West African Phonics

Half-term in England for many schools, including All Saints, and five of the teachers have joined me in Sierra Leone for a week of teacher training and project planning during their break. We are now into our seventh year of supporting a school in the town of Waterloo, twenty miles from Freetown. This long-term commitment has a major benefit: it allows trusting and familial relationships to be nurtured. And as with all good family relationships, you can be very honest at times.

We have now completed the construction of new classrooms. These have enabled all pupils to be educated in the same building, albeit in rooms which we would consider unacceptable in the UK. The old part of the school, a flurry of wooden posts and corrugated iron, is now vacant. The school’s owners, the Thomas family, had designs on this for an office, and this is where the honesty comes in.

‘Forget the office, this is the training room’, we instructed. ‘From this room, we can spread good practice and development. A hub of collaboration.’

It all sounds a little overly-optimistic, I admit, but this week we’ve made a start. Four teachers, all in their twenties, delivered model lessons to groups of children from different age groups, whilst forty teachers from twenty different schools looked on. This was a major ‘ask’ and they responded magnificently to the challenge. And all in the ‘office’. They dealt expertly with children who have little idea of responses and discussions in lessons, and who were thrust into an unfamiliar situation. It worked a treat, as the teachers could actually see the interplay between pupil and teacher, prompting regular emissions of approval.

It would be naive to think that this will lead to radical change in the classrooms of West Africa; naive and unrealistic. We still had the occasional teacher shouting out, ‘Say cat!’, as the UK teacher was gently coaxing the bewildered pupil into blending c-a-t phonetically. But the evaluations at the end of the day uncovered a good level of enthusiasm and understanding.

Systemic challenges dwarf those of basic teacher knowledge. The hitting of children is still common-place. Class sizes are on the increase as the population expands, sometimes approaching one hundred. Resources are pitiful. Teachers are hopelessly underpaid, earning the equivalent of around £70 per month.

All the more reason to persevere of course, and tomorrow we travel to the British Council in Freetown to discuss how we can build on this initial work. Excitingly, things are starting to come together which could benefit pupils in both Sierra Leone and Liverpool.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be followed by the school Sports Day on Thursday. There competing will be an All Saints house to symbolise our partnership, and the talk today was of a teachers’ race between the four houses.

That’s where I might start asking for training.

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