Visit to a Primary School in Borneo.

In conversation with a taxi driver on the return journey from seeing orangutans at Sepilok, I discovered his wife worked in a Primary School, and he said that it would be possible to arrange for me to go and visit the school. The next day he came and took me to the regions ¬†Education Office, as he had found out I would need a letter giving permission from them – on arrival there, we discovered that they wanted to see my passport! So the next day we returned with the passport and were given a letter – but as the letter was handed to me the gentleman said ” But you will need to go back to your hotel and put on a long dress, or long skirt and blouse, otherwise the Head teacher will not let you in!” So eventually, with letter, and long dress we arrived at the school!

I forgot to mention too, that in my short interview, with the gentleman at the Education Office, he asked why I was interested in visiting a Primary School. I explained that I was interested in finding out about how children learned Maths and what made them enjoy the subject. He laughed and said,”I thought children all over the world didn’t like Maths! it’s no different here in Borneo, they don’t like Maths either.”

At school I was greeted by the Head teacher, who told me that the school was an ‘A’ primary. It was explained to me that the children started Primary school in the year that they turned 7, and that just prior to starting school they took a test – those that passed, went to an ‘A’ school, the others to a ‘B’ school. The taxi driver explained that children work hard to make sure they stay in an ‘A’ school, and that very few children move from a ‘B’ school into the ‘A’ school.

The Primary School had 900 pupils, but the older children came to school in the morning, from 6.30 to 12.30 and then the younger children came in the afternoon from 1.30 to 5.30. Different teachers were in the school during the mornings and afternoons, and nobody had their lunch at school. I could see that this way of working meant that the building was school to twice the number of pupils we would have used it for in the UK, but it also meant that the classrooms didn’t belong to one class, the way that they do in our primary schools. I’m used to thinking that the learning ¬†environment is really important – but these classrooms had virtually no displays on the walls, the tables were large old wooden tables, and the children sat on plastic stacking garden chairs at the tables. The floor was just a cement floor with no covering, and 3 fans whirred as they tried to keep the temperature down in the classroom. The windows were all slatted glass, and open, and black curtains hung in each window, in attempt to keep out enough light to make the projector and screen visible. The boys sat together on the front tables and the girls sat together on the tables at the back. There were about 35 children in the class, although I was told that class sizes were larger in Secondary schools.

I had requested to watch a Maths lesson, but when the Deputy looked at the timetables it appeared that no Maths was being taught while I was there, so it was suggested that I went to a Science lesson, as apparently the format would be very similar to that of a Maths lesson! I was introduced to the class as Madame Elizabeth, (Elizabeth being my name on my passport!) and sat down at the back to watch. The lesson was all about changes in transport over time… I wasn’t quite sure how this fitted into the Science Curriculum, but all the children had text books on their tables that clearly said Science, and had pictures, text and exercises that corresponded to what was on the board. The teacher worked through a series of slides, from her laptop and the children answered her questions. Anyone she thought wasn’t paying attention had to stand up, and then after a short while, she would ask them another question and if their response showed they had been paying attention they could sit back down. The session went on like this for over an hour, and then finally the children were set the exercise in the text book to do for homework. Some of the children wanted to come and shake my hand before they left and they were all very polite, saying they hoped I had enjoyed their lesson, and liked their school.

The Deputy explained that the Government write the program of study and provide the text books, and laptops for the teachers, for all Literacy, Maths and Science lessons. The lessons were taught in English, but the teacher would also recap in mother tongue. I was told a tutor from the Government came to the school 1 day a week and helped the teachers, and also supported them with their English.

The Deputy also told me she was looking forward to retiring in a few years… they retire at 55!

It was fascinating to visit the school, and the differences were very striking. I really wanted to go and visit a ‘B’ school and find out what these were like, but that appeared to be a much harder task and time didn’t allow for it. Ultimately I was glad that I taught at Hovingham, that I could plan and teach in my way, for my pupils and that our classroom could become an exciting learning environment.

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