Going into Africa is not for the faint-hearted, says Maureen McKenna, and she should know. Glasgow's executive director of education went out to Malawi for a week in June to visit schools in and around Blantyre.
"Malawi is not known as `the warm heart of Africa' for nothing," she says now, back in her office with summer rain pelting the city-streets. "Everyone we met welcomed us, wanted to know our name and shake our hand. The children were smiling and happy. But they're so poor and conditions in the schools are very difficult."
Glasgow pupils and teachers have been learning about those conditions for years, and many raise funds for charities like Mary's Meals, which feeds the children. Holyrood Secondary and its learning community became more hands-on in 2008, when they started organising senior pupils to visit Malawi and work in schools there.
Earlier this year, a conversation between Maureen and Holyrood headteacher Tom McDonald planted the seeds of an ambitious plan to broaden that experience out to the rest of the city. "Holyrood's focus was infrastructure at first, building classrooms," Maureen says. "But this year they've gone into learning and teaching.
"Pupils and teachers worked with groups of Malawi pupils on literacy skills. They've been supporting children with additional needs. They've been working with girls on developing their own children's charter based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."
In Malawi, primary school is free and well attended in the early years. But only 35 per cent of pupils complete it and fewer still, mostly boys, go on to secondary school. Children in rural areas often travel long distances to schools with high pupil rolls - 12,000 at Mbayani Primary, for instance, where the ratio of children to classrooms is 517:1 and classes of 200 are not uncommon.
Conditions were so difficult in one rural school that "for the first time today I cried", Maureen relates in the diary she kept during her Malawi trip - which raises the question whether this is something she often does. Her response is unequivocal.
"Do I hell!" she says. "But this was so frustrating. They had 25 teachers for about 500 pupils. Compared to other schools they were doing very well. But they still had classes of 100 while teachers stood around doing nothing. Each teacher only taught their specialism, I was told. Teachers in Malawi are not well paid and there's limited training for them. But at the end of the day they are being paid to teach."
The passion in her voice suggests this project might see western teachers parachuted into a different culture and trying to impose their own values. "It's not like that," Maureen says. "You have to change a culture from the inside. We'll go slowly and work closely with the people there. It's about small steps."
Glasgow staff given time off to work in Malawi schools are only part of the project, she says. "There's a limit to what can be done in the five weeks they'll be there. So we're getting buy-in from the chief executive of Blantyre, from education managers, the inspectorates, the planning departments.
"We're working with an organisation called Link Community Development, which has an education framework they've tried and tested. They'll also be helping train our people in Glasgow before they go out."
A former maths teacher herself, Maureen was also an HM Inspector for seven years and sees parallels, she says, in the way the inspectors had to operate. "You had to tune in quickly when visiting a new school, then build on where they were. That's the approach our people will take in Malawi.
"As a country it has its own education priorities and a clear plan for improvement. It knows where it wants to go. But it's difficult because of poverty and lack of resources. Our people will be one part of that. They will be catalysts for change."
The contributions these catalysts make has been mapped out, in consultation with Malawi. Headteachers and deputes will work with groups of heads on leadership and school improvement. Teachers will work with teachers on learning and teaching. "They will model active learning," Maureen says. "Current approaches in Malawi are quite traditional and didactic.
"Teachers and pupil support assistants will share skills in additional support needs with special education teachers in Malawi - there aren't many - as well as with mainstream teachers. Active school coordinators will develop playground games to promote health."
Child development officers will work with staff in early years centres, of which there are few in Malawi, she says. "But Mary's Meals are increasing the numbers and now have 45 centres in the south-west. We will work in them initially."
Besides sending staff to Malawi, the project will enlist the support and goodwill of parents, children and businesses to raise funds. "Glasgow is a very generous city," Maureen says. "If we get pound;1 from every schoolchild, that's pound;65,000."
The money raised will pay the salary of a project manager in Malawi, she says, who will be recruited locally, and will help fund the work of Link Community Development and Mary's Meals. "Their feeding programme has a huge impact on children's education. It's an incentive for children in poverty to go to school, and you can see the difference after they've been fed.
"I remember two ladies from the local community taking 120 youngsters in a big room at an early years centre. They'd get them singing and dancing, then go to the next room to stir huge pots of porridge on a big fire and throw in food supplements, while the wee kids kept on singing.
