Last weekend saw the Kakamega central house busy with project workers back for this year’s midsummer meeting. Besides an excuse to share cupfuls of chai and munch on mandazi, this gave us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the EPAfrica approach. What principles underpin our work and strategy? How do these manifest themselves on the ground in East Africa? What are the challenges we face as we try to realise our model, and how can we work to constantly adapt and improve?
A key part of the EPAfrica model – and it’s in the name – is partnership. Our approach revolves around forming partnerships between project workers and schools in Kenya and Uganda. Each project pair or trio is coupled with a rural secondary school, and forms a strong relationship with the school management. Head teachers play a pivotal role in this, but the involvement and support of deputy heads, PTA chairmen, BoM chairmen, accountants, and other teachers are also necessary components of a successful partnership.
This partnership is such a crucial aspect of the EPAfrica model because it enables us to tailor projects to the needs of a particular school. Working together, the school management – which knows the school and its needs intimately – and project workers – who have time and money to invest in the school, as well as the knowledge of best practice passed on through EPAfrica training in the UK – are able to formulate innovative, exciting and targeted projects.
This year in George Khaniri Jepkoyai, for instance, a novel approach has been taken to tackle the insufficient number of classrooms in the school. Project workers and school management have jointly designed a sliding partition wall in what is currently the laboratory, to create a multifunctional learning space. One side of the divide will continue to function primarily a laboratory; the other will serve multiple purposes. At times, it will act as a reading room for the adjacent book store room; at other times it will function as a second classroom. When larger classes need to use the entire laboratory space, the partition can be opened to facilitate this.
Such a solution would not be suitable in every school. It is specific to the particular challenges facing George Khaniri Jepkoyai, namely minimal space in the school compound leading to too few classrooms. It is made possible by certain enabling characteristics of the school, such as the generally small size of classes, and the existence of a relatively large laboratory. In a different school, a different set of challenges and opportunities is likely to lead to an entirely different EPAfrica project.
The ability to uniquely fit each project to its school is a result of having project workers physically present in our partner schools in East Africa, rather than remotely implementing a blue print across schools from the UK. As school management and project workers dynamically merge their respective strengths, projects are developed which cleverly harness local experience and expertise, and mix this with project workers’ knowledge of what has and has not worked in other EPAfrica schools, to help a school improve.
The partnership aspect also means that EPAfrica projects are the result of a mutual dialogue. Through constant communication and consultation, the projects come to embody a commitment to shared aims. When school management buy in to the projects in this way, the results are likely to last. As part of the summer team, we have been inspired by revisiting numerous EPAfrica graduate schools which have gone on to improve and build upon projects initially begun as EPAfrica investments. Making partnerships such a central part of the EPAfrica approach helps us to ensure that the work we do extends beyond the summer, and is larger than the immediate presence of volunteers in schools.
What is more, we are increasingly helping schools to initiate partnerships with each other, as an exciting network of EPAfrica schools is forming. This is a result of the Head Teacher Conferences we run at the beginning of the project each summer, as well as the links that project workers form when they work across, and liaise with project workers in other, schools.
For instance, project workers working in both Ematsuli and Emayinya Secondary Schools last year instigated the fiercely competitive EPAfrica football tournament between the two schools. Now both graduate schools, the partnership between the two has continued and extended to other domains; the schools now hold joint mock exams, transferring some of the healthy competitive spirit born on the football pitch to their academic results. These sorts of partnerships between schools in the EPAfrica network mean that, even in the absence of project workers, school leadership continues to share best practice, helping each other’s schools to thrive and improve.
In many ways, then, the partnership aspect of our model is crucial to the work that we do. It is also one of the most rewarding parts of being part of EPAfrica – forming strong woking relationships and friendships with a wide number of people within schools is an especially satisfying part of being involved in the charity, and is something that keeps volunteers coming back to East Africa time and again. I have many fond memories of meetings and meals shared with the head teacher Mr Richard Shikami at St Joseph Mukulusu Secondary School, where I was a project worker back in 2012, and am looking forward to seeing him again when I visit the school at the end of the summer!
The centrality of partnership to our model means that it is important, as a charity, to reflect on what makes a good partnership. These reflections, in turn, feed in to the process of selecting the schools that we work with. We look for a committed school management and motivated teachers which have a keen understanding of the needs of their schools, and are actively seeking to meet them flexibly, juggling a variety of sources such as CDF, PTA, to help their school to do the best that it can with limited means. Not every school is lucky enough to have this. However, many of the neediest schools do – and these are the ingredients which make the perfect EPAfrica partner school and enable our approach to be most effective.