Warm heart of Glasgow
“The evening concluded with our MLOL team reciprocating some of the hospitality we had received over the month. We gathered with our hosts, ate chicken and rice, and danced the Gay Gordons… The bonds forged in Malawi are strong and we feel that the friends we have made are lifelong.”
The latest blog entry by the Malawi Leaders of Learning (MLOL) project, written as the latest Glaswegians to participate prepared to return home, illustrates how far the project has come in the last three years. The city of Glasgow has forged a relationship over the period with South West education in Blantyre, Malawi. With the aim of sharing good practice with partnered schools in Malawi, staff, pupils and students at Strathclyde University have been making the long journey to southeast Africa. Last month they were joined by Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Sadie Docherty, in the country.
Glasgow’s Director of Education, Maureen McKenna is chair, trustee and founder member of MLOL, and says the project has evolved and developed because she “doesn’t do compliance, certainly not in my work.”
The city’s association with Malawi goes back many years with a number of schools across the city already twinned or linked with schools in the East African country. MLOL started after McKenna visited Malawi in 2011 with Holyrood RC Secondary School, which had been going out since 2008, and decided to create a formal relationship with the aims of sharing resources and teaching expertise between the two countries and ultimately improve the quality of learning and teaching in the challenging environment.
Chitsime school, which has 5,000 pupils between 6 and 17 in a township in the area, was McKenna’s “test bed”. After the initial year, participants decided they wanted to do more. “We did the learning and teaching bit, but it’s not feasible to say we’ll provide you with a resources budget. It’s just not feasible,” says McKenna. It was decided to develop libraries. “So we spoke to the school, I went out, took some schoolbooks. I got my mum to make book bags out of old curtains and my brother’s trousers and we put my nephew’s books in them,” she remembers. The mothers’ group at the school wanted to make more book bags so MLOL then provided them with sewing machines and training in how to use them. Assisted by South African reading scheme, Stars of Africa, more libraries have now been established in Namwiyo Primary School, Catholic Institute Primary School and Matinde Primary School. The original in Chitsime was burnt down during elections, but McKenna says she refused to get upset. “Brush yourself down, pick yourself up, and start all over again, and that’s what we’ve done. So we now have a whole new library in Chitsime and we didn’t make a fuss about it, we just said it’s very sad, not your fault, let’s go for it and build another one. Here’s a sewing machine, and off we go.”
The Leaders of Learning come from different backgrounds, including teachers and headteachers, a quality improvement officer, active schools coordinators, a nursery head and a child development officer. The core, however, is made up of the schools, who have followed Holyrood secondary’s lead. This has been complemented by the Malawi Young Leaders of Learning. Fifteen students were selected from across the city who went out to work with young people from Blantyre secondary school in Malawi on elements of the UN Charter of Human Rights of a Child. “With our young people we have a year-long leadership journey, and the Malawian young people had the same, where they did lots of activities about contributing better to civic society. Then the two weeks in Malawi is the icing on the cake,” says McKenna. The second year saw students from Springburn Academy and Lochend in Springburn take part, with the 2015 group being selected from Eastbank and St Mungo’s high schools. “It’s good to have two schools, so then our young people are meeting, going across their own local communities so it’s not just working with people you know in your own school. I want there to be a bit of a challenge for them, so there’s always a couple of schools, and they have to learn new relationships,” says McKenna. The Commonwealth Games has inspired the 2015 contingent to have a sporting theme.
After discovering students from Strathclyde University had organised their own trips to Malawi, “crawling all over our schools”, McKenna sought to formalise the involvement with the university. “Don’t have your young people go out on an ad-hoc basis. It’s Africa. It needs to be a good experience for them, and a good experience for Malawians too. They came back with the proposal ten B.Ed students would go out, and it would become part of their degree so they’re getting accredited for it. I gave them the challenge of going to our original schools and doing some research on an educational aspect of their choice, interviewing parents and teachers, and learners too, and writing up their findings. Their research will inform our practice as we go forward.”
Glasgow’s own aspiring heads programme, which McKenna says they “hand-knitted” after she “threw out the Scottish qualification for headship years ago because I didn’t think it was value for money”, has been adapted and run with Malawian staff, in order to build capacity.
The learning, McKenna insists, has been two-way. Teachers who have participated gain a “deeper understanding of global citizenship” by teaching classes of 200 with no resources. “They come back with a much better appreciation of the different kind of skills they need as a teacher,” she says, adding, “of course with the Malawian children, it’s how much they love education, running three miles to school and things. The warm heart of Africa.”
Global citizenship can be a real driver for attainment in Glasgow, argues McKenna, a city which has had considerable challenges to overcome inequality. “For the most deprived decile we are performing above the national position. Our graph is moving to be horizontal instead of a steep slope. So I’m not saying there’s not a gap, of course there’s a gap and I’m not under any illusion. All I get is folk banging on about closing the gap and destiny and all that kind of bullshit. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if you keep talking about that. ‘What do you expect, it’s Glasgow?’ Well actually, what I expect is bloody well high attainment, and we’re getting it,” she says.
McKenna put two Malawi Young Leaders of Learning in front of council leaders. “A young woman from the East End, she said at the end of her presentation, ‘you see, I just feel now that I need to give something back to Glasgow, because I understand what Glasgow has given me.’ How good is that?”
The project has been funded solely by donations and support from the Wood group, and this year was awarded charitable status. McKenna says she is applying for funding. “I’ve put in my third time lucky bid. I’m not very good at forms, it would appear,” she says.