Education For All

This weekend I’ve been out in Morocco on a study trip with Education For All, a charity that enables girls from rural areas to attend school. It’s been an incredible experience and I’ve met some inspirational people. I’m writing this post on the flight back to Gatwick and I know that there will me much more to reflect on in the coming weeks. However, these are my initial thoughts, observations and comments on what I’ve seen over the last 3 days.

A brief snapshot of the charity and its work would be helpful for a bit of context. It’s probably best to get that from their website. But, in summary, they build boarding houses for girls from poor, rural communities in areas south of Marrakech so that they can go to school. Obviously there is a great deal more to the charity, which I have attempted to encapsulate in this post but check out their website and this TEDx talk for more. 

The issues the charity challenges are twofold. Firstly, all of the girls originate from villages where there is no local secondary school. In some cases, the nearest secondary school is up to 60km away. By building and furnishing boarding homes close to schools, the charity offer girls a place to stay during the week within immediate walking distance of a school, eradicating the previously impossible task of a daily commute. 

Secondly, there are cultural factors to face. In a lot of cases, particularly in rural areas, a girl’s role within a family is to stay at home to work or care for younger siblings. The place of education in the family is often reserved for the male members. While this is certainly not always the case (see below) and while this traditional family model is changing, part of EFA Morocco’s role is to work closely with families to promote the importance of ‘Education for All’. By providing an education for young girls, the hope is that, as future mothers, the girls will continue to value female education and pass this culture of learning on to the next generation. 

If you educate a girl, you educate the next generation.’

What is particularly interesting about EFA Morocco’s journey is that, while there are still issues to tackle culturally regarding the education of female family members, it is in fact the rural communities themselves that called for the opportunities EFA provides in the first place. The Moroccan government does provide housing for girls but access to this housing is not free and often the conditions are poor. It was the forward-thinking members of these rural communities whom raised the issue of school access. This is a great example of a bottom-up process of innovation and these ‘wants’ provided a great base on which to build the charity and its role in the community.

Part of the weekend was spent visiting four of the five boarding houses that have been built so far. Each house is run by a ‘house-mother’ who supports day-to-day life for the girls alongside a cook and a cleaner. The girls share rooms with up to 5 others (sleeping in triple story bunk beds that look great!) and are provided with everything they need to ensure they can focus on learning and their studies. This includes pencils, pens, books and even a small suite of computers with Internet access. 

Walking around the houses and talking with the girls and the staff, it became clear that this project is having a dramatic impact on the lives of Moroccan women of all ages. Obviously, the absolute fundamental positive impact has been on living conditions and access to education for the girls. (Some of these girls come from homes without individual beds; some will never have used a shower). These young women are incredibly driven and truly relish the opportunity they have been given to learn. Their ambitions are high: from doctors to directors of companies, these girls are striving for success and finding it. The first girls to enter the first ever EFA house are now of university age. Almost all of that first ‘cohort’ went on to study at degree level and are all currently at Marrakech university. 

But it is not only the girls who are benefitting from the project. The house-mothers are finding better lives through paid employment; the girls’ families are seeing the impact an education can have; whole communities are finding employment through a Kasbah that helps fund the project (more about this below). The impact is truly widespread.

This trip has had a huge personal impact on me in many ways. But what is the professional impact and what will be the ‘take back’ from this study trip? Initially, my reflections centre on the children in my class who came to the UK from other countries or whose families originate from places and communities where similar struggles are faced. Understanding the context from which children enter our classrooms can enable an important level of empathy and support in forming strong relationships from the beginning. Something I will aim to do more of when new children join my class (or when I start with a new class) is to find out much more about their origins and experiences in a more structured way than the current informal, conversational strategies that are in place. 

When I mentioned that I was visiting Morocco to a girl in my class who was born there, her face lit up. She was incredibly excited and began sharing everything she knew about the country, the culture, the climate and the language with a level of enthusiasm that I’d not experienced before. During my short time in Morocco the level of national pride and passion held by its people was astounding. Even those living in poor conditions, love the country. The girl in my class showed similar passion. This trip has clarified to me the importance of enabling pupils from other cultures and countries to share their knowledge and understanding. I hope to begin a project in my classroom where pupils are given the chance to create and share something based on their origins. I think this is something that a lot of schools attempt but it can too often be a tick box exercise rather than something with true meaning and purpose. With such a tight timetable and curriculum pressures from every angle this will not necessarily be easy; I’ll certainly need to develop these thoughts. At the moment, what I can definitely envisage is a Skype session between the Moroccan girl in my class and the girls in the boarding houses of EFA Morocco. 

Another important outcome for me is to share what I have observed with the children in my school. Many of the children will already know about the difficulties faced by children of their age in other parts of the world. It is not something that they will be strangers to. However, I think it is important for our children and young people to have a greater understanding of these issues and to have the opportunity to consider solutions to some of these problems themselves. In the future, the children we teach may be the ones to setup charities to support the issues they hear about from around the world. I’d like to share the issues I have heard about and observed this weekend with the children and ask them how they might solve them before I explain the work of EFA and share the approach they have taken. 

I think it will also be worth using this weekend as an opportunity to discuss the religious practices of Islam and to reflect on and refute the often one-sided, negative portrayal of the religion that – particularly recently with world events – has sadly been reported in our media.
Another ‘take back’ relates to how to spread the message of EFA wider and how to help the charity increase the money it can raise. The model the charity have used to provide these opportunities for the girls is something that could be replicated and up-scaled across Morocco and the wider world where similar issues exist. Inevitably, this can only happen if revenue can be raised and enough funding generated.

Financially, the charity is supported by donations, fundraising events (including a huge bike ride!) and the income from a Kasbah owned by the directors. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to stay in the Kasbah du Toubkal: an amazing property situated in the shadow of Jbel Toubkal (North Africa’s highest mountain) above the Imlil valleys. As an aside, Daniel Craig and Paul McCartney are among the clientele and the Kasbah is one of National Geographic’s top places to stay in the world.

Run by Hajj Maurice and his wife Hajja Arkia, the Kasbah provides a ‘Berber hospitality’ experience rather than that of a traditional hotel and restaurant. The area is inhabited by the Berbers – the original inhabitants of North Africa – and so the local community are central to the running and to the experience of life at the Kasbah. This was evident as soon as we arrived in Imlil (we were greeted by 5 locals and our bags were immediately taken by a muleteer and loaded on to a donkey) and continued throughout our stay. 

The Kasbah’s influence on the community is widespread. As well as employing a number of locals, the Kasbah uses a range of local suppliers to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner and the development of the Kasbah has led to increased business for local vendors (via increased tourism) in the whole area. What struck me most about this, was how humble the entire community were. Hajj Maurice is hugely respected in this community not only because he has been on pilgrimage but because of his hard work with EFA Morocco and more directly with ensuring the Kasbah’s redevelopment. The humility and hospitality of the Berber people and the genuine pride they take in sharing their history, language, culture and beliefs with others is something that we could all learn from. 

We’ll be landing in a few minutes time and I want to complete this post before we do as, no doubt, it’ll be straight back to the manic world of teaching and living in London tomorrow. However, if there is one thing I take away from this trip, it’s that it’s incredibly important to make time to reflect on the issues and struggles faced by those less fortunate than us in our world and to share, discuss and celebrate the huge range of diversity we experience on a daily basis. This is something I am keen to make time for this week and looking forwards. 

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