Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Leadership for life

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Three months in a Rwandan village, where class sizes can rise to 70 and children come to school shoeless but smiling, gave Jackie Sale a new perspective on the power of school leadership to change young people's lives.

All I knew about Rwanda, before the phone call from VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) in October 2008, centred on the genocide of 1994. Three months later, I was meeting up with three other volunteers on the Leaders in International Development programme and headed off for three months in rural Rwanda.

The decision to apply for the programme was made easier by the fact that I had a highly-skilled deputy, already holder of the NPQH, who I knew would relish the opportunity to run Brookway. Asking the governors for three months away was not as easy as the college was in the process of becoming an academy. But the governing body was 100 per cent supportive.

We had been working hard to introduce a global dimension into school and they realised my visit would contribute to that. They were also aware that this was a wonderful opportunity for me to explore my own career aspirations and try out something completely new.

VSO prepared us as thoroughly as possible for our assignments with health briefings and honest information about Rwanda but nothing could really prepare us for the vibrant colours, pungent perfumes and bustling business of Kigali, the capital city.

My appointment was as an education management consultant in a primary school in rural Rwanda. As someone who has always wanted to 'make a difference', it was a real challenge to me to step back from the day-to-day running of a school to take on a consultancy role.

I have enormous respect for the teachers I met in Rwanda who work really long hours, teaching classes of 40 to 70 children ranging in age from six to 17. They are paid very little and have very few resources, working in a school with no water or electricity.

The Rwandan government had decided to make some fundamental changes to the education system in January 2009. There was the introduction of secondary education as a universal right for all, the change to a double-shift system to accommodate the new classes this created and the increased number of six-year-olds, plus the move from French as the language of tuition to English.

Growth in confidence

The headteacher I supported had had no leadership or management training. We worked together on a three-year development plan and a financial plan. Joint classroom observations, inspections, and leading training were all part of my role, including working with two other volunteers to deliver two days of training to the 63 primary headteachers of Kibungo district, some of whom had travelled for three hours to get there. What a challenge!

Watching the headteacher develop new skills and the teaching staff grow in confidence as they struggled with the introduction of English as their language of tuition gave me great pleasure.

One challenge for me was living in a small Rwandan village. VSO place volunteers in the communities where they work and I shared a house with one of my colleagues. We were the objects of much curiosity.

White faces were a total novelty in the village and we would frequently be followed by groups of children (and adults on occasion) watching our every movement. Water had to be boiled and filtered and everything in the house seemed to take forever to do!

The frustrations of everything stopping if it was raining (and what torrents there were) and punctuality being an alien concept were soon forgotten, eclipsed by the incredible hospitality and willingness to learn and develop.

Rwanda is the most beautiful country I have ever visited. The people show astonishing resilience and dignity, amazing after the tragedy of 1994. I brought back letters from Rwandan students and a correspondence began between Brookway and Nyamugali, where I was based. The postal service to Rwanda can take two or three months so this is not a speedy, regular communication but with no computer access for emails and extremely limited international phone capability, patience is required.

Acting up

The deputy did a fantastic job in moving Brookway forward during my absence and subsequently took up an appointment in another local authority. He enjoyed the role and decided he does want to become a headteacher.

Since my return I have taken up the post of behaviour and attendance partnership coordinator for Manchester, which I probably would not have considered before my Rwandan trip. I had never really understood the difference you could make to the lives of young people by improving the skills of school leaders, but watching the changes to teachers as they blossomed under the positive feedback from classroom observations, and the confidence with which the head began to lead his staff, demonstrated a very clear link.

Being with children who arrived in school at 7.15am, worked all morning in school then spent the rest of the daylight hours working on the land and arrived the next morning with no shoes but the biggest smile imaginable, reminded me how important education is.

My fondest memories include the enthusiasm of the children as they interviewed me about life in the UK, travelling on a motorbike taxi, the shared meals with Rwandan colleagues, children following me to school every day and my first view of a silverback gorilla while trekking in the Virunga Mountains. This truly was the experience of a lifetime.

Jackie Sale is behaviour and attendance partnership coordinator, Manchester and former head of Brookway High School and Sports College.


Find out more...

The Leaders in International Development programme is organised by VSO and supported by ASCL, NAHT and the National College. It is open to leaders in maintained schools in England. Participants spend three months in the spring term working in a developing African country, supporting its educational system development.

Each volunteer's school receives £5,000 to help cover costs incurred during the school leader's absence, which also enables middle and senior leaders to step up and develop their leadership skills while the senior leader steps out. Returning volunteers bring back a wealth of experience, knowledge and inspirational leadership challenges to share with pupils and staff. The application round for spring term 2011 is open now.

To find out more and apply, go to www.vso.org.uk/act/leaders-in-internationaldevelopment.asp

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