So said a young Tony Blair when asked his priorities for his first government. Like so many politician’s promises or in Blair parlance ” sound bites” I’m not sure what happened to that one but up here near Chiang Rai on the Mae Kok River it has a certain resonance.
There are some 10 different peoples populating this area and most are a few notches up from what my geography master used to describe as subsistence farming e.g. these guys have stuff left over to sell. The way clearly to get them moving upwards is to ensure that the children get a sound education and can then makes life choices ( good buzz word don’t you think !) as to whether they want to stay or head off to the city because with it they will be able to make the decision.
There are plenty of schools up here built by the Thai Rangers elite border control section of the army. They built them during the period when tension was high along the Thai/ Burma border and it was a way they hoped to stop the local peoples offering assistance to the Burmese forces that infiltrated across the porous border to attack the Rangers.
Tensions are now very low and the schools have fallen into disrepair. Step in Bryan Massingham the amiable owner of the Maekok River Resort and the Outdoor Adventure school for International School students from around the world who also was a geography teacher before building the resort.
Each week he has about 40 International school students here and because community service is now high on the education curriculum in many countries it seemed a natural to offer such an experience to his visiting students where they could add value ( I’m full of buzzy stuff today ) . It has worked a dream as they say.
When I was at school eons ago community service was done as a punishment for bad behaviour and we all considered it far worse than a beating with the cane. The idea of hours weeding some ancient pensioner’s garden was enough to almost dissuade you from say smoking. Indeed one new enlightened house master decided to do away with the cane and use the community service punishment alone. He was surprised to receive a petition signed by all the cadets in his house begging him to re-instate the cane immediately.
Now it is the normal part of being at school it seems and here the students do it in the local schools and Bryan took me to one today to see them in action.
The foreign students and this lot were from Hong Kong are split into two groups each day. In the morning one lot do painting or repairing of buildings
Three days ago these were rusty unused school playground equipment. The students have sanded them down, oiled them, repaired them and now have painted them .by tomorrow they will be back in use and loaded with happy 5/6 year olds.
the other half teach English in the class room
Some like these guys are very good and the local kids pay real attention. I didn’t like to photograph the other room where the students had lost complete control of the children who were running amok. Byran with his head master’s hat on took control immediately and I found myself calling him “sir” for a short period as did the kids.
The real benefit though comes when the students go home having seen first hand the type of conditions the kids are taught in and start to raise funds to be sent back to the schools they have worked in.
Bryan has established close links with 38 schools in the area and since 2004 over 120 school improvement projects have been funded by the international school students to the value of over 15 million Baht ( £3 million ).
At this school he found that many of the very young students 5-7 years old were walking 5 kms each way to attend school each day. The funds have built two dormitories and now the youngsters weekly board and merely walk down on a Monday and go home on a Friday. The funds also started a small farm nearby to provide food for the boarders. Classrooms have been built , sports facilities laid out and more teachers bought in.
They also provide funds to allow bright students to stay on at school when the parents would normally take them away from school at 11 years old to help on the farm. Now they can stay on till 15 years old.
To increase fund raising Bryan loaned money to 6 local women to set up a small pashmina business working on local looms.
Now International school students buy the stock and take it home to sell there and we parents all know how good kids are at doing this. A school from Tokyo bought up 15,500 baht worth a few weeks ago and this week sent Bryan 57,000 baht having deducted the original outlay !
Since seeing Sri Lank a few years after the tsunami had hit and the almost total lack of new building despite the millions sent to the country I have grown sceptical of charities. Especially as I met in the Hilton in Columbo 50 or so so called NGO leaders living there on the executive floors making the odd visit to the the Galle area where the devastation was.
To see this little operation in practise was great . Blair was right of course but to him it was just a clever thing to say. Bryan and his small team are doing something very practical to improve the lot of the local people by providing education, education, education.