This article appears as part of the Lessons to Learn newsletter.

Today is Thursday the 4th of July, 2024 – and I have a problem.

We’re now (happily) into the school holidays, which rather limits the major education stories available for a bit of commentary or explanation.

You may have noticed that there’s also an election going on today. By the time you read this, most of us will have probably already voted, but for obvious reasons today’s newsletter has to steer clear of politics as far as possible, just in case.

So what to do instead?

I had a few ideas, most of them bad, and then it hit me – maybe I should just tell you a story.

So here goes.

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Zanzibar on holiday. It’s somewhere I’d wanted to visit ever since I was a child and first realised that, like Timbuktu, it is in fact a real place.

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In many respects, Zanzibar is a legitimate paradise island. It is ringed by impossibly perfect beaches, surrounded by warm, clear, fish-filled waters, and covered in ridiculously lush and vibrant plant life. I saw monkeys having lunch outside my accommodation, and watched a pair of eastern golden weaver birds tend to a nest suspended from palm fronds above a swimming pool. We even met a giant snail.

The second half of our trip was spent in a town called Paje on the island’s east coast. Google it and you’ll find pictures of those gorgeous beaches, complete with aquamarine waters, as well as adverts for boat trips and kite-surfing, which is hugely popular. If you visit, I should stress, you’ll find a very different Zanzibar just a few metres away from that idyllic shoreline.

Driving north from Paje for a snorkelling trip, a flash of bright orange on the walls of a roadside compound caught my eye. I didn’t quite get the name the first time, but on the way back I was ready, and saw it clearly: Charity School Bwejuu.

(Image: James McEnaney)
It’s worth pointing out at this stage that I had promised my wife that I absolutely would not be working during this holiday, and up to that point I’d done well to stick to that commitment.

But I just couldn’t resist, so I got in touch to ask if it might be possible for me to come by for a visit. Unfortunately we only had a couple of days left, so it was very short notice, and I would have entirely understood if the school had declined – instead, they responded almost immediately telling me that I would be welcome to come along the next day.

So that’s what I did.

The school was founded by Rajab Ali Jaku, who was born in the nearby village that gives it its name. He has received various degrees and awards for his work in education, including recognition from the former president of Zanzibar at the 2010 International Teacher’s Day.

I met him in his office, which seems to sit at the heart of the school ground – as a result, with break time underway, the sound of laughing, chattering children continuously tumbled in from outside. I got the feeling he likes it that way, and my suspicions were confirmed as he explained why happy children must lie at the heart of a truly successful school or education system.

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The school environment, he told me, is a big part of that. When it was being set up, he and others realised that many children did not attend school because the buildings they were being asked to spend their days in were in extremely poor condition – and the alternative, of course, was another day at the beach.

At this school, however, the buildings – funded by donors from various countries – make you want to be here. They’re bright and bold and welcoming and, in the quite extraordinary heat of pre-rainy season Zanzibar, surprisingly comfortable. The grounds are beautiful, with views out to the sea on one side and new paved pathways all around.

The school offers two years of kindergarten, seven of primary, and then up to six of high school. The high school curriculum includes business, science, maths, English, chemistry and history. English is the primary language of instruction, but Arabic is also used and, when I visit some of the youngest children in their class, I hear plenty of Swahili.

(Image: James McEnaney)
The school sits in between government and private schools – it is, I was told, best thought of as a “community school”. But as the name suggests, funding comes from outside donors, and here, they sponsor individual children rather than the school itself. Less than $300 covers the annual costs, with an additional $20 a month required for boarding and meals. Children from families that can afford to do so pay the full amount, but those with less only pay a percentage, and some pay nothing at all.

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The school’s goal was, and remains, not just to offer an education to local children, but also to help raise living standards and improve lives more broadly. To that end, it also provides fast-track literacy courses, teacher training sessions, and evening classes for local women who did not have the opportunity to attend school as children.

I spend a lot of time arguing that education must be a priority, and hearing about the great work happening in schools up and down Scotland, but my visit to Bwejuu Charity School was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a huge privilege to visit such a wonderful, beautiful, uplifting place, and if I’m very, very lucky, I’ll get to go back!

(Image: Derek McArthur)