Goodwill under grey skies

October 12, 2001

It's a long way from the Gulf to rainy Leeds but for Omanis at summer school there, the journey proved worthwhile.

Rain in Leeds is not an event most visitors would write home about, except when you come from one of the world's most arid countries. For 250 Omani men and women, back in the stifling heat of their rugged Gulf state home, rain was one among many culture contrasts at Leeds University this summer. But that was precisely why the Omanis were there: to experience first-hand life in Britain and hear English as spoken by the English - albeit with a Yorkshire accent.

They were the second batch of Omani undergraduates to visit Leeds under a £10 million contract agreed between the university and the sultanate in 1999 to upgrade more than 1,000 Omani school teachers of English to degree level over ten years.

Vice-chancellor Alan Wilson sees the contract as groundbreaking. "All universities have got to think about reaching out to new constituents. This one is on a huge scale and is enhancing our teaching in an international context. It's a big challenge," he says.

A team from Oman's education ministry and Leeds School of Education has masterminded the project, which is part of the country's wider education reform. Leeds has drawn on its experience of a similar but smaller project in Malaysia.

Lynne Cameron, a member of the project planning team, says: "It's a partnership across national boundaries, across cultures and across tiers of the education system. It is demanding and it requires a great amount of effort and goodwill from many people."

The project has been a steep learning curve for all involved. The Omani teachers, many of whom have families and even businesses, study part time. They get day release at one of eight regional centres and attend three two-week winter schools and two six-week summer schools in Oman and the eight-week summer school in Leeds. At the end of three years, they gain a BA in educational studies: teaching English to speakers of other languages (Tesol).

One female student says: "It's hard because we have a lot of responsibilities with our work and families. It is a problem to organise time. School is 7am to 2pm. We are tired. All the time we are hurrying. I've not had a holiday for two years."

Leeds lecturer Martin Lamb agrees: "It's a big commitment. There's scarcely a break. They come here straight from school. They miss their children."

Geoff Welford, Leeds director of international education, says: "It's been a two-way process. We are learning too, mostly about Omani culture. We are getting a feel for teaching and learning in Oman and the way the ministry, teachers and the regions work together.

"For many students the summer school is their first time away from Oman. They are also having to socialise outside their home environments. There are culture clashes."

The oil-rich sultanate, which has enjoyed a close relationship with Britain, has made education, health and communication a priority. There were just three schools in 1970, now more than 1,000, as well as a university and other colleges. With a population of 2 million, which is growing fast, the government is keen to ensure young Omanis have the skills in English and information technology to participate in economic growth.

But the Omanis are keen not to dilute their Arab-Islamic heritage, and Leeds has had to be sensitive not just in the logistics of the summer school but also in study materials. The students are given single-sex accommodation and canteen sittings with special menus. By their choice, men and women are taught separately.

The men tend to wear western clothing to classes, except on Fridays when many sport traditional dishdashas and embroidered Kumma hats. The women cover their clothing with a black overdress. Traditional Omani womenswear is colourful, with dresses over trousers, veils and lots of gold jewellery.

Simon Borg, academic coordinator, says: "The Omani authorities are very keen that everyone is treated the same. We hire teaching assistants for conversation practice. They also have lunch with the students, go out on trips with them and out in the evening. We have tried to create opportunities for practising English."

Leeds staff have produced all module materials from scratch - tutor notes, student handouts, background reading and assignments. "Writing must be crystal clear," Cameron says. "We have found that some staff enjoy writing more than others and skills vary. Materials preparation takes longer than we expected and is costly."

Everyone has had to work more closely than usual and to a tighter brief. Welford says: "We have tended towards the conservative in our materials in order not to offend. But it is all we would use elsewhere, we are not going to drop standards."

Some staff, who are used to a more personal style in face-to-face teaching, have resisted the use of pre-prepared material.

Borg says: "It's an ambitious model. It is exciting to see how teaching is developing, because it is innovative. We have high levels of accountability - to the students, the Omani education ministry and the university. Everything is scrutinised. It can be a pain but it adds an edge of excitement."

The students are trained on how to use computers and the library and how to use texts to think creatively. Group projects are a big part of the Leeds experience.

"It gives the students a chance to mix with local people and improve their understanding of British culture," says Borg. "Then they go back and present their projects to prospective students, local education authorities and inspectors. It's a way of publicising the programme."

Oman's education ministry hopes the benefits of the programme will spread wider than the classroom and that the teachers will learn other skills that might further their careers as education leaders. The students are sure they will. When asked how they have enjoyed their Leeds experience, the women chime in with comments such as: "We have learnt something else besides the course." "We are more independent." "We are more active because we walk about." And "we like the weather, especially when it rains."

The UK as Omanis see it

"It's a different culture - poles apart - the way you dress, the things you do in public, for example, kissing and cuddling."

"We find the treatment of the elderly strange. They go out alone shopping. We cannot leave elderly alone."

"There's too much smoking. When we went to Blackpool we even saw children smoking."

"We are surprised at the child poverty and the homelessness. That's why we chose to do our project on homelessness."

"Public transport was a shock. No one told us before how to travel from one place to another."

"We are surprised that people eat in the street - have they no time to go home? They are travelling all the time."

"People seem very serious - they walk fast and they don't laugh much."

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