FORGET smart uniforms and small classes. The secret to stellar grades and thriving students is teachers. This is how a recent article in the Economist starts. It resonates strongly with APIE’s programme in Rwanda, where smart uniforms are in short supply and small classes are a distant dream in most schools. This statement however prompts me to reply to all three points: uniforms, class size and teachers.
To address the first, we have embarked on a partnership with the African Sewing Club to produce uniforms which are not only smart but affordable. The materials are mainly sourced locally, and best of all their production ensures that local people receive training and regular work to break the cycle of poverty. This kind of partnership makes sense.
The issue of class size is a daily challenge for many teachers in African schools. Rwanda is no exception, where the average class will have 50 students. APIE is working with Umubano Primary School, which currently has an average class size of 35, to develop interactive, differentiated teaching methods which we will then trial with larger classes. The key is the teachers. We are investing in teachers and our aim, as the article also states is: to make ordinary teachers great.
Teacher Bella using mini-whiteboards to teach maths to nursery students.
With the ambition of transforming a country recovering from the genocide 22 years ago, this - to make ordinary teachers great – is the only option. Education is the main factor that will enable this transformation, and improving teaching is the only way to achieve it. A mass government training programme is well underway, but the challenge is how to improve teaching when everyone is at the same stage within the profession. How do young teachers learn when the methodology they are being asked to deploy is nowhere in evidence, and the training they receive is basic theory at best?
The Economist article goes on to say: With teaching as with other complex skills, the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods. Trainees should spend more time in the classroom. This is what APIE set out to address; to accelerate the progress in a model school so that within one school cohort (6 years), the staff will be able to offer support to other teachers in surrounding schools, and trainee teachers will be able to learn from best practice, not only theory.
At our model school this is what we do. We leverage international expertise in Maths, Language and Communication, Early Childhood Education, Special Educational Needs and ICT, as well as introducing arts and sports. This is modelled in the school alongside the Rwandan teachers, supporting their rapidly growing competence and confidence. In two years the progress is palpable. Classrooms are buzzing, relationships between teachers and pupils are strong, professional conversations in the staff room – once silent - are daily events.
One of the most exciting moments in my life with APIE was in April and May this year, when Martyn Vandewalle, HT of The Wroxham School and Jean de Dieu, HT at Umubano Primary spent a week in each other’s schools. They had been talking to each other through skype for about a year, discussing the challenges they both faced as new Headteachers of schools that were ambitious in their visions, both as centres of excellence for their own communities and as learning hubs of professional networks.
Marytn and Jean de Dieu’s visits were inspiring, uplifting and have made me believe that international collaboration with shared aims and passions can make almost anything possible. To find out more about their trips, read their visit reports here: Martyn’s Report Jean de Dieu’s Report.
Jean de Dieu and Martyn on a day out in London.
Above all we have taken literally and to heart this final word from the Economist: Improving the quality of the average teacher would raise the profession’s prestige, setting up a virtuous cycle in which more talented graduates clamoured to join it. But the biggest gains will come from preparing new teachers better, and upgrading the ones already in classrooms. The lesson is clear; it now just needs to be taught.
If you would like to know more about the positive changes happening at Umubano Primary School in Rwanda, please do get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org.