“Further develop links with our partner school in Bo, Sierra Leone” – so read our School Improvement Plan. That sounded simple enough… The idea had been incubating for a couple of years, before the glimmer of an opportunity began to look more and more of a possibility. A few false starts with funding, potential visit dates, clarification of purpose, some generous donations to support myself and one of my teacher’s and plans began to take shape. There came a point where this visit was either going to happen soon, or never. Some excellent encouragement and practical advice from Fr. Bruce and Gerry Holben, Rev. Mark Payne (who I have yet to meet!) and school staff and Governors, supported the vision becoming a reality. One of the most profound learning experiences of my life – both personally and professionally would not have come about without their help and a good deal of prayer and positive thinking.
Our pupils worked hard before we left – preparing items to give a ‘flavour’ of our culture – both within our school, and further afield. We took home made board games – such as ‘Race to the Beach’ – which the children at St. Paul’s thoroughly enjoyed playing. Music for one of our favourite hymns ‘All the Nations of the Earth’– and I had an opportunity to teach it to a class of fifty students– some of them, in turn, sung some beautiful Gospel songs to me. A bag of our ‘treasured’ gold stars – awarded in assembly for extra special work or behaviour – was taken out with a little note from the youngest children in school hoping that the pupils at St. Paul’s might like to do a similar thing. Rev Solomon Scott-Manga – the Acting Principal – certainly enjoyed wearing one for the rest of our visit! The Prayer of St. Richard, a prayer we often say at school, was taken and shared with staff and pupils.
Skipping ropes, recorders and music books, squared paper, footballs and kit, magnifying glasses were all received with excitement, enthusiasm and grace. Watching the teachers examine their skin under the magnifying glass, look at posters of the human body and work out where the various parts were on their own body, teach themselves how to play the recorder, and begin to plan lessons about graphs was – humbling – whilst at the same time hugely encouraging. The level and breadth of professional dialogue was demanding, and left myself and Miss Johnson full of admiration for the resilience and resourcefulness of the teachers at St. Paul’s.
So how does all of this (and so much more) help the children at West Wittering Parochial CE Primary School? The work they put in beforehand, linked with the feedback from myself and Miss Johnson has supported them to better understand the similarities and differences which exist between themselves and those children in Western Africa. They have been able to question, and learn, far beyond any opportunities offered by books, or even – dare I say it – the internet! The letters they sent were well planned and thoughtful, and the replies they received gave them far greater insight into those young people’s lives than any previously. They understand that pupils at St. Paul’s are desperate to be at school, to learn and make a better life for themselves, their families and their country. They know that many of them enjoy doing the same things they do – playing football, chatting with their friends, playing with pets, spending time with their families. They know that their lives are different – not better or worse – just different. Cultural exchange transformed into global education.