Despite most VSO volunteers working in education, there is still a shortage of primary teachers, says Mark Goldring.
Much has been made in the press recently of Voluntary Service Overseas's new brand of business volunteers - the successful lawyers and accountants who give up City salaries to pass on their business expertise to local communities overseas. Yet perhaps it is VSO's education volunteers who are its unsung heroes.
VSO has supported education in poorer countries since it was founded in 1958. Education accounts for more than half of VSO's 1,800 placements in 74 developing countries. VSO's aim in education is to improve the quality of life, opportunities for employment and to provide livelihoods to disadvantaged people. We rely on a diverse pool of people with a diverse range of skills. It is not unlikely then that they will have equally diverse reasons for applying.
VSO's education volunteers range from university lecturers to new graduates, from in-service teacher trainers to curriculum developers and from inspectors and planners to literacy advisers. Each volunteer will have a different impact and each will have something unique to offer and to learn.
Is VSO a selfless or selfish act? Frankly, as long as volunteers are well qualified, have the right personality and have something useful to offer, VSO recruiters are not overly concerned.
VSO's education programme strives to improve the quality of education in poorer countries, but what each country needs varies considerably and so, therefore, does the type of volunteers we send. In some, a broad-based approach is important. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, the shortage of teachers at all levels is so acute that the governments were quite clear that they wanted VSO to work in the classroom improving education opportunities for pupils at the same time as being involved in universities and teacher-training colleges.
In other countries, such as Nigeria and the Solomon Islands, we have used experienced primary teachers in in-service teacher-training positions, and in others, such as Eritrea, we have complemented schools-based work with advisers at district level and IT and planning staff in the ministry of education.
Head teachers, college lecturers and education managers have a wealth of skills and experience to offer that these countries desperately need to build a sustainable education infrastructure. In South Africa, we have used many senior educationists to teach a range of subjects in the historically disadvantaged universities.
It is no coincidence that 16 per cent of our volunteers are aged 50 and over. For many it is the chance they never got in their 20s and is an option once again.
As primary education is the only formal education many children receive, VSO's support in this area is fundamental to empowering more disadvantaged people and improving their incomes, health and environment. Primary teacher training is an area in which we see our programmes growing but are constrained by a shortage of volunteers.
VSO recruits primary teachers with anything from two years' experience upwards. This can provide a fundamental step in enabling primary teachers to develop skills and have training responsibilities at a much earlier stage in their career than would be possible in the United Kingdom.
Wherever we can, we look to post-skilled experienced volunteers. In recent years, we have looked at whether we should continue to post recent graduates as secondary school teachers.
Our evaluations and the view of our partners, the employers of the volunteers in Africa and Asia, tell us that, in the right circumstances, we should.
For those leaving university faced with a student loan bill but with itchy feet, the VSO package can also enable them to gain skills and confidence, and get their desire to travel out of their system without worrying about further debt.
Some go into teacher training when they get back to the UK but many go into other sectors, offering employers a well-rounded CV, adaptability, resilience and creative flair.
Now, major companies are working with VSO to second their employees overseas on placements that use their business skills. They hope their staff too will pick up these softer skills and bring them back to the workplace.
So, VSO - selfless or selfish? It is said that we give out mixed messages regarding who we need to recruit and why. Volunteers feed back equally mixed messages on their reason for applying to VSO, and many applicants are pleasantly surprised when they see how comprehensive our benefits and support package is.
The fact remains that the work VSO volunteers carry out is vital, and whether it is your first job or your last, it will be one you will not be likely to forget or regret.
Mark Goldring is chief executive of Voluntary Services Overseas. VSO Enquiries Unit 020 8780 7500 ( www.vso.org.uk )