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Where a day at school requires a 5am wake-up call and a three-hour journey

Sanday Community School has just received a British Council International School Award for preparing its pupils for life in a globalised world. A major factor was its remarkable partnership with a school in Malawi. Roderick Thorne reports

Sanday Community School has just received a British Council International School Award for preparing its pupils for life in a globalised world. A major factor was its remarkable partnership with a school in Malawi. Roderick Thorne reports

In 2005, a small class from Sanday School in Orkney won a national competition organised by the Scottish Executive. The prize was a visit to Malawi by all five pupils and two teachers. In addition, they were given the chance to form a link with an African school, and they chose Minga, a small rural secondary 10 kilometres from Lilongwe, the administrative capital of Malawi.

Four years later, the partnership is still going strong and the Orkney school's efforts have been recognised with an international award from the British Council.

Over the intervening years, links have been carefully maintained. In 2006, art teacher Sylvia Thorne went over; then Nicky Thompson, the teacher co- ordinator of the project, and her daughter Polly, along with school secretary Irene Brown.

In 2007, Sylvia returned at Easter and headteacher Daniel Connor went over for a week. Two Malawian teachers came to Orkney to work with Sanday staff in the autumn.

Last year, the school applied to the British Council's Global Schools Partnership and was awarded more than pound;5,000 from the UK Department for International Development Fund. This paid for travel and accommodation costs for two Sanday teachers to work for a week at Minga school, and for two of their teachers to come here.

Nicky and her colleague Rosemary Newton went over in the autumn to work on a curriculum project which had three elements taken from the learning and teaching in Sanday: rules, rights and responsibilities; continuation of the HIVAids work; and practical science - energy and the body.

Staying in Lilongwe, they had an early start each day, getting up at 5am to start the two-kilometre walk to the minibus station. At the end of their bus ride, they had another two-kilometre walk through villages to arrive for the start of the school day at 7.30am. It is a six-hour day, including breaks but no school dinners. There are mobile phones, but no landline, and limited electricity.

The school has a science lab and library, thanks to Sanday's involvement, and to funding by ex-First Minister Jack McConnell after his visit. But because of poor infrastructure and lack of local funds, the lab only recently got power. It is without equipment and the library lacks books.

Nevertheless, Nicky and Rosemary rolled up their sleeves and achieved almost everything they had planned. They introduced practical experiments to the curriculum, such as measuring the distance pupils walked - they had taken pedometers for the youngsters to measure the number of footsteps.

They met five girls and five boys who had received Orkney Rotary bursaries to complete their secondary education. State education in Malawi is free for primary pupils, but fees are required for secondary, so many pupils are deprived of taking school-leaving exams and therefore denied any chance of struggling out of a life of day-to-day poverty.

Just one teacher remained from those Nicky had met on her previous visit - one had died, the others had been moved to other schools. However, she and Rosemary built a good rapport with pupils and teacher during their teaching week.

Rosemary, a first-time traveller to Africa, came away enthused by the sights and smells of everything she had seen: the crowds of people on the roads at 5.30am; the smell as they walked over the bridge where clothes were being washed in the river below, and the market stalls being set up; the chaos of the minibus station and bumpy ride, followed by the sunny beauty of the walk to school past trees loaded with blossom and women emerging from huts in sparkling colour wraps.

Earlier this month, Rosemary, who is now the Sanday head, and Nicky returned to Minga, with six pupils, thanks to money from the original grant and fundraising by the youngsters - car-washing, coffee mornings, and bag-packing at a supermarket. They were also helped by support from the Scottish Community Foundation, administrators of the Spurness Wind Farm Fund.

The Orkney pupils took responsibility for planning and explaining the teaching and learning experiences to the Malawians, and they will now relay their experiences to some of the island's groups who helped raise money for the project. They will also help host the return visit of two teachers and two pupils to Sanday next May.

"We visited the house where our friends lived," says Polly, 14. "They had no parents and they rented and shared with six other girls. There was a hole in the ceiling of the main room, so that you could see through to the corrugated tin roof.

"We were visiting and living out of a suitcase for a week, but these girls were two or three to a room, and they each lived out of a suitcase all the time. They had no kitchen but cooked their meals, just rice or nsima (ground maize flour), over a charcoal fire outside."

Joe, 15, made friends with Anderson, a couple of years older. "Most mornings he would get up at two o'clock to study before he set off for school," he says. "His journey would take three hours, and another three hours to reach home again."

A couple of days after their return to the UK, Nicky Thompson attended the International Schools Awards in London. Sanday school, with its roll of just over 90 children, was one of eight winners in Scotland. The African link encompassed half of the projects that formed her submission for the award.

Roderick Thorne was headteacher of Sanday Community School from 1984-97.

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