A school is a school…or is it? - Cath Beaumont

I’m a Primary teacher visiting a Primary School in Bangladesh. How different could it be?

We ate with our hands
The answer is…completely! My whole trip to Bangladesh was an eye-opener from the first minute to the last.

When I initially decided to join the St Leonard’s tour to visit Co-ID schools on Bhola Island I did what any Geography trained teacher would do and consulted Google maps. “Hmm, Bhola Island is a long way from Dhaka, I need to find out how we’ll get there. There are overnight ferries, I guess that’s the answer. Hope they are safe!” One documentary later and I began swimming training three times a week so if the ferry sank I knew I could swim to the edge! 

Shock Number 1: The Ferry

Having limited experience on ferries such as the Queenscliff- Sorrento and Kangaroo Island ferries, I was overwhelmed when we got to the port and saw so many ferries. All looked similar and all had their destinations written only in Bangla. Luckily we had Fred and Faruk with us to direct us to the correct ferry. We must have looked amazing to all the locals at the port. We had our own cases, cases full of soccer balls and solar lights, and a great deal of cricket equipment Fred had had manufactured to take to the schools. We certainly drew a crowd of onlookers!

The bottom level of the ferry was occupied by wall to wall locals. Its concrete floors were covered in bodies grabbing their own space for the night. Some had mats to sleep on but they were few and far between. Upstairs where the tourists travelled, we had the luxury of several rooms, cubicles with two very skinny beds and a gap in between big enough to stand our cases in. We fell asleep to the sounds of the navigation system. One man held a torch, the other a bamboo pole which he kept pushing down into the water. He yelled instructions which presumably translated as “getting too shallow” as the boat would change course when a certain instruction was issued.

Shock Number 2: The Motel and the main street in Char Fassion. 

Prior to our departure we had been instructed that there was only one safe place to eat in Char Fassion and that was at our motel. When we arrived at the motel the restaurant had closed. This created a dilemma for Faruk as the Muslim women on Bhola are rarely seen out on the streets. Every time we took to the streets we were followed by groups of onlookers. White women tourists are not often seen on Bhola and in our group there were several. We were ushered to one restaurant and told we must eat in a cubicle. We realised how utterly spoilt we are in Australia when we saw the restauranteurs washing the dishes in a bucket of cold filthy water.

Shock Number 3: So simple but so well-organised. 

Our first contact with Co-ID was our visit to the Admin Building. Here our fascination continued. Fred proudly showed us a map on the wall showing the locations of all the Co-ID schools. At 92 (then) he astounded us with his knowledge of details of every single school. The ledgers which recorded the budget for the running of all the schools and kindergartens were all still being handwritten. Fred’s “kitchen” contained a gas ring used by his kitchen boy to prepare his meals. The books for all of the schools had arrived a few days prior to our arrival and were all stored in one tin shed, awaiting distribution to each of the schools. Having worked during my University years at a school book supplier, and remembering the complex process we went through to fill orders, I was amazed by the simplicity of every child in a particular grade receiving their level book for Maths, English etc and one pencil, yes, you did read that correctly, ONE pencil. I couldn’t help but compare that with my Grade 4 children who started the year with the latest Smiggle pencil case laden with coloured pens and pencils, novel erasers and cute sharpeners.

Shock Number 4: So very sparse yet so very Happy!

The reason for us traveling all this way was to see some of the schools and meet some of the students and their families. I don’t think I have ever felt so privileged. We visited several schools throughout the duration of our tour and at every school it was the same. We were welcomed with drinks and treats whilst we watched many of the students perform Bangladeshi dances. We felt humbled that the children had dressed in their best clothes made of beautiful bright coloured materials. Many of the parents had taken a day off from their fields to come and have a look at us. The children were all so excited to see Fred who they so obviously adored. They were proud to show us their work and their culture. Some tiny tots had come along and joined in the dances. We later heard that many of these children are babysat by their older brothers and sisters so they have to come to school too!

The kids were great
The buildings were sparse but adequate enough to allow the learning to happen. They were tin sheds which we would have considered too exposed to keep our lawn mower in! It was pointed out to us that their dirt floors rapidly become mud and often wash away in the rainy season. The desks were more like picnic tables you might see in a park in Australia. Several children squashed onto a wooden bench and their desk yet another plank of wood. The learning was all done by rote learning. This method obviously works for these children as their exam results are above the National Average. Once again it struck me the lengths we go to in Australia to make learning varied for different learning styles, and, interesting because these days we have to compete with so many exciting technological devices and electronic games…yet ALL the Banglasdehi students seemed so very happy and seemed to appreciate the opportunity they had to be at one of Fred’s special schools.

At some of the schools we were lucky enough to join in a game of cricket or soccer. Despite the language barrier the universal language of sport united the members of our group with the students and families of the schools. At one school Fred asked us to speak with the mothers through a translator to communicate the importance of washing hands with soap. At the end of the talk Fred produced a box of small soaps a bit like the ones you might get at a motel. The frenzy which followed as the women fought to get one small bar of soap to take home was yet another memory that will be etched in my mind for a long time.


So many memories from such an amazing trip which was life changing for Ben, my 18 year old son, and I. The greatest things that remain with us were not the images of poverty and squalor, but the smiles, excitement and enthusiasm of all the beautiful children who are provided an education because of the schools operated by Co-ID. A school is a school…but these Co-ID schools are special!

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Cath Beaumont

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