Postcard from Brunei

A gentle global hop from Singapore takes me to Brunei. It is a visit of two halves, each reminding me that excellence is that unmistakable blend of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution.

First half

Forbes ranks the Kingdom of Brunei as the fifth richest country in the world: 410,000 people enjoying the fruits of their petroleum and natural gas resources. ‘Nodding donkeys’ punctuate the flat open landscape of the Belait district. There is a sense of a people at ease with themselves, public services and infrastructure fit for purpose in a regular kind of way.

I travel to the eco villages deep in the Temburong National Park. New primary schools set in beautifully landscaped grounds appear on many horizons, a sure sign of investment in the country’s youth – this is, after all, south east Asia where education matters and to whom the 21st century will belong.

One breathtaking trip takes place in what locals dub ‘flying coffins’, thirty of us tightly enclosed in a high powered speed boat, weaving its way through the brown waters and vast jungle that are shared between Brunei and Malaysia. We pass just some of the estimated 30,000 inhabitants living in the ‘water villages’, multi-coloured air-conditioned housing estates on stilts.

Another water encounter is in outboard motored longboats which carry visitors deep into the jungle: to stand in extraordinary waterfalls and climb precarious towers to glimpse the rainforest canopy in all its steaming majesty. High humidity takes the European breath away and drenches clothes, yet not so for the locals. Light dazzles. Relentlessly noisy cicadas provide the soundtrack.

Through all these scenes, the guides provide sincere and intelligent care. Their eyes and ears are keenly tuned to the dangers of the river rapids, the dense undergrowth, the poisonous snakes and uncannily camouflaged crocodiles.  Their 10,000 hours and more have been spent amidst the natural world, effortlessly tuned to its every movement, preserving this tropical wonder world for future generations.

Second half

Brunei became independent from the UK as recently as 1984. UK military and a Gurkha battalion are stationed in Seria and until 2003 two schools educated dependents’ children separately. Hornbill Primary School* was forged out of a wish to bring together families serving a common defence purpose.

Hornbill is a remarkable place in which to be a child and a teacher. English is the language of instruction, a British curriculum operates, and even Her Majesty’s Inspectors come for an occasional junket (‘outstanding’ at the last inspection). Over many years the headteacher Kathy Wood and her international staff have been doing something special. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they have at times built the place with their own hands.

Nepalese customs, music and language are woven creatively into assemblies and welcome ceremonies for visitors. The outdoor gardens and early years’ areas are a warm assault on the senses. Year 6 are enjoying ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, Year 5 are practising translation and rotation in maths, Year 1 are exploring what happens as ten green bottles accidentally fall – I am on familiar primary territory.

I happen to be here on 11th November. Led by a gifted teacher, Year 6 present a Remembrance assembly for the community which fuses skilfully the core values of the school with those of the British Army. Their articulacy in two languages, practised singing and depth of historical research command the hall. English and Nepali interplay. A Gurkha soldier plays the Last Post. The Chair of Governors from the Garrison takes the salute. Proud parents are genuinely moved.

One of the many attractive aspects of being in Hornbill is that, with an early start to the school day, we can run staff development sessions in the early afternoon while colleagues are still fresh. We are joined by teachers who have generously driven over from neighbouring international schools. There is a shared passion for teaching and deep interest in how children learn through a rich curriculum – a professional delight.

Excellence is Hornbill School’s daily habit: high intention and intelligent execution are in the mix. Worth thirty hours of plane journeys to see in action.
*Hornbill is a NET Advocacy School and a UK National Support School.

Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust, and a guest in Brunei of the Ministry of Defence.

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