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Getting the balance right: A week in the life of a vocational training specialist


“Acho Maber. Nyinga Mark. Attya VSO. E ya a yom mene no wo”

Good morning, my name is Mark, I work for VSO, I am pleased to be here

Apart from saying hello in halting Luo (the local language), what does a vocational training specialist in Uganda actually do?

My week

Graduating hairdressers in Gulu, Uganda | VSO Mark White

Graduating hairdressers at Gulu College of Vocational Study

Monday: A graduation ceremony for the Youth Development Programme. YDP students are ‘vulnerable’: mostly unschooled; child mothers; HIV sufferers; former abductees during the civil war with Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army; orphans and worse.

The graduating college was outside Gulu, my dusty and noisy home base. All day on a plastic chair is uncomfortable, but these are joyous occasions. With few past successes our ‘graduands’ enjoy this one, astonishing coloured clothing, singing, dancing, ululation and hours of speeches. The bakery students present guests with a cake. I get everywhere by motorbike, how to balance a big pink iced cake on the handlebars?

Planning on flip chart paper | VSO Mark White

Flip chart paper: Schemes of Work, anyone?

Tuesday: Curriculum development at colleges a long way down mud roads, elephant grass high above the bike: vivid green against blue sky. Working on the dreaded Schemes of Work. They hold a talismanic fascination, as though a ‘correct’ SoW unlocks a special world.

That is the clue to one aspect of my volunteer life, working with teachers to discover and support what they want to do. As I explained to instructors in Awach, while their children ran outside, goats bleated, chickens pecked our feet and sun burnt the tin roof; there is no special answer. You join together to plan what suits you and your students. NGO’s have been here before, their imposed curriculums lie unused in the Principal’s office. I help staff develop systems that they will actually use. Vocational teachers are practical people; a scheme of work should be a useful tool not a presentation spanner left in the toolbox.

Weavers at Gulu People Disabled Union | VSO Mark White

Weavers at Gulu Peoples Disabled Union

Wednesday: To Gulu Persons Disabled Union. Today’s discussions include: can students get their battered wheelchairs through a small doorway in time for class to start? Developing a small machines course with the Motorcycle instructor. Finding examples of bicycle powered machinery (my growing obsession). Attendance list formatting with the Guidance Counsellor for his life skills classes; another feature of this holistic programme.

To another Gulu College. All YDP students are taught business skills, literacy and numeracy; most students are illiterate and innumerate when they enroll. Discussions with the Entrepreneurship Manager about Post Training Support for graduating students.

To the VSO field office to plan my Kampala trip: from the rural north to the capital mega-city, country mouse goes to town. A big meeting next week with regional NGOs and DIT (the examining body). Can we produce a market relevant vocational syllabus?

Vocational training graduates in Gulu, Uganda

A group of last year's graduates, all now in employment

Thursday: Chairing a meeting at my placement college: Daniel Comboni Vocational Institute. Senior Management evaluating progress: do teachers need support in course delivery; can we introduce more active teaching methods?

To Keyo, 20 kms north on the road to South Sudan. ‘Gender Mainstreaming’: other VSO volunteers, YDP students and staff have put together a gender and vocational training toolkit, I am introducing it to this college.

Friday: Graduation day at my placement, more singing, speeches and wild celebrations; in my previous educational experience such genuine joy was rare. A great day and the end of a fairly typical week as a vocational training specialist. 

Jaded with UK education? Try volunteering, I recommend it.

This blog by VSO volunteer Mark White, originally appeared in the Times Educational Supplement and on Mark's Wordpress blog, where you can read more of his experiences in Uganda. 

We are urgently recruiting volunteers with vocational training, human resources or organisation development skills to help vocational training institutes in Uganda deliver high quality skills training and services. This will enable local people to take advantage of employment opportunities in the agricultural, oil and gas and related sectors.
Volunteer in  Uganda

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