Wanted: heads to serve overseas

It's years of experience not youthful enthusiasm that VSO is looking for in 2006. Phil Revell reports

Coming to the end of an illustrious career in school management, or just about to begin one? Either way VSO would like to hear from you. Voluntary Service Overseas, the international development charity, is looking for experienced teachers to work in the developing world. People like Kris Smith, who worked in Guyana in 2000. "I went because I wanted to do something different. I wanted to travel and do something worthwhile."

Kris went out to teach science, and came back with management skills. "It gave me a more global view of how a school works. As well as the teaching, I worked with heads and regional development officers. I was surprised about the management insights; I didn't see that as a reason for going," he says.

Martin Blain is seconded to the Bishop Douglas school in Barnet as deputy head; the school has just climbed out of Ofsted's special measures category. Ten years ago Martin was in war-torn Eritrea, on a two-year placement that saw him working in a school where the buildings were dispersed to keep air-raid damage to a minimum.

"I was there for possibly the two most peaceful years in the last 50," he says. "A year after I left the war broke out again, but they are genuinely lovely people."

And what insights did he bring back?

"When you have gone into a situation where you know nothing, nothing in education can freak you out," he says. "VSO teaches total adaptability."

A few years ago the typical volunteer was a newly qualified teacher, and the typical placement was in a school. Both Martin Blain and Kris Smith followed that route. Kris worked in a secondary school 40 miles up river from the coast in Guyana, where the only access was by power boat or river ferry. Martin worked in the Eritrean desert, at a boarding school in the north of the country, where the nearest village was eight miles away.

Both spent some time assisting with the development of the local education system, through teacher training and working with heads and officials. Five years ago, just 1 in 20 of VSO's education placements included training and management responsibility. But developing countries are in desperate need of management skills. The next crop of volunteers will find themselves working with teacher trainers, local education officers and heads.

"Anyone working in the UK education sector knows that curriculum relevance, the effectiveness of teacher support and training and the provision of resources has a profound impact on the quality of education a child receives," says Penny Lawrence, VSO's director of international programmes.

"In developing countries, where access to education can literally be a matter of life or death, addressing these issues is crucial.

We are urging teachers who are retiring or looking to take a career break to consider sharing their expertise as VSO volunteers."

Glasgow headteacher James Aitchison certainly found his skills in demand when he went on a placement to Uganda. "I was still enjoying teaching, but I wanted to travel and take on a new challenge before I was too old," says the 58 year-old, who had 20 years' experience as a secondary head in this country.

"I heard about VSO's work in Uganda through a colleague. It was the perfect placement for me. There were two major parts to my work: working with the inspectorate group in the district office, individual mentoring, inspecting schools and doing on-the-job training and providing leadership and management training for headteachers.

"I'm very positive about VSO, particularly for people at my stage. It totally revitalises you and gives you a new context in which to deploy your skills."

In developing countries such as Ethiopia, standards suffer because of too few qualified teacher trainers. VSO found teaching in that country variable, which led to low morale among staff and high drop-out rates among demotivated students. VSO volunteers worked with the ministry of education to devise a diploma programme that aims to improve the skills and professionalism of teacher trainers there. They then delivered the compulsory programme to every teacher training college in the country. They trained 1,363 Ethiopian teacher trainers in 2004, who, in turn, will train more than 11,000 student teachers. Eventually the programme will have an impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of pupils.

VSO placements are normally for two years, and include enough free time for volunteers to see something of the country in which they're based.

Kris Smith travelled to Brazil and to the Caribbean island of Tobago.

Martin Blain hired a Land Cruiser with other volunteers and set out to explore Eritrea. Both came back with rich memories - and an appreciation of returning to a school system rich in resources.

"In Guyana there was a lack of desks and chairs, even of chalk," Kris recalls. "When it rained, the classrooms leaked. The lack of water and electricity made physics quite a challenge. We improvised. The local people were very resourceful; there was a VSO grant to set up a library and local carpenters made furniture from off-cuts."

The new emphasis on management and leadership means that VSO will no longer accept applications from newly qualified teachers. Some volunteers will be heads and senior managers at the end of their careers, but the charity is also keen to welcome applications from experienced teachers who see the programme as an opportunity for professional development .

Those teachers thinking of taking a career break might wonder how the employment market will view their two years out when they return to Britain. Both Martin Blain and Kris Smith returned to schools that valued their experience. Kris was immediately promoted, while Martin felt that the value of his experience had been acknowledged.

"I was fortunate to walk into a good school where they recognised what I had done. The head gave me two points and, at my next school, they thought VSO stuff was very useful," he says.

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