'This is where my heart lies'

30th July 2010 at 01:00
For Tony Begley, a charity that works with underprivileged African children is his passion

Inspired by years of working with schools in the developing world, a senior depute head at Scotland's largest secondary is taking a pay cut of pound;30,000 and swapping teaching for charity work.

In 1991, Tony Begley joined Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow as head of its technical department, but next month he will leave the school to become education co-ordinator for Mary's Meals, a charity that provides meals for children in countries where poverty and hunger prevent them getting an education.

It is a brave step, but not a bolt from the blue. Mr Begley started taking Holyrood pupils to the developing world a number of years ago, beginning with a trip to India to renovate a rural school. When he returned, he felt unsettled and, more recently, following visits to Holyrood's partner schools in Malawi, that feeling has become more pronounced.

"More and more, this area of my remit is what switches me on and more and more I have come to admire totally the work of Mary's Meals," he said. "Everything I had previously found exciting at school had become routine and this was the thing I had a real passion about. I love the school. It's not the case that I hate teaching or that I've lost my enthusiasm; it's a personal choice. This is where my heart lies."

Mr Begley first became aware of the work of Mary's Meals in 2006, when Holyrood took part in the charity's backpack appeal, which called on pupils to take an old school bag and fill it with anything useful - clothes, pencils, jotters, rubbers, rulers.

The school and its feeder primaries filled 2,006 bags. Photographs of the Malawian children receiving the backpacks followed and made the Scots determined to do more.

In September 2007, Mr Begley visited Malawi with a view to establishing partner schools for Holyrood, and set up a partnership with two primaries and a girls' secondary in Zingwangwa, a township in Blantyre. Mary's Meals was already working at the primaries, ensuring the 9,000 children received at least one meal every day.

"The fact that a Scottish charity is feeding 400,000-odd children around the world makes you so proud," said Mr Begley. "It's also all about getting children into education - they don't get their cup of porridge if they don't come to school.

"Providing the meals also has a knock-on effect for local farmers, and it is the mothers of the children who take it in turns to come to the school and prepare the meals."

With the children receiving a meal each day, Mr Begley and Holyrood Secondary decided to concentrate on the conditions they were working in.

"Most classes were outside, where up to 160 pupils were taught under trees. The classrooms that were available were shocking," he said. "The children were crushed up; they had no seats, no desks. I thought we could do something about that and physically build classrooms that would still be there in 50 to 100 years' time."

In the first year, Holyrood Secondary set itself the target of raising about pound;50,000 and ended up with more than pound;70,000. In summer 2008, Holyrood headteacher Tom McDonald, Mr Begley, and three other members of staff and 23 pupils started to build three new classrooms and renovate a classroom block which was "basically derelict", says Mr Begley.

Staff and pupils returned from their latest visit to Malawi just weeks ago. To date, the school has raised pound;200,000, built eight classrooms and renovated eight others at two primaries, benefiting thousands of Malawian children and giving 73 Holyrood pupils an experience they will never forget.

On top of this, Holyrood has helped to supply clean water by installing a borehole at one school, put electricity into another and made sure all their partner schools have access to computers. "It has just grown arms and legs," said Mr Begley.

Now Mr Begley's new role, which he takes up on September 1, will see him trying to inspire other schools to follow in Holyrood's footsteps, to a greater or lesser extent. Not all would want to travel to the developing world, and some would only be interested in raising awareness, but all schools should be charitable, he feels.

The thought of losing such a hefty chunk of his salary took a bit of getting used to, Mr Begley admitted, but he was at one with the idea now - as was his wife, who had been "helpful, supportive and understanding".

A spokeswoman for Mary's Meals said: "As well as helping children in developing countries, by providing them with a school meal every day, one of our key aims is to enable young people in the UK to learn about the countries where we operate. Tony's knowledge of Scottish education means that he is ideally placed to help us do that."



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