will also go to the project, as will the money raised from direct appeals to former pupils and a reunion planned for the spring. A CD of the school's choirs, orchestras and bands has been produced for sale.

But the school's commitment to the people of Titao goes beyond building them a school. In geography lessons, pupils of all ages are learning about Burkina Faso, sustainable development, fair trade and the issues facing Africa. Students at St Mary's Titao will become penfriends (or more likely, as St Mary's Chesterfield is organising a phone line and a computer for the new school, email buddies), and sixth-formers are being encouraged to consider a gap year in Burkina Faso, perhaps even teaching at the new school. "We want to forge an enduring link with the community and the country," says Mr Moore. "Once the school is built, that is just the beginning, and we will ensure we give sustained help where it is needed."

The pound;1,000 raised annually from a non-uniform day will go to the new St Mary's every year.

On the day of the launch, there is a tangible buzz in the school, and the sports hall crackles with excitement as the "marathon" gets underway. "The whole school is very keyed-up about it, and every assembly involves a motivational talk about the project," says Jennifer Murphy, 16, one of the first from a crowd of sixth-formers to get on an exercise bike. Her friends agree. "It feels as if the whole school is really pulling together for this appeal," says Charlotte Platts, also 16. "We are so much more aware of the situation in Africa now, and this feels like a long-term project for all of us to become involved in."

St Mary's RC high school, Newbold Road, Chesterfield, Derbyshire. S41 8AG

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