"It was fantastic. There wasn't a toy to be seen, but the kids were loving it - the wee sausages."
Individuals and businesses wishing to contribute to Glasgow's Malawi Leaders of Learning project can do so at www.justgiving.comMaureen- McKenna
`AS SOON AS YOU GET OFF THE BUS THE CHILDREN ARE CHEERING'
Sophie Harker, sixth-year pupil, Holyrood Secondary
I was working in Zingwangwa Primary, which is very small but has 2,500 pupils, with hundreds cramped into one classroom. So they're crumbling. Every day we'd get up at 6, get to school for 8 and work until 5.30.
We cleaned up the classrooms and decorated them, then painted the outside. We didn't think we'd ever get it finished so it was just the best feeling when we did.
You fell in love with the kids. We gave them all our clothes and came back with empty suitcases. Lots didn't have shoes and all they got to eat all day was the Mary's Meals porridge.
We went to an under-six centre where a lot of them were orphans. They were so tiny. Many of them had Aids. Gorgeous wee kids and so happy gulping down their porridge. But you knew some were going to die. It broke your heart.
We went on a day trip to a rural school where Mary's Meals were giving out backpacks. I've never seen kids so happy. They were screaming and shouting, singing and dancing, and waving their stuff about.
It was just T-shirts, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a bouncy ball. A wee boy grabbed my hand and kept saying, "Thank you, thank you." It was fantastic. You were thinking how can kids be so happy just to get toothpaste?
Tom McDonald, headteacher, Holyrood Secondary
Children flock to school in Malawi because of Mary's Meals, so the accommodation can't cope. What we do is a drop in the ocean. But the response from teachers and the joy of the children are uplifting. Several thousand now have better learning conditions than they've ever had because of our work.
We take 30 young people each year and give them training before they go. They labour, lay bricks, mix mortar and do plastering. They're not just pouring money into a pot. They're doing something physical.
The children there welcome us and appreciate what we do. I remember one little boy with autism that we'd bought a wheelchair for. When I went this time he came charging across the playground in it and threw his arms around me.
Holyrood Secondary has done a lot, but there's much more that Glasgow can do. I'm delighted Maureen has taken it up with such enthusiasm.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, so there will be frustrations. But I have no doubt this project will make a difference to learning and teaching there.
Gillian Mimnagh, depute headteacher, Holyrood Secondary
The experience is overwhelming for a teacher. Kids in Scotland like you, but there is always this "We're cool and this is school". In Malawi they love to be at school. As soon as you get off the bus they're cheering and wanting to shake your hand and sing songs with you.
We did team teaching this year at a girls' school and they were so keen to hear what we had to say. We set them homework and a lot of them did it in their breaktime. We asked for feedback and they said, "You really care about your teaching." That was lovely.
It's an amazing experience and very instructive for a teacher, to compare what you know with what it's like there. It makes you think. In Malawi a jotter is a prized possession, so if they have one, they really want to show it to you.
I would love to go back if I got the opportunity. But I imagine lots of teachers will want to go. I feel lucky to have gone twice. Malawi is somewhere every teacher should get the chance to experience.
EXTRACTS FROM MAUREEN MCKENNA'S MALAWI DIARY
- "The children follow us, excited at our arrival. Most are in school uniform, a simple green shirt or green dress. Many show signs of wear and tear with holes and rips in them. A number of children are barefoot, running over the hard ground seemingly not feeling the stones. They are all happy, eager to please and be friends with the young people from Holyrood."
- "I helped with the porridge, putting it into bowls with a spoon to allow it to cool before we served it to the children. The porridge has added food supplements as many of the children have poor nutrition. Once the children had eaten, their energy levels noticeably increased so we all played singing games around the hall."
- "The children come from sprawling townships within Blantyre, country people who have come into the city in the hope of finding employment. The feeding programme is essential as opportunities in the city for families to be self-sufficient through cultivating crops are almost non- existent."
- "Friendships have developed and our pupils are realising that the scale of need is enormous. They have bought sugar for the children to put in their porridge. But they cannot buy for everyone, so how do you choose who gets it and who doesn't? This is challenging their thinking and making for some sadness. I am proud to be associated with their work."
Original headline: The warm heart of Africa - happy and smiling