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School CP - November 2007

Corpun file 19763


Sunday Times, London, 4 November 2007

African cane tames unruly British pupils

By Tristan McConnell

Scores of British school children are being sent away to take their GCSEs in Ghana, exchanging truancy and gang culture for traditional teaching and strong discipline, including the cane. "When I was in London I was bad basically," said Abena, 16, from Hackney, east London, with braces on her teeth and a swagger in her step.

"I stopped going to school and in my head I was, like, thinking money, money, money."

Dispatched to Africa, far from the world of gangs, theft and knife crime, she found herself at the Faith Montessori boarding school in Accra, Ghana's capital, where the fees are 1,200 a year.

Most of the school's expatriate children spend holidays with relatives or guardians in Ghana, returning to Britain once a year. During term time they live in dormitories 10 to a room.

For the parents it is a chance to save their children from the thuggery that has seen 21 teenagers shot or stabbed to death in London alone this year. Abena and three other British pupils at her school now believe they are receiving a rigorous education that was lacking in Britain.

"When your friends know that you've gone to Ghana they know that you're going to get straightened up," said Sienam, 17, from Edgware, north London, who has been at school in Accra for three years.

"I used to be really bad," he said, muttering about gangs and the kind of playground violence that he has put behind him. "When my friends in London see that I've changed it wakes them up a little bit. I get respect but in a different way."

According to Oswald Amoo-Gottfried, the school's founder and director, the key to the success of pupils such as Sienam is the kind of discipline that has long since fallen out of fashion in Britain. "I believe in caning," he declared. "I tell the parents: if you don't want your child punished, then your child doesn't belong here."

His school is quiet, the atmosphere studious. The youngest children sit in neat sailor suits; older pupils wear blue shorts and white shirts, while the senior students dress in smart trousers and T-shirts emblazoned with the school badge.

In one classroom 30 pupils are arranged in rows of desks facing their male teacher and the white board. They remain silent until asked a question.

Amoo-Gottfried is a friendly faced disciplinarian who has seen more than 20 London children of African parentage pass through his school in the past five years.

"Children must be taught. You don't sit down and discuss directions with a child -- you tell them where to go," he said. Children are beaten for misbehaving or failing to do home-work, but not for poor results.

Sienam admitted that he had been caned "many, many times" by his teachers in Ghana. "Any time you do something you know you shouldn't do or step out of line, you get caned," he said. The cane "works to some extent", he conceded.

Isaac, 17, from Norwood, in southeast London, said he became involved in gangs and stealing before his parents sent him to Ghana. After four years at school in Accra he is softly spoken and articulate and hopes to sit international GCSEs at the end of this academic year before returning to Britain for A-levels.

When they first arrive the teen-agers are often "a lot wilder", said Amoo-Gottfried, but with time and discipline they become "domesticated". He puts the troubles of the British pupils down to a lack of good role models - a reason many West Indian families cite for sending their children to school back home.

"In London father has run off to work early in the morning, mother the same. So you find the children left to themselves and, as they say, the devil finds work for idle hands. Here they see professional people -- lawyers, doctors -- whereas in the UK most of the Ghanaians are blue-collar workers."

The list of consistent A, B and C grades on a results sheet pinned to the notice board is a source of pride and several of Amoo-Gottfried's former pupils are now at British universities.

Michelle Asante, 23, attended Archbishop Porter girls' school in Takoradi, Ghana, and went on to complete a sociology degree at Sheffield University before going to drama school.

"The school I was attending in Plumstead [southeast London] wasn't great and my mum felt I wasn't being challenged. There was a lot of fighting," said Asante, who is now an actress. "Education is so important in Ghana -- people take it as their only means of escaping poverty. With education you can do anything, no matter how poor you are."

The pupils at Faith Montessori agree discipline in Africa can be tough but also see their lives changing for the better. Abena and "the London boys", which includes James, 16, from Edmonton Green, north London, also admit that while they are benefiting from a Ghanaian education, they miss home and look forward to going back to A-levels and university. The years of mischief are behind them, Isaac said: "What gets you respect over there is disgrace over here."

Additional reporting: Sara Hashash

Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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