Sunday, 14 February 2010

Week Three: 8th – 14th February 2010

Having spent two weeks getting to know the people in the GES Office and the issues affecting the District, I spent this week clarifying the things I am expected to do during my placement. I also found out more about the role of headteachers in Ghana and the support they receive.

One of the major differences between headteachers in Ghana and England is the lack of control they have over just about everything, including the recruitment of staff. The pay of headteachers is also not substantially different from that of classroom teachers. Indeed, I have been told they receive just GHc1 (43p) a month more. The role is more one of management - implementing policies decided by others and completing GES returns - rather than leadership.

As mentioned in my previous blog, students usually have to buy their own exercise books, but the District sometimes acquires some for distribution. As you can see from the list posted on the GES notice board, there are not enough to for every student to have one.

My VSO role is that of Head Teacher Support Officer, but Talensi-Nabdam does not yet have a Management Support Officer so I have been asked to provide some general management support to the GES staff as well. The Director at first suggested that I might like to work with the administration staff and look at their filing system as letters and other information apparently often goes missing. I suggested that this was not the best use of my skills – and those of you who work closely with me will know what I mean by this!

The areas I will be focusing on are:
• providing up to 5 headteachers with individualised support
• running two workshops for JHS headteachers on the aspects of leadership and management that they have identified as training priorities
• investigating the opportunities and challenges associated with linking Talensi-Nabdam schools with schools in MK/UK
• reviewing the District’s strategic planning for infrastructure development

During the week I also attended three meetings. One of these was a Senior Management Team meeting and for this we were joined by representatives from the two other TENI districts as Talensi-Nabdam was being held up as an example of good practice. I was told that the meeting was to be held at the Teachers’ Resource Centre at 9am. When I arrived there I was told after waiting 30 minutes that the meeting had moved to a nearby hotel! Information such as venue and start time is often overlooked.

The third meeting I went to was one for Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in the District and is a classic example of the flexible start time of meetings. So as not to have a similar problem to the one experienced earlier in the week, I checked with the person calling the meeting where it was to be held and at what time it was scheduled to start. I was told the meeting was scheduled for 9am so would probably start at 10am. I duly arrived at 9am just in case the meeting started on time – the meeting eventually began at 11.15am!

I am finding the notice below, which is on the entrance doors to the GES offices, increasingly ironic as I experience firsthand many Ghanaian’s approach to time keeping!

However, the delayed start proved to be quite fortuitous as it gave me an opportunity to discuss with the Director the possibility of using the Teachers’ Resource Centre as an ICT Centre. He explained that this was one of his ambitions and we discussed how such a centre would be run and the challenges of operating such a centre. The space itself has potential and I intend to explore the feasibility of setting up such a centre, because as explained in Week 2’s blog, ICT in schools throughout the District is virtually nonexistent. A centre would give students the opportunity to develop their skills and internet access would facilitate partnerships with schools in the UK.

The NGO meeting was real eye opener as to the problems the District faces in realising its strategic plans. It appears that nearly all NGOs come with their own agenda and the District either goes along with this or it does not get the support. In some cases there is even duplication as a result of a lack of NGO co-ordination – clearly not a good use of scarce resources. This is all the wrong way round. The District should set out its priorities and then NGOs should see how they can support with the District co-ordinating activities. It is obvious that overseas governments, including the British Government, are funding NGO initiatives to support getting more children into schools, especially girls, and promoting the empowerment of local communities, but it appears that no NGO or overseas government is addressing in any substantial way the infrastructure short comings which is hindering the delivery of high quality education fit for the 21st Century. More needs to be done to address this if the world community is to capitalise on the currently untapped human potential that undoubtedly exists.

On the domestic front, it is good to see the mangos growing on the trees in the garden. Hopefully they will be ripe enough to eat before I leave.

My weekend was enlivened by some monkey sitting! Monkey (that’s his name) is a green monkey. He is currently being looked after by a VSO volunteer, Anthony, and his wife who is a vet. Anthony is in a band and a fellow band member bought the monkey from a boy at the side of the road in Kumasi. The boy claimed that the monkey had been abandoned. I suspect this wasn’t the truth. In likelihood the baby monkey was taken after its mother was deliberately killed, or the monkey was forcefully taken. Whilst monkey is very cute and extremely tame and friendly, there is no escaping the fact that he would be much better off with his own kind in the forest. Monkeys are very social animals and need lots of company and attention. He loves being groomed and dislikes being left. When a human baby clings it is quite easy to loosen the grip of its two hands, but with a monkey you have to get it to let go with its hands, feet and tail!

Tired monkey!

The hope is that in the near future Monkey will be able to go to a sanctuary so he can have more appropriate playmates. If this doesn’t work out I may have to bring him back to England and co-opt him onto the Senior Team!

Week Two: 1st – 7th February 2010

I spent most of this week familiarising myself with the District’s strategic plans and the schemes of work that teachers will be delivering this term.

