Over half term I was part of a group of Norfolk headteachers and teacher who visited schools in Ghana to share good practice.
It’s twelve o’clock in the middle of a hot Ghanaian school day. Morning lessons are over and the children can’t wait to get outside and play. My colleague Sarah and I emerge from two different classrooms and look at each other from a distance. We know what’s coming. It happened at break time and it’s about to happen again.
Suddenly the younger children are pouring across the playground towards us and grabbing our arms. At first I thought they wanted to hold my hands (small children often do that at lunchtime in a primary school) but I quickly realise they are exploring my skin, pressing and rubbing my forearms and wrists, pulling the hairs in my arms, picking at my finger nails. They clearly can’t believe that arms can be this colour and still function. Poor Sarah has been engulfed too, but for her the experience is worse; the children have hold of her hair and are pulling her down towards the ground, like Lilliputians attacking Gulliver. (Understandably, they didn’t seem very interested in my hair, which, if you haven’t met me, is extremely limited in both its length and coverage.)
The teachers we had been working with that morning stood in the middle distance and laughed. The children had never seen a white man, they later told us. It seemed odd in the 21st century to be the subject of racial curiosity. The following day I met the local superintendent of schools. He greeted me with “It’s a long time since we have seen a white man; I hope you’ve brought good news”. We’d brought some PE equipment and school uniform, but I think the implication of his remark hinted at the broader economic deficit which was apparent all around us.
The school is a shell of a building that we would consider barely habitable in the UK. The walls look like they have not been painted for twenty years; the shutters and doors are hanging from their hinges. Inside the classrooms, the children sit in rows at rickety wooden desks, working from dog-eared books or copying from the chalk board at the front of the room. Outside the school is open, built on rough ground and free to enter for wandering members of the public. Stones and rocks litter the ground amongst lumps of firewood and a huge smouldering pile of rubbish which nearby residents constantly add to. Next to the wooden shack where the food is cooked is an open air brick latrine – this is where you go if you need a pee; if you need a poo you are sent into the trees with a little plastic bag. That’s staff as well as children.
I had to insist at some length that I would eat with the children. In fact they were extremely reluctant to let me eat the food from the kitchen. But it was lovely; on the first day I shared a bowl of spicy orange coloured rice with the teacher and we each had a pan fried fish, sardine size, which we ate whole. The children had the same, but a smaller amount in a bowl, which they ate with their fingers. After lunch I went to thank the lady who had prepared the food. I found her chopping wood outside the wooden shack which is her kitchen. She showed me inside. There was a large hole in the middle of the earth floor and three logs arranged around it to support a large metal cooking bowl in which she cooked the rice, stirring it with what looked like a canoeist’s paddle. This fed everyone in the school, no exceptions.
Despite the impoverished circumstances all around, the children seemed overwhelmingly happy. There were few disagreements and, despite the health and safety apocalypse outside (trip hazard really doesn’t cover it) there were no grazed knees or banged heads. The children wandered around where they pleased and enjoyed every minute of their day.
On the second morning the head teacher was back in school and the tone changed. His first tasks involved monitoring – first the teachers attendance book (he was very proud to have been in at 6.10am, as he was every day) then the teachers’ planning books. He explained that he arrived early to be a good role model and that he supervised groups of children who were rotaed to clean the school. It was at that point that the cane reared its head – children who didn’t turn up for duty were whacked, we were told, and the weapon of choice appeared from beneath the table.
A few minutes later we were outside watching assembly; a combination of prayers, singing and marching to drums. The children were required to stand in straight lines and if they didn’t, the same teachers who were yesterday laid back in their approach to discipline, today eagerly brandished a stick at anyone who broke the line, hitting them hard on the arm or backside.
It is chilling to watch children being thrashed in this way, but surprisingly ineffective. Never again will I let anyone tell me that “all they need is a clip round the ear.” The offenders often seemed unaffected, there were rarely any tears, and the punishment didn’t particularly seem to influence their willingness to stand in line, or that of the children around them. In fact, later that afternoon, another little girl received a sharp blow to the back of the legs and this time she did to her desk crying, but the other children around her just laughed.
The lack of resources is undoubtedly a handicap, but not the whole story. Everything is taught from a textbook, including ICT and science, or copied from the blackboard. The children don’t share their ideas, nor do the teachers work with groups of children or individuals. In fact the structure of the day sometimes seems to be more about the teacher getting her marking done than about learning. A lot of time is wasted and as long as the children are seated and quiet, the teacher seems happy for them to do nothing. This is particularly true after lunch, and in one class I observed, the teacher was getting more and more cross as the noise level inevitably rose after half an hour of drift and inactivity. Not the teachers’ fault – they have very few, if any, professional development opportunities.
More widely, issues such as local management also have a negative impact. For instance, the school we were working had class sizes between 10 and 20. Other colleagues at other schools reported children being taught in classes of 80. Local place planning required. Meanwhile, the collection of data by area supervisors recording meaningless written tasks that all the children undertake (whether they understand them or not) also hinders the opportunities for teachers to develop their practice. The teachers know this and they gave the regional director of schools a hard time about this at a meeting we all attended at the end of the week. The net result of this is that the Ghanaian children are around 3-4 years behind.
And that was where we left them. We shared some good practice, and we met some excellent teachers, but the scale of the task; economically, organisationally, educationally seemed so vast as to be almost hopeless. But I would go back at the drop of a hat. It remains, and will always remain, the most extraordinary, life-changing, immense experience of my professional life.