`The West is so lucky to have opportunities'

13th March 2015 at 00:00
Red Nose Day means we can give children in Africa an education, says Lenny Henry, who knows himself how important that is

Today is the 15th Red Nose Day. Little did we know that founding the charity Comic Relief back in 1985 would be the start of a Great British institution: the first Red Nose Day took place in 1988 and since then people across the land have enjoyed the chance to let their hair down and do something funny for money at home, school and work.

There have been so many highlights over the years. We've donned all manner of ridiculous red noses, broken hundreds of world records and said pants to poverty. We've enjoyed comedy from the likes of Rowan Atkinson, French and Saunders and Miranda Hart. We've watched Ali G interview Posh and Becks, Billy Connolly streak around Piccadilly Circus and Catherine Tate "bovver" Tony Blair. Celebrities have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, trekked through the desert and rowed the Zambezi.

Today will be no exception, with millions of people around the country taking part in mad fundraising activities before settling down for a great night in front of the telly. And the nation's kids will be a huge, vital part of this.

As such, schools make an incredible contribution to the success of Red Nose Day. In 2013, children from early years classes through to sixth form raised more than pound;9 million through cake sales, dress-up days, sponsored events and simply having a laugh. Red Nose Day is almost like a national holiday for young people - they've grown up with it and enjoy the feeling that they can make a difference.

This year, the UK government has pledged to double the money raised by schools. Our mission is to make enough to get 300,000 children across Africa into education and learning. Having the potential to transform the lives of so many people is phenomenal. Children need knowledge and skills if they are to build a better future. Getting an education is the key.

My own experience of education has been a mixed bag. My parents both worked in factories and, to them, education was a luxury. They wanted us to do well. But if we didn't, that was life. We weren't sitting around reading plays in Latin - we were watching telly and yelling at each other a lot.

I enjoyed school and was happy most of the time. I loved science because instead of telling me off for impersonating people in class, my teacher lent me a reel-to-reel tape recorder and encouraged me to use it to make up sketches. In return I was expected to hand in my homework on time and I even ended up passing CSE science. English was good, too, because I loved reading. But that magical moment you see in the movies where the inspirational teacher presses a metaphorical button and suddenly you're flying through lessons never happened for me. I stayed a bit foggy, a bit lost, in most of my classes.

Having failed my 11-plus, I wasn't encouraged to do O-levels or go to university. I was told that if I didn't work hard I'd end up in a factory, but I worked reasonably hard and wound up in a factory anyway, just like my parents. It felt like we were pushing against a closed door. Young people like me needed more mentoring and encouragement from everyone involved.

Although I quickly moved from a welding apprenticeship into show business, there was a bit of me that always wondered what it would have been like to get an O-level. So during a Blackpool summer season with Cannon and Ball, I enrolled at college to study English language and literature. It caused a bit of a stir in the exam room when the bloke from Tiswas walked in, but my love of learning was sparked. Since then I've gone on to do an Open University degree and an MA in screenwriting, and I'm now studying for a PhD.

Knowledge and skills open doors

Perhaps because I was a late convert to education, I'm passionate about all children having the right to learn. It's easy to moan about life in the Western world, but we're very lucky that the majority of us have the opportunity to become literate and numerate. Having been to some of Africa's poorest countries, I've seen at first hand how privileged we are in this sense.

Millions of children across Africa are still missing out on going to school. Some have to work to support their families. Others can't afford uniform, shoes and books, or they don't go because of disabilities or simply because they're female. The impact of this lack of learning is immense. There's no point in printing a poster about HIV or Ebola if the passers-by can't read. In the longer term, knowledge and skills open doors to further education and jobs. If African children don't go to school, they're trapped.

The good news is that there's an unbelievable thirst for learning across Africa; even the tiniest children understand the value of education. During my visits, I've met kids who are amazingly motivated and cherish every opportunity to learn. They want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers or teachers.

Take Bernard from Kibera in Kenya, who I met during my stint on Famous, Rich and in the Slums. He was behind in his studies because he spent every other day collecting garbage for resale, but his ambition was to be an engineer. I wish I could bottle his determination, grit and courage and give it to every kid in the UK. That would be brilliant.

By the time you read this, hopefully we will be well on the way to achieving our target of getting those 300,000 African children into education and learning. Whatever you and your school do on Red Nose Day, have a ball and take real pride in the fact that the money you raise truly will transform lives. Just pound;60 is enough to send an orphaned child to school for a year.

African children are desperate to be given the same sort of chances we are lucky enough to have. If we can do anything to help them achieve their dreams, it will be very groovy indeed.

Lenny Henry is a comedian and actor, and a co-founder of Comic Relief

Say pants to poverty

To download special Red Nose Day resources, go to www.tesconnect.comrednoseday

For more on the history and achievements of Red Nose Day, see www.comicrelief.comrednoseday


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