The strategic plan identifies the District’s main priorities and builds upon the Ministry of Education’s Mission Statement – a copy of this is on the Director’s office door.

The strategic plan has four thematic areas that relate to: the quality of education; equitable access to education; management for efficiency; science, technology and vocational education and training.

The Millennium Goal of ensuring all children across the world receive free primary education has led to an increase in enrolment in Ghana that has placed an enormous strain on the existing infrastructure. The school building programme, as well as teacher recruitment and training, is lagging way behind demand. This means that class sizes are extremely large, especially in the kindergarten and early primary years. For the 2009-10 academic year, the teacher (trained and untrained) student ratios for the different stages of education are as follows:
Kindergarten (KG) 117
Primary 46
Junior High School 21

Insufficient classroom space has also resulted in an increase in the number of children being taught in “schools under tress”. In the Talensi-Nabdam District there are forty-two such schools.

As well as the “schools under trees”, there are also eleven schools that have dilapidated buildings. Some of these are dangerous and should really be demolished.

In addition to the lack of classrooms, there are 24 schools in the District that do not have any sanitary facilities, i.e. toilets, for either the children or staff to use and despite temperatures often exceeding 40 degrees at this time of year, there are still schools where children do not have access to drinking water.

Recently, the Government of Ghana quite rightly recognised the importance of ICT to the country’s future development and declared that ICT would now be a compulsory subject in all Basic Schools. Great in theory. However, this is a major challenge for a District that only has 5 schools with electricity (out of a total of 144 schools) and of these five only two have a couple of computers between them! Some classrooms do not even have a chalkboard. As a result teachers have to make do with whatever is available.

I met one Headteacher this week who explained that his school’s roof needed repairing – obviously a situation I could empathise with. However, his roof didn’t need repairing because of poor workmanship, but because vampire bats were getting into the roof space and urinating over the textbooks!

Some communities are trying to address the shortage of classrooms themeselves, but whist it is possible for them to make the walls using traditioal methods and volunteer labour at no cost, money is needed to buy the materials for the roof. Also, as you can see from the images below, the lack of windows for light and ventilation in traditional mud classrooms means the structures are not as conducive to good learning as properly built classrooms.

Despite Basic School education being free in Ghana, it is still a significant burden for many families to send their children to school. Uniform, exercise books and equipment have to be purchased, and of course if the child is at school then they are not around to help with the many other things that need to be done. As a result the drop-out rate is high, especially amongst girls. It appears that the Millennium Goal of ensuring all children receive a free primary school education has not been fully thought through by international policy makers, as the infrastructure has not been put in place to ensure that children going to school are able to receive the quality of education needed to genuinely make a difference to their life chances – despite the best effort of some of their teachers.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Week One: 25th – 31st January 2010

The first week of my placement was spent in meetings, getting to know the different roles of colleagues in the GES (Ghana Education Service) office and learning yet more acronyms! Everyone made me feel extremely welcome and they were very patient in answering my many questions.

I will be based at the Talensi-Nabdam District GES offices in Tongo. A building and location far removed from the workplace I left in January.

The offices are in what were once three classrooms belonging to the Junior High School (JHS) that shares the site along with a primary school. The 167 JHS students are now taught in three classrooms rather than the six they used to have. That makes an average of 56 students per room. The classrooms are about the same size as an average room at Walton High.

The photographs below show the scene around the GES office.

The site is very close to the Tongo Hills and although it is a harsh environment for people and animals, especially in the dry season, the landscape has its own beauty.

The Senior Team meeting I attended on Monday had some interesting differences to those at Walton High. Our meetings do not start with a prayer and usually begin at the scheduled time (once people have got their tea and coffee that is) and I have yet to notice anyone resting their eyes during one of my meetings! Also, it would be extremely unusual for a meeting at Walton High to be interrupted by a mobile phone going off and someone then answering it. In GES meetings this is quite common. Indeed, one big difference I have noticed generally is the priority people give to answering their mobile phone over virtually anything else they might be doing at the time.

The weekly Monday meeting is used as an opportunity for all the GES officers to report back on their activities the previous week and to inform others of the things they plan to do in the coming week – especially if this had implications for other people’s responsibilities. An example of this is the SHEP (School Health Education Programme) officer notifying the meeting that there had been an outbreak of anthrax in some of the villages in the District and asked anyone visiting schools to look out for children with possible symptoms to ensure they received any health care they need as soon as possible.

The lack of ICT also leads to different ways of working. Whereas we would usually use Outlook to organise meetings and share information, the GES staff write events and other information of common interest on the blackboard at the front of the room because very few officers have access to PCs or laptops and those that are available are not networked and do not have internet access. As people are often visiting school, mobile phones are an essential part of people’s working life.

