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Mountains to climb: An Ark Fellow in South Africa

Friday 20th February 2015

Guy Rimmer is an English teacher from Ark’s King Solomon Academy. He was selected as part of the Ark Fellows Programme and spent two weeks in South Africa this summer, sharing knowledge with Ark partner organisation SPARK Schools.  He has written a blog about his experiences, and his thoughts on how to improve schools in the developing world:

"We talk every day at King Solomon Academy about education being like climbing a mountain and the opportunities that it opens up for pupils when they reach the top: access to an excellent university.

We emphasise to students that this is a task that can’t be done alone- you need a team around you of teachers, other pupils and families working together. Reaching the top will be hard; but the sense of achievement students get when they accomplish it will be immense.

Base camp in South Africa

When I went to South Africa as an Ark Fellow, I discovered that students have much more challenging educational mountains to ascend than ours in the UK. South Africa has the highest rate of illiteracy in Africa, despite the country having the largest economy on the continent.  The education system is failing to prepare young people for the workforce, let alone university. Unemployment recently peaked at 25%.

Early in my trip, I met Stacy Brewer and Ryan Harrison, co-founders and CEOs of SPARK, a network of private primary schools dedicated to delivering accessible, high quality education.  Stacy, Ryan and their team have many challenges in front of them – they receive no government funding and they find it hard to find experienced and outstanding teachers.  

My task was to work with them on ways to improve teaching and learning in their schools. But I kept returning to thoughts on how to make excellent schools available, not just in South Africa, but to everyone in the developing world.  Here are some of the ideas we explored:

  1. Ambitious leadership

Each day in a SPARK School reveals many of the new challenges all start-up schools face - new teachers struggling with the curriculum, behaviour issues, systems and processes with wrinkles in them that need ironing out - but Stacey and Ryan are able to articulate a vision which invigorates everybody in the building.  They are working to make their schools affordable and sustainable. If and when they succeed, their plan could lead to improved education for every child in the nation.

  1. A destination

The unifying nature of a tangible, shared goal – in this case going to university – brings efficiency and focus to every interaction. At SPARK that sense of being on a mission is tangible and it motivates students and staff.

  1. A teacher pipeline

In a nation with a failing education system such as South Africa, there needs to be a large supply of bright and dedicated teachers in order to make a transformational difference to students.  In the UK, Teach First and similar organisations have made great strides in making teaching a more prestigious career.  For SPARK and other South African schools, it’s essential that they partner with similar organisations, such as Teach For All, to expand and improve the talent pool.

  1. Outliers and examples

As I worked with teachers and leaders at SPARK, I was struck by how many questions they had for me. Back home, there are numerous examples of excellence in schools for me, or other educators to turn to for advice and examples of best practice. Many teachers at SPARK felt they had no one local to turn to- making their partnership with Ark even more important to them. As the organisation grows and finds more partners, there will be more opportunities for further inter-organisational learning and sharing.

  1. Self-evaluation

SPARK is an island in South Africa – no other organisation shares its aims, ambitions, high-standards and approach. Without competition or regulation the ability to self-govern and to rigorously evaluate your own practice is crucial.  This will be an on-going challenge for them.

What can we do to help?

Travelling back from South Africa I returned with a new energy. Many of the ideas we explored for the developing world were also applicable to schools in the UK, particularly about sharing ideas and resources. This can be done remotely, via video meetings or from in-person feedback and training sessions.

We should take every opportunity to work with others who, like us, are working hard to climb the steepest of mountains."

The Ark Fellows programme is an opportunity for talented and ambitious teachers and school leaders to work in our international schools during summer or Easter holidays. Working with a partner school in South Africa, India or Uganda, Fellows share their expertise in school leadership and best practice. We are looking for a combination of exceptional teachers who have experience training their peers, and outstanding school leaders who can support our partners as they strive for excellence in challenging circumstances.  Contact Katherine.Pollendine@arkonline.org for more information or click here to learn more and apply.