VSO ­ Volunteers

Freda Ellis

My name is Freda Ellis. I am currently Headteacher of a village Primary School in the heart of beautiful rural Dorset. On the 7th September 2005 I am flying out to Pnomh Penh in Cambodia to start a two-year stint as a volunteer with VSO. I am now going to try and explain how this came about!

I first applied to do Voluntary Service Overseas many years ago (too many to count!). Then, as now, the selection process was quite long and careful, and, in my case, somewhat complicated by a slight health problem with one eye. During the time it took for my application to be processed, I was offered paid employment within a potentially secure career structure, and in my state of amazed gratitude, I withdrew my application to VSO. This is one of the few things in my life that I have ever regretted.

After ten years working in the travel industry, I began to feel that I should probably be doing something a little more worthwhile with my talents, so I left a very lucrative job and studied for a PGCE in Primary Education. After training in Wales, I worked in primary schools in London and Essex before moving to Dorset to work first as Deputy Headteacher and then as Headteacher at an idyllic primary school.

Having attained the dizzy heights of Headship, I once again found myself hankering towards doing something worthwhile with my skills. This was fired in part by a visit to Peru last summer, where I saw children with very little working very hard both at their schoolwork and to help their parents make ends end meet ­ a marked contrast to some of the children at my school! I am single, quite physically fit and with no dependants, and it suddenly dawned on me that now might be a good time to remove that lifelong regret, and offer myself to VSO once again.

I went along to an information day in London organised for those people interested in volunteering educational skills to VSO. I spoke to returned volunteers and others, like me, who were considering volunteering, and listened to various presentations about the VSO experience. By the end of the day, I had no doubts at all ­ I applied immediately.

In April I attended an assessment day which involved an in-depth interview and a series of group exercises to see whether I was the stuff of which VSO volunteers are made. Within a week I had heard that I was accepted, and I then made an appointment with my placement adviser to discuss suitable placements to match my skills and preferences. After a fairly in-depth analysis of both, I was offered a placement as Education Adviser in the Banteay Mancheay province of Cambodia. I accepted the placement with alacrity, and wrote a short letter of application to my prospective employer in Cambodia. Some weeks later I heard that I had been accepted for the post and my preparations began in earnest.

First of all I had to attend two compulsory residential courses, ‘Preparing for Change’ which focused on the personal needs and challenges which might arise during my placement, and ‘Volunteers and Development’ which gave me an insight into the history of global development and VSO’s position within that context. Before I leave in early September, I will also be attending a five-day residential course, ‘Skills for working in Development’, five days of motorcycle training (soon to become my main means of transportation), a half-day Health and Security workshop and a five day teacher-training course.

On arrival in Pnomh Penh, I have to undergo a further eight weeks of in-country training, including an intensive language course to help me learn to speak Khmer, the only language spoken by most of the inhabitants of Cambodia.

The main objectives of my placement are (within a larger ‘Mainstreaming Inclusive Education’ project) to improve the management capacity of staff at the Provincial Office of Education, to improve the facilitation skills, education management and leadership of staff at the Provincial Office of Education and to co-ordinate the development of a provincial education network. In simpler language, this will involve supporting an improvement in the quality and effectiveness of classroom teaching and learning among primary and lower secondary teachers, supporting improvements in the overall effectiveness of school planning, supervision and monitoring and evaluation of school performance at provincial and local levels and supporting improvements in the development and implementation of education policy that promotes quality and relevance for all.

I now find myself caught up in the whirlwind of activity attendant upon giving up one’s normal life for two years ­ letting out my house, selling my car, arranging for storage for my worldly goods, organising a series of farewell parties for my family, colleagues and friends, buying the necessities for my time away and, of course, reading everything I can about Cambodia and the projects which VSO are operating there. It is a phenomenally steep learning curve, but I feel incredibly excited about it all.

VSO has three main approaches in its work, namely ‘Empowerment’, ‘Partnership’ and ‘Commitment to Learning’. I am immensely humbled by the challenges that the people of Cambodia have successfully overcome in recent years. I also feel enormously privileged to be able to share in a small part of their journey towards their destiny, and to see how VSO’s approaches can be used by them to work towards the Cambodia that they wish to live in.

Best wishes, Freda


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