A talk to Year 10 students at Lydiard Park Academy in 2012 by former West Swindon primary headteacher Neil Griffiths about his work with pre-school teachers in Gambia set the scene for three 6th formers, to visit the country in October 2015.
Neil’s fame as creator of Story Sacks – now used by pre-school and primary school teachers around the world – meant the Lydiard Park Academy students had a treat. His inspirational workshop took a packed room of Year 10 students through an entertaining range of ways in which they could encourage children to love the books they read. As a result of this encounter, several students began planning a visit to The Gambia, aiming to work with pre-school teachers using Neil’s own book set in The Gambia Fatou Fetch the Water.
Three years later – Rebecca Brace, Dominic Hall and Sophie Little – arrived in The Gambia.
Rebecca said: “When we stepped off the plane in Banjul, it was the first time any of us had ever landed on African soil. The first thing all of us recognised was just how hot and humid the air was; it sounds obvious, but you don’t realise how different it is until you experience it yourself.”
Instead of working with pre-school teachers, Rebecca, Dominic and Sophie, attended school. Through the Department for International Development funded Connecting Classrooms global schools partnerships initiative, LPA has been partnered with Pirang Senior Secondary School in The Gambia for about four years.
On Monday 26 October 2015, the LPA students met their partners and went to class with them for the first of three days at school.
Rebecca wrote in her journal, “… we were to spend three days in the classroom with our partner students, really allowing myself, Sophie and Dom to gain first-hand experience in a Gambian classroom … I wonder what it will be like?”
It’s hard to imagine learning in an unfamiliar place; LPA’s sixth formers certainly noticed a difference. “Reading straight from a paper ‘textbook’ (so different from what we’re used to)… paragraph after paragraph, there was no time for questions,” Rebecca reflected.
By the end of the three days, the LPA’s students had a very clear idea of the demands of class-work, homework and even tests. Dominic scored highly in one of these and in November, Pirang School contacted LPA to say that Dominic had attained the highest marks in his class for a maths test they had completed.
As well as attending school, Dominic and Sophie were gathering information and ideas for their Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) research projects. Having the chance to meet young people whose lives are so different, yet knowing that they all share the same ambitions, hopes and dreams is such an important experience.
Dom said he was surprised by the similarities with his peers as much as the differences’ “We hadn’t really thought that we might share the same kinds of doubts and excitements as our partners. We thought there would be big differences between us,” he commented.
However, it wasn’t all about school. Going somewhere 3,000miles away from home, finding out more about the people and places in your host community was an important aim. Rebecca remembers: “The first night we were there we travelled from the airport to Halahin eco-lodge, (in Kartong) where we were to spend the next 10 days, and where we received a very warm welcome.
“Our first full day was spent within the community of the nearby village of Kartong, where Musa (from the lodge) gave us a tour of the village, allowing us to get our first real insight into the Gambian way of life and introducing us to various families within the local compounds.
“We also got the opportunity to visit the local health centre, where Dom and I coincidentally managed to pass out – I suppose we were in the right place. We soon recovered, however, and visited more families.
“We wanted to take in as much as we could whilst being outside in roughly 35 degrees heat. This is probably the day that we actually learnt the most in terms of just how different things are in The Gambia compared to here: having to get water from a nearby well everyday, not having electricity within their compounds – just everyday things that we take for granted.”
Summing up their Gambian experience, the students agreed: “It’s fair to say that we all learnt a lot – about the Gambian culture, but also about ourselves as individuals,” said Sophie.
The ten-day visit was over all too soon and lives returned to a slightly new normal.
When news was announced at the end of January, that Pirang School’s Head of Maths department, Ms Isatou Touray, had been successful with her visa application, plans began for her arrival at LPA. Just as the students noticed the intense heat on their arrival in The Gambia, Ms Touray noticed the extreme cold – a cruel 2 degrees and a biting, chilling wind.
Ms Touray’s first taste of teaching was on her first day here when she met Ms Bennett’s Year 7 class who were preparing ideas for some autobiographical writing. She told the class a story about the time an unwelcome guest arrived at her family home – a huge and threatening snake. The students were captivated by this first-hand story from The Gambia.
A broad range of experiences awaited Ms Touray at LPA – from observing familiar subjects like Maths, Geography and English) and to unfamiliar lessons such as Food Technology, ICT and Music. She also assisted as a support teacher in GCSE Maths and Geography classes.
“I want to sample as many classes as possible to take back and share with my colleagues at Pirang,” said Ms Touray. “Nothing was too daunting – I wanted the complete experience.”
To complete the broad experience of school, she also made a visit to Peatmoor Community Primary School where she spoke to an assembly, participated in a music extravaganza, stayed for school dinner and helped to launch a Gambia – UK project initiated by Peatmoor deputy headteacher Sarah Adams.
After several exhausting days of school, Ms Touray commented: “Just like teachers everywhere in the world, the demands on teachers here are a burden. I have really seen the dedication and commitment that teachers in the UK have to this great profession. My journey to become a teacher was a long and hard one, being in the teaching profession, we never stop our journey to look for ways to help our students start their own journeys to learn.”