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Ghana 2017 – Part One

Over half term I was part of a group of Norfolk headteachers and teachers who visited schools in Ghana to share good practice. Here's how it went.

 

We weren’t particularly impressed to see the driver superglueing the bus together before we set off. It was half past eight in the morning and the sun was already pounding down out of the cloudless African sky – 30 degrees at least and enough to send most of the party shuffling into the shade. We were standing outside our hotel in Accra, barely twelve hours after completing the six hour flight from Heathrow, and about to embark on another six hour journey, this time along the rough Ghanaian roads to the second city, Kumasi. A few minutes earlier we had watched our suitcases been strapped to the roof of the bus and then covered in a plastic sheet. It all looked a bit precarious.

 

In 1982, at the age of 15, I was taken on a school cricket tour. Our intrepid teacher, Mr Lake, loaded us into the school minibus and drove us (on his own) to Somerset where we played three or four fixtures during the week in places like Chard and Yeovil. It was great, but as we were driving back, my friend Simon Cook’s suitcase suddenly flew off the roof and landed on the A34 behind us. Second or third bounce, the case opened and the poor lad’s cricket whites and the rest of his clothes started flying around between the cars behind. I couldn’t help thinking back to that incident as I watched our driver clambering around on the roof last week. This wasn’t going to end well.

 

As if to add to the sense of concern, he then set about glueing down all the stray bits of plastic, rubber and chrome which were sticking out or hanging off. Perhaps he had knocked them with his feet when he climbed up. It wasn’t the strangest thing we saw that day.

The backstreets of Accra were teaming with people and it seemed to take hours to reach the outskirts and then, finally, the countryside. Sprawling shanty towns gave way to an ever-thickening jungle of palm trees and banana trees. Set amongst them were rough buildings made of wood or breeze blocks with corrugated iron rooves. They weren’t all people’s houses, some were business or shops, or churches or mosques. It seemed that many of these ramshackle buildings were sporting satellite dishes when their front doors opened on to bare earth. Many of these villages had mobile phone masts, and yet they also had a community water pump, usually in constant use by women with buckets and bowls. I suppose the question is, if you suddenly had access to everything the 21st century has to offer, in what order would you have it all? Would you have pavements first, or satellite TV? Running water or a mobile phone? We had all these things in a certain order thanks to our forefathers, but that doesn’t mean it was the right order. If you’re running a small business selling produce, then a mobile phone is far more use than a tap in your kitchen. Especially when there is a perfectly good water pump in the village.

 

The provenance of all that fruit and veg is interesting. There appears to be almost no cultivation – the countryside throughout our journey was thick with trees and bushes, apart from a few rice fields as we approached Kumasi. And yet almost the entire route was lined with people selling plantains, limes, avacados, yams, cassava, huge bottles of palm oil and various other stuff I couldn’t identify. All of this has presumably been harvested from the wilderness around rather than grown in fields or orchards. Same goes for protein; getting enough is a big challenge for most rural Ghanaians, so the solution is to find it in the countryside around them. Giant African land snails, still alive and writhing around in bowls beside the road, are popular, but by far the most grotesque meat source is an animal called a Grasscutter. This is a giant rodent, about the size of a badger, and it can be seen hanging up in stalls by the side of the road, either fully formed or skinned and smoked. Enough to make your toes curl.

 

All this produce is on view everywhere along the route between Accra and Kumasi – either on stalls beside the road or carried serenely on the heads of the traders. When you first see someone carrying goods in this way, you can’t help blurting out: “Look, the woman’s carrying something on her head!” And the more you see it, the more remarkable it becomes. Firstly there’s balance – some are aided by a little cloth cap which creates a flat surface, but just as many have nothing. Then there is the incredible core strength which must be required to hold what is often a considerable weight aloft. But the thought I couldn’t escape was what a good idea it seemed; such a practical and logical solution to carrying things that I can’t see why we all don’t do it. Items I saw carried on people’s heads (young men’s and young women’s) included: bowls of fruit and vegetables; sacks of grain and powder; tupperware boxes of ice lollies; an eight-foot length of firewood; packets of fried plantain crisps (they were nice); a 3.5kg bag of washing powder; a car battery. Much of this was carried in huge metal bowls which fitted neatly into the little cloth hats. At Kumasi market, one girl had set her bowl down in the shade, curled up in it and gone to sleep.

