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Opinion31st August 2016

Giving PEAS a chance – Lessons from a rural Ugandan school as an Ark Fellow

Tom Ding is a Maths Teacher at Ark Academy in Wembley, and a graduate of the Ark Teacher Training programme. Recently he spent two weeks in Uganda as part of the Ark Fellows programme.

When I first stepped into a rural Ugandan classroom, I saw many of the things I expected: row upon row of silent, disciplined students, a classic chalk blackboard and a teacher dictating notes from the front. Between the somewhat Victorian atmosphere and the ‘O-level’ syllabus derived from the old British regime, it was hard to avoid the impression of going back in time. However, it very quickly became clear that the differences between Ugandan and British schools are far too interesting to summarise so glibly.

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Ark Fellows

I was in Uganda on the Ark Fellows programme – an opportunity for teachers at Ark schools to work with partner schools in Africa and India during the school holidays. In Uganda, we were working with PEAS, a charity that builds and runs secondary schools. In particular, we were working with their Professional Development specialists, helping to embed outstanding teaching practice in their schools. I was excited to see the ‘leveraged observation and feedback model’, which I know very well from my own school (Ark Academy), used in an entirely different context.

On my first visit to a PEAS school, I could see plentiful examples of excellence and dedication. The students buy their own exercise books, which they keep scrupulously neat so they can use them for effective revision. Their teachers clearly communicate the lesson objectives at the outset of each lesson, referring back to them so students can keep track of their own learning. Classroom routines straight out of Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ ensure all students are engaged and accountable throughout the lesson. What’s more, from what I could see the academic pitch of the Ugandan ‘O-level’ curriculum is more ambitious than British GCSE’s, and strikingly so.

It was clear that despite all the obvious barriers to learning (such as the lack of resources, crowded classrooms and the difficulty getting to school) compared to UK schools, students in PEAS schools were making remarkable progress. This brings me to the most thought-provoking observation from my time in Ugandan classrooms: the intrinsic motivation and resilience of the students, and the academic rigour built into the curriculum seems to override – or at least compensate for – the extremely challenging circumstances.

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A stand-out moment for me came at Akoromit High School, where my visit coincided with last-minute preparations for the PEAS Girls’ Club Interschool Competitions and I witnessed the students rehearsing. I saw the girls’ choir perform an amazing piece composed by one of the teachers and a young girl give an impassioned speech about the empowerment of women across the world, name-checking Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton. Though the most remarkable performance came from a 13-year-old girl – an orphan and full-time boarder at the school – who gave an electric rendition of a poem she had written herself. Every time I watch the video back I get goose bumps.

Reflections on an inspiring trip

Looking back, our trip to Uganda was a hectic, intense time filled with an implausible number of school visits, and evenings spent typing up notes from flipchart paper by the hotel pool. For two weeks, our sole focus was on finding small, incremental ways to improve teaching and learning in 28 schools and we thought about little else. At the end of our trip, we reflected on the fortnight’s work and all felt happy that we had justified the trust and expense Ark and PEAS had invested in us. We helped the local CPD team clarify the responsibilities for the teaching and learning leaders in their schools and to establish more robust lines of accountability.

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I have come back with a much richer understanding of Ugandan culture and customs and about the growing pains of a country that is changing incredibly fast. But my perspective on British education has probably changed more. I have already secured an early spot in the assembly rota at school to share my reflections with our students and no doubt my colleagues will get very bored of me banging on about ‘high Ugandan expectations’ in team meetings. In schools like Ark Academy, we often talk about ‘high expectations’ and ‘no excuses’, but I don’t think I truly understood what these gambits mean until I went to Uganda. When I start school again in September, I will have a picture of a PEAS classroom pinned to my desk to remind me how important it is not to let standards slip.

It’s been, with no exaggeration, the most valuable and thought-provoking experience of my career to date.

The Ark Fellows programme offers the opportunity to share teaching knowledge and expertise with teachers in Africa and India. The programme is open to applications from all teachers in the Ark network. To find out more about working for Ark, please visit our Careers page.