The Director of Talensi-Nabdam, Mr Francis Ayaaba often puts up a “Thought for the day”. On my first Monday it was: “There are two things to aim for in life, first to get what you want, and after that to enjoy it; only the wisest of mankind has achieved the second.”

Getting to the Talensi-Nabdam District from where I am living in Bolga is already proving a challenge. At the moment I have decided the easiest way round this is to get a taxi. The return trip costs 20GHc a day (c. £8.60) which is quite a lot considering my daily allowance is 10GHc. The journey takes about 25 minutes and much of it is over some pretty rough roads.

Most of the people who live in the area are subsistence farmers and live in traditionally built homes.

Below are some of the scenes I pass on the way.

African Cup of Nations
This week was full of football talk.  In true footballer supporter style, Ghanians had forgotten their highly critical comments of their team's performance against the Ivory Coast and were now hoping for success againast their arch rivals, Nigeria.

The Black Star's very close 1-0 win was greeted by great jubilation in the streets as Bolga as people took to the streets to celebrate - anyone would have thought they had won the competition!

I watched the final in a place that had two TVs - the one on the left was showing the Ghana v Egypt final, whereas the TV on the right was showing the Arsenal v Man Utd game. 

The venue was small and packed with about 150 young and exclusively male Ghanians - most of whom were wearing Man Utd shirts!  It was a doubly bad afternoon for me as both my teams lost!  As it was a Muslim establishment, I couldn't even console myself with a beer!

Ghanaians were gracious in defeat, despite being somewhat unlucky. Every Ghanaian I spoke to was pleased with their team's performance - which is more than I could say for Arsenal's!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Day 14: Sunday, 24 January 2010 - My new home in Bolgatanga

My first day in Bolgatanga, or Bolga as it is known locally, was one of unpacking, resting and getting to know my new housemate, Christina.

Christina is from Ireland and has been a volunteer since November 2009. Her placement is for one, or possibly two, years. She is a primary teacher by profession and is working as a Teacher Support Officer (TSO) in the same Ghana Education Service (GES) District where I will be a Headteacher Teacher Support Officer (HTSO).

The house we are staying in is large, with five bedrooms. It has a walled garden which has Paw Paw and mangos growing in it. The lawn’s not too great though!

There is a large living room (which for security reasons houses both Christina’s motorbike and her cycle), a long hallway, and a large kitchen that in estate agent speak “has potential”.

For those of you that obsess about such things, you will be pleased to know we have a flushing toilet (in fact there are two in the house as Christina’s room has an en-suite) and the shower is in a wet room.

I am getting used to the cold shower in the morning, and at the end of a hot and sweaty day it is just what you need!

My bedroom is a nice size, and yes I did tidy before taking this photo!

The bedroom even has its own baby gecko to eat those unwanted insects! This little chap (he is about two inches long) is often seen on the walls, but this is him on the ceiling above my bed. Fortunately, he seems to have a good grip so there should be no falling on me in the night! My biggest concern is that unlike the larger geckos in the house (they grow up to about 7 inches) that stick exclusively to the walls and ceilings this little fellow often walks across the floor. So far it is only its quick movement that has stopped him being trodden on.

My only complaint about the house is that the central heating appears to be stuck on the very high setting, as it has yet to fall below 29 degrees in my bedroom!

Day 13: The journey north – Saturday, 23 January 2010

A 6.30am start enabled us to avoid much of the Accra traffic, but unfortunately a lorry had overturned on a section of unmade road leading to a long tailback. This, and the long sections of unmade roads, made the journey north a long one.

In fact, we could have flown from Accra to Heathrow and back again in the same amount of time it took us to travel from Accra to Bolgatanga.

The dust on some of the roads made driving very difficult.

However, it must be even more difficult for the people who live along side these unmade roads because, as you can see from the colour of the leaves on the tree and the roofs of people’s homes in the photo below, the dust covered homes and vegetation for a distance of at least 50m from the road.

As it was a Saturday, we passed many people on their way to funerals. Mourners in Ghana, especially in the south, traditionally wear red and black.

Another aspect of life on Ghana’s roads we were becoming used to, are the slogans people put across the rear windows of their vehicles. Most are religious in nature.

Whilst others relate to something else many Ghanaian hold dear.

We even saw one taxi with Tony Blair written across the back – I’m not too sure what that was all about!

Having first crossed the Black Volta River

We then crossed the White Volta before stopping for a bite to eat in Tamale at about 4.30pm.

After Tamale the road north was mainly surfaced (except for the large pot holes that is) and very straight.

It was interesting to note the change in scenery as we headed for the much hotter and drier north and what a contrast the grass savannah was to the much lusher tropical south.

Approximately fourteen hours after starting out from Accra, we eventually arrived in Bolgatanga. Our driver, Isaha, had done a tremendous job of getting us here safely. Driving on Ghana’s roads requires total concentration, so he must have been exhausted after such a long day.