I’ve intended to write a brief article about this for a while, in case some of our experiences and ideas have the ability to support others running or thinking about establishing an international partnership in their school! We are very keen to collaborate with others, and welcome any new schools into the Reading Spots collaborative project (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Some background: Reading Spots (a project partly led by pupil ambassadors) has created 18 community-led and solar-powered education spaces, which are run by communities to serve community education-focused needs that are specific to each community. At the same time, we have endeavoured to engage pupils in the UK and elsewhere in critical reflection upon development and charity in the International context, as well as enhancing their understanding of the Ghanaian perspective on local and global issues. It is probably thus best described as an active global citizenship project, as we hope pupils to reflect on their rights and responsibilities as global citizens and collaborative actively with pupils globally in the joint aim of social justice. We were delighted to win the TES International Award in 2018 for the best UK learning project, after being short-listed in 2017.
7 Ideas for International Partnerships
The greatest challenge is to ensure is that the project is genuinely collaborative, and that all partners have a strong voice in determining the way that the project is organised, represented and aims are determined. Practical challenges often create an imbalance; we found that Whatsapp was the best way to ensure effective collaboration and enable the fast sharing of content. We also have a Whatsapp group with all 70 teachers involved in the project to share wider best practice, creating a broader sense of community amongst the teachers which is furthered during conferences held in Ghana. We could definitely still improve in this area, and since our expansion, we can struggle to dedicate enough resources for lengthy discussion with communities, which is a current priority for change. In all our material online we try to ensure that discussion about Africa is (as much as practically possible) led by Africans, rather than UK students and teachers commenting on Africa. This is a centrally theme of our online course – as an example see this post on perspectives on poverty:
The Ghanaians involved in our projects are placed as role models to UK pupils, as people who serve their community on a daily basis. Rather than our pupils leading on the ‘service’ front, we enable pupils to engage with teenagers and adults who volunteer in the project; it is also these volunteers that lead the strategy of Reading Spots in the Ghanaian context. In August 2018 we held a conference in Techiman that brought together 60 volunteers for this purpose; the conference was featured on national TV news.
We also have a youth empowerment wing of the organisation, currently called the ‘youth change-maker programme’, specifically focused on the empowerment of incredible young Africans, keen to lead educational change in their communities.
Secondly, I’d encourage you to consider giving pupils on both sides genuine responsibility for the project and is led by their own areas of interest. Reading Spots was initially established by six pupils at Brighton College, who applied to be an ambassador for the project in the longer term through spreading awareness, understanding and fundraising; in Ghana pupils at Senior High School and JHS volunteer in the Reading Spots to ensure their daily impact, taking on specific responsibilities. Pupils also interacted through our online course in which pupils discussed issues in international development together, commenting on each others views. We are fortunate at Sevenoaks School to have 2 hours a week dedicated to service: in this slot 8 pupils devise educational initiatives, fundraising strategies, mini social entrepreneurship projects linked to Ghanaians, and help to plan the regular book drives going to Ghana. See here for a video demonstrating the pupils’ at Brighton College supporting a book drive as part of their annual ‘Make a Difference Day’:
Thirdly, the depth of learning gained is greatly extended when the partnership is embedded across the wider lives of all schools involved, thus enabling pupils (and staff) to interact with a community or communities from different angles. At Brighton College we tried to thread the Reading Spots project across the English, Geography and RS curriculum in the school, working with the school’s library and leading to numerous pupil-led events such as a literary festival and concert celebrating Ghanaian music and literature enabling the whole school community (including our Pre-Prep) to engage with the project. We also found it a great way to collaborate with pupils from other school. Here is footage of some of our ‘Azonto’ campaign as filmed in Kingsford Community School, sharing Ghanaian dance moves globally:
4. Historical Context
It is crucial that the pupils understand the historical context of an international partnership. Given that Ghana used to be a British colony, it was important to place the entire project in this postcolonial context, and consistently engage pupils in critical reflection on how this affects actions on both sides now. This also enriched their wider understanding of development and charity in a global context, and the complexities of giving. This is the most recent course post focused on developing this area of understanding.
5. Wider Implications
Indeed, it is important to think carefully about the wider implications of creating an international partnership on both communities, given the power of representation, which can be complicated if there is an element of giving involved. We encourage pupils to critically reflect on every action linked to the project, creating a very open forum for debate. I was incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to live in Ghana last year to strengthen the partnership and complete a research project as part of a Masters in Education and International Development, analysing the impact upon both communities. These are a few quotes from some of the many interviews I conducted with parents (I cannot print the research project yet, as I’m hoping to get it published).
And here’s an article focused on assessing the possible dangers of importing western fiction to Ghana (and the need to balance this with providing African fiction and non-fiction):
We always give the pupils opportunities (on annual trips) and via online resources to understand the impact of the Reading Spots on the communities from the community members themselves. This is a headmaster talking about the impact of the Reading Spot in Donkorkrom, referencing in particular the need for us to engage with parents in the area to further advance the level of impact.
6. Critical Reflection on the Educational Process
We know that our work is not a ‘perfect’ example of best practice, and are constantly seeking of ways to improve what we do (feel free to post any further suggestions below!) However, it is important to always think in every scenario ‘what are the pupils (and staff) learning here?’ This can be easily forgotten in partnerships that involve an element of giving or donation (hence why some organisations advise that partnerships are formed without this element) – I understand this as sometimes the focus is taken away from the pupils’ learning and rather placed upon what is given. In this, we consistently reflect on the educational approach we take. As an example, here is a post on the idea of critical literacy that we hope to embed in our approach (measuring the success of this in the context of the online learning course):
7. A Partnership and Collaboration-Based Mentality
In everything we do, we have sought to find partners who can enhance the educational experience for all involved in the project, given a particular area of expertise that we might not have. We also have a partnership mentality in that we try to move pupils away from a hierarchical charity-based attitude towards one in which different groups of people work together in the joint pursuit of social justice. We are fortunate to have been supported by a wide base of parents willing to offer support to the project – whether in building websites, finding lists of trust funds to apply to, or selling eggs to raise funds! We have also sought partners who can help us in achieving our aims (for example we partner with Book Aid International to enable us to have brand new books to ship), and we have a number of local partners in Ghana who have a particular interest in supporting a specific element of our project – for example, we are working with Teach for Ghana (the Ghanaian version of Teach First) in the creation of a Reading Spot in Kalpohin, where some of the Teach for Ghana fellows have been leading a huge literacy volunteering drive using some of our books.
On this note, we are always keen to talk to new organisations who might be interested in working with us in some way! Do get in touch at any point with Helen Denyer, our Head of Partnerships (email@example.com).
Cat Davison 18/11/2018