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Transforming primary education in Lindi

Lack of resources, poor attendance and over-stretched teachers are just some of the challenges hindering children's ability to learn in Tanzania. Volunteers like Jan Rensink, a School Leadership Facilitator, are supporting a vital new project transforming primary education.

Jan Rensink, VSO volunteer school leadership adviser, Tanzania

Jan Rensink (right) with Fadhili Mtitima, Headteacher, Mpilipili  primary school, Lindi and Anna Lulandala, Special Education Officer (centre).

Jan supports Equip Tanzania, a project working to improve primary education, especially for girls, in the most disadvantaged regions of Tanzania. The project focusses on improving teacher performance, school leadership and increasing community engagement. The project also supports the development of education management at district level. 

Now 58, Jan’s professional life has been dedicated to education management, but had always planned to take time out to volunteer. 

“My dream was always to do a thing like this. I had a feeling that I wanted to help and work towards a better world.” Says Jan.

"Last year I said ‘I don’t want to wait until I’m 65 to do this. It’s time to go - now.’”

Strengthening school leadership

Jan's partner Joke and their three grown-up sons Martin, Matthias and Reuben supported Jan’s decision and once it was made, things moved fast. Having finished work in October 2015, he was thrown a farewell party by colleagues and was in VSO orientation training in Dar es Salaam by the following month.

Jan’s year-long placement will strengthen school leadership in Lindi, the huge region in the most southern part of Tanzania where he now calls home. The same size as Belgium and Holland put together, the region has just 4% of the schools of those two countries.

The scale of the challenge

Lack of resources, staff shortages and long distances to travel to school all contribute to low teacher morale, and absenteeism.

“It has nothing to do with the talent of the children,” explains Jan. “They are so eager to learn. It is about getting their education right. There is a lot to do here.”

Tanzanian class sizes routinely hit the 60-70 mark. Jan has even visited classrooms where a single teacher has to try and meet the learning needs of 197 children. Teaching is often reduced to rote learning. Mpilipili Primary School currently has just one teacher for every 109 children enrolled.

“This job is not easy,” says head teacher Fadhili Saidi Mtitima, “It’s a problem sharing the small resources which are available. “There is no money for teaching materials. Standards 4, 5 and 6 are missing books in civics, social studies and geography.” The problems may seem insurmountable, but the Equip Tanzania project is starting to tackle this.

Working to make a difference

Jan is responsible for the school leadership component of the Equip Tanzania project in Lindi.

Digna Peter, one of Jan's local colleagues, appreciate the new perspectives that an expert like him can bring.

“He is bringing in new ideas, sharing a lot of leadership techniques and skills, ideas of what we can do. If he was not here, we would not be able to get these skills. He is putting in a lot of effort,” 

Even for a man who relishes a challenge, it’s a big job.

“There are two important factors for a school’s success. One is the headteacher - how they run the school. The other is the teacher in the classroom, especially the way they teach,” Jan explains.

Jan is working with 379 schools, and so has had to adapt his strategies to this large scale by working with the school inspectorates. By consulting lead inspectors, head teachers and ward education co-ordinators, he’s investigating how quality control and accountability can be strengthened throughout the education system.

Jan Rensink a VSO volunteer school leadership adviser on the beach next to his house, in Lindi., Tanzania ©VSO / Mussa Uwitonze, Marius Bester, Mwanzo Millinga

Jan shares a moment with a local fisherman on the beach next to his house, in Lindi. 

Home from home

It’s certainly a different life to his previous one. Housed on the beach overlooking Lindi Bay, Jan can take a morning dip on a daily basis. A busy social life includes local jogging clubs, Kiswahili lessons, lunching with his local work colleagues and exchanging dinner invitations with other volunteers to enjoy fresh fish and other local produce.

Of course, there are some major challenges, like learning a new language and adapting to a new way of life. For the most part, Jan takes them in his stride: “Our power cuts are regular. I was training in Kilwa last weekend and when I came back – no water. On Saturday night I had a third of a bucket of water left and managed to take a shower with it, so it was OK.”

Things are changing in Lindi: roads are being paved and electricity pylons are popping up. With the support of volunteers like Jan, the most valuable of all Lindi’s natural resources – its children – can meet their potential.

“It would be nice to come back in ten years and see how things have changed. There’s a lot to do and a lot of good things going on, so I’ll be part of it, I hope,” he says.

Find out more about volunteering with VSO

VSO offers full resettlement support after you volunteer to help you take the best next step and make the most of your new and existing skills.  

Volunteering for EDUCATION Professionals