 

God is everywhere. Not just in the countless churches of many denominations or the surprisingly large number of mosques, nor solely in the vast billboards advertising conferences – perhaps performances – hosted by smiling local superstar evangelists with smart suits and perfect teeth. No, His presence is evident in the most unlikely places, most surprisingly being used to promote private business interests. One sign read: God Loves You – Drink Coke. Another business was called By His Grace Welding Services. Then there was God First Electricals and Batteries. Perhaps He should check His image rights.

 

At times on the journey there were huge numbers of people beside the road. They were either engaged in buying and selling, or they were walking purposefully from somewhere to somewhere else. As we approached Kumasi, the intensity rose; thousands poured in either direction through the narrow walkways in the streets and markets. These people were often very well dressed, both in the cities and the countryside. They were either wearing smart western clothes, or the spectacular, vibrant colours of traditional Ghanaian costume. Even in t-shirts and jeans, most Ghanaians are well turned out. But there was one guy who stood apart from all of this. He was walking alone beside the main road north of Accra, way out in the countryside where there were no market stalls. And he was wearing the most brilliant white three-piece suit. It was dazzling, reflecting the bright African sun, and he was walking along swinging his arms freely by his sides and sporting a huge smile. I still can’t imagine why he was dressed like that, or what he was looking so pleased about. If I had been driving, I would have turned back and asked him.

 

Four hours into this gruelling, fascinating, mind-blowing journey, we thumped over the umpteenth huge pothole in the road and a loud sound echoed from the roof above. We turned to see the suitcase belonging to the headteacher of St William's Primary School bouncing down the road behind us. Told you so, I thought. At least it stayed zipped up.

 

It’s not them – it’s us!

The first thing I want to do when I come to a new school is to hear what the people who are already there think of it. That’s the children, the parents and, crucially, the staff. Their opinion of how the school is and how it could be improved is worth a thousand of mine – they are the people who really know. And if you walk into many schools and ask “What could be better?” the first response will often be: “Behaviour.” It’s the hot topic and the great conundrum of our times, because the way children are and the way they behave seems to have changed so much over the past few years, and therefore the way schools address it has also had to adapt. There is some brilliant practice helping some troubled and troubling children. But why has there been such a dramatic shift in the way our young people conduct themselves at school?

 

The first thing we must remember it’s us that has changed. We can’t expect children to behave in the same way they did in the 1950s if the behaviour of the adults they see all around them has changed completely. Standards in public life are very different. For instance, my grandad would never have left the house without wearing a tie. He wasn’t Governor of the Bank of England – he worked in a foundry - but these were the dress codes he had been brought up with and he couldn’t contemplate anything different. Equally he would never have been seen eating or drinking in the street, and you would never have heard him blaspheme or swear.

 

These things are common place now and children are often exposed to them. Let’s take a couple of examples from that list.

While my grandad was fastening his tie every day of his retirement, I was at Primary School without anything you would now recognise as a school uniform. We were all dressed in plain clothes in the seventies and a right shower we looked in our itchy jumpers and flared corduroys. Fast forward forty years and the new trend in schools is for even primary age children to have a uniform with a proper shirt and tie. Yet at the same time there is a modern trend amongst adults not to wear a tie even for work. In business it’s now open neck shirt and trousers; they are unheard of anywhere else. We are asking more of our young people that we ask of ourselves.

 

Similarly there has been a huge cultural shift around bad language and this affects schools too. Not only did primary age children not swear years ago, we didn’t know the words because we weren’t exposed to them on radio or television and we never heard adults use them. Nowadays its common currency – at a low level it’s frequently used in the street and in shops and in the media. Even Radio 4 issued a directive a few years ago relaxing guidelines on the use of a list of what you might classify as second division swear words during daytime broadcasts. No wonder our children quickly move on to the premier league list. Sadly most of our children now seem familiar with this sort of language and need reminding that school is not a place where we want to hear it. The old idea that we would protect young ears from bad language seems absurd now – the best we can do is educate them about what’s appropriate.

