The journey from a library partnership project to a network driving community-led change

As EduSpots hits its five-year anniversary, founder Cat Davison, also director of service and social impact at Sevenoaks School, explains how they have achieved what they have through school partnerships

Since 2015 over 300 volunteers in Ghana and the UK have come together to support the creation and daily leadership of a network of 42 community-led education centres or ‘Spots’ open to over 10,000 users annually, whilst engaging students and teachers in critical discourse exploring global development.

But how did the EduSpots network begin and grow?

The story is told differently by each person involved; indeed, recognising the pluralistic nature of human experience is central to our belief system.

As we celebrate five years since our official charity registration, this article offers my own perspective on our unexpected and ongoing journey, with critical dialogue at its centre. Consideration on my own positionality as a UK citizen leading an NGO partially based in Ghana is vital – my reflection on this is open and critical but crucially forwards-facing and impact-driven.

Background

After visiting a Ghanaian school in my early teaching career as part of a school partnership project, I felt a strong sense of injustice upon witnessing teachers equally as passionate as me trying to develop students’ literacy abilities without anything but a piece of chalk to assist them.

Following this, I came together with Ghanaian teachers to consider an effective model for working with local leaders to advance educational opportunity in low-resource communities whilst furthering the quality of development education in schools globally.

We saw a need to cut through potentially divisive narratives of charity based on transactional relationships, rather focusing on a model aiming to drive change through active inclusion and critical reflection on notions of power, using postcolonial theory as a critical lens.

We hoped to use the project as a stimulus for prompting wider critical conversations on development education and practice.

The EduSpots model

Whilst teaching full-time, I worked with a Ghanaian driver, Francis, to spend a year talking to different community members, before collectively devising a model centred on community ownership, sustainability and locally-focused innovation, ahead of bringing several colleagues in the UK on board.

EduSpots started with a singular school partnership and one small classroom conversion in Abofour, creating a reading centre with solar power to avoid costs of electricity and enabling our centres to be beacons of light during frequent periods of light-out. Dennis, the head boy, was key to the initiation of this project, explaining how books enabled him to become independent from his teachers.

The library was led by a local committee, with students of all ages using the space for free. The ownership and drive of volunteers in this community gave us the motivation to continue.

WhatsApp was a useful tool for growing our network, with each Spot having its own WhatsApp group for volunteers, and a wider feed enabling community educators in different contexts to connect and build personal relationships and share practice. Gradually, Spot by Spot, the network developed, with volunteers exposed to ideas and innovations from different regions of Ghana.

Simultaneously, students in the UK and beyond engaged in a critical form of active global citizenship education, which focused on enabling students to analyse power and consider responsibility for global inequalities.

Our team devised online courses on global development to introduce students to postcolonial thinking and development theory, asking them to read African scholarship and apply concepts to practical situations, engaging with Ghanaian community members on a live discussion board.

One student commented: “I was under the spell of my own preconceptions about Sub-Saharan African countries. The course challenged me to argue with myself. I now measure the success of my own actions by testing if I’ve learnt something totally alien to me in the process.”

Students and teachers in both contexts inputted into the development of the charity which was first named ‘Reading Spots’ based on reformulation of a local concept of a ‘spot’ as a social venue. Students helped to design the logo, write newsletters, create the website and spread understanding within their school communities.

Two years later Reading Spots was awarded the 2018 Tes International Award, sponsored by the British Council, for our work relating to Brighton College, ahead of a strategic decision to rename the organisation ‘EduSpots’ to enable us to move beyond literacy development to a wider range of educational activities.

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WhatsApp messages from across the network

 

Community Leadership in Education programme

A vital part of our model is that we bring students, teachers and community members together in the development process, building from Paulo Freire’s philosophy that ‘all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled… to shape the society in which they live’. We believe that education cannot meet the needs of all citizens until systems are created for diverse representation and active inclusion.

Building on our previous network-wide conferences, in 2021 EduSpots launched a residential academy, which is a core part of EduSpots’ innovative new Community Leadership in Education (CLEd) programme.

This aims to equip cohorts of committed teachers, students and community members with the skills, insight and network needed to lead local change in their communities based on a participatory co-learning model.

Catalysts return to their communities where they apply learning to the leadership of their Spots, supported by an in-country mentor. One catalyst commented: “The CLEd academy has awoken the inner feeling of responsibility and has equipped me with more knowledge to carry out effective, consistent and more impactful programs at my Spot.”

A Joy News TV report is found here. We envisage that this programme may be expanded to other contexts in the world.

