As an MP, over 25 per cent of the people who approach you for surgeries is generally about their children and their children’s education. My mum didn’t have much education – she left school when she was 12 or 13 – she was also a great believer in having a good education, and having me her eldest child going to Harvard Business School and Oxford was a proud thing for her. So the importance of education has been instilled in me from a young age.
While I was an MP, in my second year in Westminster around 2007, I had the opportunity to work on a social action project in Rwanda. This was post-genocide Rwanda when they were still trying to rebuild the country and Claire Short, who had been Blair’s International Development Secretary, donated a huge amount of money for Rwanda. The UK at the time was the largest donor to Rwanda.
Cameron decided this was important, and a trip was organised with eight MPs, and we worked on five different social action projects. I was in charge of a project which involved helping to fix up a small nursery kindergarten in a poor area in Kigali. There were 83 kids. I put in around £5,000 of my own money and we fixed up the school: we got electricity, we had two big water tanks, a lot of rooves and walls had holes in and we fixed that up.
David Cameron then came over for two years to see the projects we were doing. And I remember one of the journalists who was with me came and visited me and he said: “You’re here for a couple of weeks and then leave it. What difference can you possibly make?” I explained that the infrastructure was better and so on.
Back in the UK, six weeks later, I received a phone call saying: “Rwanda Health and Safety want to shut it down”. I said: “What do you mean?” He said: “Well there were 83 kids and now there are 343 children there in these tiny classrooms.” So I flew back and I met with the Minister of Education and I said: “Don’t close the school down. I will rebuild it.” In my head I thought it would cost me £100,000.
I found a new site which I bought about a kilometre away, and spent two years getting planning permission, which I finally secured. We had a foundation laying and the President decided to come and I asked him why he came. He said: “Most people come to me giving advice. You came, saw a problem and put your hand in your pocket to fix it.” He added: “I would like you to do one thing: make sure there are all Rwandan teachers.”
At that time a lot of teachers came from surrounding countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and so on. So I took that on board and we finally opened the school in January 2012. I then created a charity called a Partner in Education and we went on to build a secondary school. By 2017, we were ranked in the top three in the country, with nearly 100 per cent Rwandan teachers. At that point, I built a teacher training centre too.
When I left Parliament in 2015, my old tutor came to see me and said: “Brooks what are you doing next?” He said: “We’ll figure out what exactly you do.” In 2016, I was sitting next to a Professor in the education department and I was asked to give a talk. I was asked to sit in on his class. I suddenly realised how little I knew about education even though I had this school. After three classes I asked if I could do his Masters. I passed and got in. I was 60 years old, but I always love learning. It’s never left me. I went back to university at the age of 60 and my dissertation focused on fine motor proficiency of seven year old children as a predictor of academic achievement.
They then said I should stay on and do a doctorate. I decided to look at policy-making in Rwanda. I realised there are a lot of policy ideas which are generated without real focus on outcomes. For instance, they have this thing one laptop per child. But if there isn’t broadband in schools, or the teachers aren’t trained you won’t get satisfactory outcomes. We can’t really think about these things in a linear way.
I decided to look at it through the lens of a systems approach and consider what enables and what constrains policy implementation. For instance, if teachers have only rudimentary understanding of English they can’t overnight suddenly be able to deliver lessons in English to children who themselves don’t speak English. It was understandable why the Rwandan government wanted to bring that in; but this top down approach wasn’t working.
Having been in government myself, I can say with some authority that we have a habit of coming up with great ideas which in principle sound good, but we don’t think enough about who we need to bring on board to implement these things properly.
But things happen in life and get in the way. I started my DPhil and then in 2020 Covid hit, and I couldn’t do my field research. Then, my mum got sick in 2021 and I could see from January she would pass away, which she did in May of that year. Finally I did some research in November 2021, and then suddenly the Ukraine war starts.
It seems I will continue to find reasons not to work! I saw a friend of mine was on the Polish border moving people along refugee centres into Europe. I messaged him and asked if I could come and join him. Four days became two weeks. Soon, I began bringing buses into Ukraine from Lithuania, moving people from Kviv and Lviv to the Polish borders.
As the war moved to the East, I had hubs across Ukraine, and I spent a lot of time in Kharkiv: we moved 1,000 women and children out of a Russian-controlled area. To do that we had to move 500 metres of anti-tank mines, which was an amazing achievement.
I am torn between doing what I am doing in Ukraine and not wanting to drop the ball on my DPhil. I’m trying to navigate with my supervisors between my work with Ukraine and getting to the next stage of my DPhil.
But the moral of the story is you’re never too old to learn. While my wife does Sudoku as a form of brain gym, I have my doctorate. Having started 40 years ago, I feel much better prepared through having had life experience in business and as an MP.
Brooks Newmark was formerly Minister for Civil Societies