 

The same principles apply to all manner of aspects of childhood – we expect children to use staffs surnames, and yet in no other area of public life does this happen anymore. When I took up my first position as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper in Cambridgeshire, I asked the editor how I should address him and he thought it was hilarious that I should call him anything other than Keith. And that, as you can imagine dear reader, was a very long time ago indeed. Nowadays it is inconceivable that anyone would use Mr or Mrs – children or adults - except at school.

 

We also expect children to sit around a table and eat their lunch nicely with their knives and forks in the correct hands. Yet as soon as we walk into McDonalds or KFC, everyone is eating with their fingers.

 

Children have changed. Childhood has changed. And, crucially, adulthood has changed. The world is much more informal, much less deferential. As a society we are more protective of our children in some respects (we don’t let them out to play so freely) and yet less protective in others (exposure to bad language, seeing people drinking alcohol etc).

 

The challenge for schools is where we should draw the line. We have to ask ourselves which of these issues are worth going to the barricades for. To what extent do these things impact on learning and outcomes? And how many of the battles we sometimes have with children are because we are holding a line on something which doesn’t really matter?

 

It is a particular challenge for my generation (50ish), more so probably that the thirtysomething generation who comprise most of our parents. We were brought up in stricter, harsher times, and we find it harder to imagine a school where everyone is called by their first name, everyone wears what they want, and we all eat our fish and chips with our fingers (not sure about the baked beans). Would it matter? It feels as though it would, but could it be argued that a more informal approach would change some children’s view of school for the better?

 

 

 

Molly? Milly? Lilly?

I’m on a 6-child winning streak at the moment. Six successive children’s names I’ve got right. This is the longest winning streak I’ve managed since I’ve been here and (given that I’m affected, like many middle-aged men, with an absurd child-like competitiveness) I don’t want it to end. So I’m being very careful about who I talk to next.

 

As I write, I’m just ending my third week at CJS. There are 352 children here and I reckon I can confidently name about a quarter of them. Which is not bad I suppose after a relatively short period of time, but it’s not very good if you’re one of the 264 or so at whom I still stare blankly for a few seconds as my words trail away at the end of a sentence, and then feebly guess….Sophie? Ella? Ellie? Emily? Go on then I give up. Sorry Abbey (it’s always you isn’t it Abbey!) You see, while children are endlessly forgiving about all their teachers’ many foibles, they find it hard to understand how we can not know their names. Not only is a child’s view of their place in the world different to ours, unlike us (well, me anyway) they have razor-sharp memories and their heads are largely clear of all the clutter we carry around. So when I look at them and call them Callum when it’s actually Sam, they correct me the way you’d correct a toddler in a high chair who just threw his spoon on the floor for the hundredth time.

 

But it’s not just the children who are frustrated by my muddle-headedness. I find it intensely frustrating too.  As a class teacher you very quickly learn the 30 or so names of the children in front of you and there’s no real pressure to know the names of children you never teach, although it’s nice to do so. My first headship was at a school with 90 or so children and it was quite easy to pick up their names, especially as they were spread over seven year groups, which tended to exaggerate the differences between them. My next school had around 240 children and that took a bit longer, but I got there. But now I find myself locked in an experiment to find out how high that number can go before I reach capacity. Inevitably you get to know some of them very quickly – usually for a very good reason or for a very bad reason. Then you get to know the children you have a chance to teach, or who like to come and make themselves known to you. But for everyone else, it simply takes time.

 

One thing I won’t do is blame all of you for giving many of the children the same names. Yes there are lots of Ellies and Graces, and Charlies and Alfies, but the children whose names I have learned include some of those. So that can’t be it. And anyway, I called my own children Jack, Hannah and Harry, which isn’t exactly stretching the lexicon, is it? No, it’s in my head, or not in my head to be more accurate.

 

And even if I do manage the achievement of knowing all 352 names, I still then have to move on to stage two (working out who all the brothers and sisters are) and stage three (matching the children to the parents. Some of you will have already experienced my blank look there). 

 

Anyway, my winning streak is still alive and I’m looking forward to extending it further when I go for a look round everyone’s classrooms in a few minutes. At which point Lewis and Jayden have just knocked on my office door and I’ve called them Connor and Kieron. Back to square one…

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