CISC and associate schools working internationally for the common good
By Jeremy Barnes, Headteacher at All Saints Catholic Primary School, Anfield (Associate CISC Member)
This was my fifth visit to our partner school in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, as headteacher of All Saints Catholic Primary School, Anfield. Beginning in 2011, we have been going out each year, though we were prevented in 2015 and 2016 due to the Ebola epidemic. We usually take a group of four or five staff to lend our support to our partner school, FANO Primary School, Waterloo, but this year we had seven intrepid volunteers, four of whom were ‘newbies’ to West Africa.
As happens with many new partnership projects, they often evolve into something different and unexpected as the years pass, and this is certainly the case with the All Saints/FANO project. Starting with the initial fact-finding and donations, we are now very closely involved with the whole town of Waterloo, fifteen miles or so outside Freetown, and its educational recovery following the brutal civil war of 1993-2002.
It is a recovery from almost unimaginable devastation. Schools burnt down during the civil war, scores of teachers killed, many years of children’s schooling lost. Any kind of educational system can be considered progress from this starting point, but it is hardly ideal; children attend school housed in ramshackle buildings, in mainly over-crowded classrooms, with little equipment, taught by teachers whose own knowledge and skill is questionable.
Our main aims for this trip were twofold. The first was to develop a ‘reverse inclusion’ project in Waterloo and Freetown, mirroring that which takes place between our school and St Vincent’s School for the Blind in Liverpool (a CISC school). Secondly, we wanted to begin a programme of support for as many teachers as possible from schools in Waterloo, based on early reading and phonics.
The concept of ‘reverse inclusion’ is based on allowing pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (in this case blind pupils) to lead learning and activities alongside pupils from the mainstream sector. Dr Patterson, the principal at St Vincent’s, explained this in typically charismatic fashion at the Liverpool CISC Conference earlier this year.
In Sierra Leone, we have now set up a similar link. Pupils from FANO Primary School (the partner school to All Saints) have been travelling to Freetown to rehearse in a choir with blind students from the Milton Margai School for the Blind. This kind of partnership is unusual in Sierra Leone, where any form of inclusion is quite advanced practice.
I spent some time watching this new choir rehearsing. The headteacher, Mr Turay, himself blind and an ex-pupil, introduced them, and an enthusiastic teacher, who thumped away on a piano that looked like a relic from a Victorian alehouse, accompanied them. And yes, he was blind too. They played and sang with no shortage of quality, and plenty of enthusiasm. Once finished, the two schools mixed happily, some telling me about their new friends. The following day, the students from the School for the Blind visited the annual Sports Day of their partner school, seated in the shaded VIP area (which consisted of a few plastic chairs next to the ghetto-blaster).
Following our trip to the Blind School, I had the opportunity to explain the next phase of our work to the British Council in Freetown. On our way there, we passed the site of the 2017 mudslide, which killed well in excess of 1000 people. Here was a reminder that recovery is set against the very real possibility of further natural disasters. Life is precarious in Freetown.
At the British Council offices, we argued that to make this inclusive practice truly transformative, we needed to bring a number of students and teachers to Liverpool in 2019. In doing so, we will be able to develop the St Vincent’s ‘Sightbox’ project for the blind students, and develop phonic training programmes for pupils and teachers from FANO school. Alongside this, the choir can be doubled and enriched still further, with students from Liverpool joining in the repertoire under the direction and training of the Royal Liverpool Philhamonic. Thankfully, the excellent officers from the British Council pledged their support for us throughout the next few months of passport and visa applications, plus all the associated safeguarding and legal procedures.
The next day, addressing the second objective of our trip, four brave teachers from All Saints spent four hours delivering model lessons to a room full of forty teachers in energy-sapping humidity. No air-con in Waterloo.
I had to pinch myself on occasions to remember just what was happening here – this was the UK’s Teaching School concept effectively franchised to a developing country. Nothing abstract here – these were actual lessons. At the end of the training, we asked the African teachers to complete evaluations, which they did earnestly and with great thought and intensity, noticeably different to the more soporific responses you tend to receive from UK delegates.
What was evident from their evaluations was a) the lack of quality in the teachers’ written English, and b) just how little training and support they receive. Both the British Council and the Deputy Director of Education came along to watch for a while; I think they realised how much more was needed.
We finished the trip with good progress made against our two main aims, but we also had great fun. Sierra Leone is, like many African countries, tremendously exciting, and a total assault on one’s senses. The people are also a delight; they have no sense of that world-weary cynicism that typifies our discourse. Resilient yet innocent.
For me, the whole week encapsulated Pope Francis’ call for a ‘culture of encounter’, and summed up the great strengths of Catholic education: inclusion, diversity and compassion.
We’re home now. But we will be back, in February 2019.
Mr Jeremy Barnes