Alongside opening and maintaining the spaces, our Spot volunteers run a range of programmes that build from community interests, including male and female mentoring programmes, STEM and climate action camps, and literacy clubs.

To support them, our Ghanaian staff team lead regular Zoom training sessions, offer remote mentoring support, and design resources. We have co-created different levels of Spot achievement, with those meeting criteria built by the network gaining recognition and further support.

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The first CLEd programme participants

 

Building through partnerships

From the beginning, EduSpots welcomed any school or organisation to join our process of collective practical enquiry. We also accepted that people and organisations might join us, contribute, and some would move on, believing that every travelling partner could contribute and gain something valuable, wherever they are positioned in the world.

In this process, we aim to avoid a North-South donor divide, engaging partners in Ghana in fundraising, book drives and projects – indeed, one Ghanaian volunteer commented: “EduSpots has made me realise that there are common problems all over the world and we can share solutions from wherever we are.”

Book collections became opportune moments to engage schools in our work, with students and staff in over 40 schools and universities in both the UK and Ghana leading assemblies explaining the cause, ahead of donating over 100,000 books alongside a focus on the provision of African fiction and textbooks.

Students in Sevenoaks School have worked with Ghanaian community members and an illustrator to publish our first book, Kwame’s Adventures, which is based in Tease, engaging in ideas of decolonisation and representation in the process

Student ambassadors engaged in fundraising and wrote to many organisations leading to partnerships with book shops and publishers, alongside long-term support from Book Aid International and Dext Technology. Following our growth, we have gained support from a number of trust funds through persistence with applications with over £300,000 raised since we started.

We have also organised several partnership projects tailored to schools’ interests. Students in Sevenoaks School have worked with Ghanaian community members and an illustrator to publish our first book, Kwame’s Adventures, which is based in Tease, engaging in ideas of decolonisation and representation in the process.

Alumni from the African Science Academy have been given grants to create Spots and run STEM camps on sustainable energy in their home communities, inspiring girls and boys to aspire to become engineers.

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Students in Kalpohin using Dext Technology STEM kits in a STEM clubs programme

 

Research and evaluation

Alongside living with Ghanaian families for a year, my understanding was transformed by completing a 22,000-word research project as part of an MA in International Development and Education at UCL. Together with local volunteers, we focused on exploring parental attitudes towards community libraries, applying theory from new literacy studies and postcolonial theory and examine inclusivity in the community education context.

We were interested to consider the possibly divisive nature of community education programmes, and used a case study qualitative approach working with local leaders to explore how different people related to our Spots and literacy interventions.

We continue to evaluate EduSpots’ work by collecting data from communities on the usage of the Spots, also using the most significant change (MSC) approach to explore our impact upon individuals. ImpactEd are supporting us with leading a quantitative study of impact upon students and catalysts with early results noting a rise in measures of active citizenship, wellbeing and self-efficacy.

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Pupils in the EduLit service team at Sevenoaks, working alongside Stephten Tettegah, EduSpots’ head of literacy development

 

Case study: Kalpohin

Picture Kalpohin in Tamale, Northern Ghana, which sometimes suffers regular periods of lights-out. The nearby schools have few reading materials, despite proficiency in English being central to every exam. Many parents are not able to read and write, and many do not value formal education, particularly for girls, whom can enter into early marriages.

Today, after volunteering for many months, Wakil and Ruhia, two inspiring high school volunteers, decided to enrol in our CLEd programme, alongside a local teacher, Mr Adam. Together, they have grown leadership skills as they manage and develop the solar-powered Spot in their community, which they open and run every evening together with a diverse volunteer team.

During the day a national service personnel opens the space enabling the six local schools to have access. Community members have set up mentoring programmes and a science teacher runs a regular practical STEM club.

One English teacher set up community-wide reading clinics, later becoming EduSpots’ head of literacy. Every single evening volunteers send photos of the learning and activities, shared with the network on WhatsApp, and receive encouragement and advice from their fellow Spot leaders.

Our ‘collective’ future

As a Ghana/UK network, we are committed to both fundraising and building a model for community-led change that enables our communities to drive their own educational futures whilst advocating for curriculum-based development in the global context.

This process is complex, imperfect, ongoing, and inclusive – if this story and our approach intrigues you, we’d love you to reach out and join us.


Visit www.eduspots.org for more details or email cdavison@eduspots.org with questions relating to school partnership opportunities, sponsoring EduSpots or to talk about global partnerships in education.

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