Clare Whipple: Try teaching in Africa – you'll long for Ofsted

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Falling asleep in class is generally considered to be a mistake, but if you are the teacher, and it happens every day, in most schools it would be deemed a sacking offence. The first term into my two-year teaching job in East Africa and the dream was already beginning to crumble. Just by turning up to class on time and not falling asleep, I was seen as an exceptional teacher. By also not beating students, or having a criminal record in Europe, I was an oddity.

Working outside the UK system is a favourite winter teaching fantasy. The thought of teaching eager, appreciative, well-behaved students in a balmy climate with limited paperwork requirements and no chance of an Ofsted visit is more than enticing. And all of that really is great. The sun is always shining, the worst behavioural problems involve students forgetting to spit their chewing gum in the bin and lesson observations are optional. But the grass is not always greener outside the British educational system. It took leaving the system to realise that it works – and to make me think longingly of Ofsted.

Many of the worst, unregulated international schools are a refuge for teachers unable to work in the UK. Ever wondered what happens to a teacher who sleeps with one of their students? Well, three of them are here – one in a management position and two still sleeping with students. Ever wondered what happens to those teachers who favour teaching methods such as rote-learning, or dictation? Well, again, we have several of those here, but with no lesson observations there is also no proof that the teaching is bad; and with no controls on the teachers, sex with students is fine. In fact, with the resultant brilliant grades that this tends to produce and no concept of being "underage", some students seem to favour it as a reliable method of passing their exams.

In addition to the easy opportunities for sex and bad teaching, there are also no paperwork requirements: no lesson plans, no "departmental improvement plans", no annoyances such as a literacy policy or National Curriculum. But when none of those controls exist, you find yourself dreamily fantasising about them. When you are given complete freedom with the curriculum what, exactly, are you going to teach? And how will you measure whether students have achieved any goals if your school has also abandoned standard assessment criteria? In any case, some form of paperwork will always exist. It's just that in Africa the complaints take on an entirely different meaning when your post-communist school requires three forms filled in, stamped and submitted a day in advance before you are entitled to a new pencil from the store cupboard.

No government interference? From this distance it becomes clear that whatever problems the constantly changing government agenda wreak on British schools, they are actually intended to improve teaching and learning standards, or at least give the impression of improving them.

In this society, where an estimated 12 per cent of the population are HIV positive, some government interference in schools would be much appreciated, perhaps to provide information on what being HIV positive actually means and why rubbing your genitals with leaves or jumping in a magic pond won't cure it. Here, the only government interference we have had involved a suspicious request to audit school finances by government-appointed accountants, during which period half a year's income went missing.

There are also no behavioural problems, because in Africa corporal punishment is still legal and beloved of many of the parents. Even if teachers refuse to beat the students, parents are always willing to take on the job themselves, because they still consider there to be a strong link between successful learning and physical punishment.

Among the teachers most respected by parents, is the one who adopts borderline torture methods for controlling the class, such as forcing students to hold a chair above their heads while standing in the sun for forgetting a book, or locking them in a cupboard for talking. If teachers in Britain were willing to adopt such methods for controlling a class, it is likely that there would be fewer discipline problems there, too.

Through being here I have come to understand why the British education system is the envy of most of the world. Yes, it is perhaps too tightly regulated and subject to new initiatives and buzzwords, but I now find myself fantasising about working in an inner-London comprehensive. I want to be observed and I would like somebody to ask me for evidence of how I have raised standards in a particular class.

Even better, I would love to fill in a school improvement plan and be required to have an objective for each of my lessons. Stop whingeing about teaching in the UK – you could be trying to teach in an international school in Africa.

Comments