O’Toole – THE MAN
WHO HELPED TO TRANSFORM
EDUCATION IN GUYANA By SHARMAIN GRAINGER
Had someone whispered into his ears 40 years ago, when he set foot on Guyana’s soil, that he would be at the helm of one of the most thriving private education institutions today, Dr. Brian O’Toole probably would have rendered that balderdash. But this is, in fact, the reality he is living! Indeed, he is the Director of School of the Nations and Nations University – institutions that have been catering to the education needs of thousands of students. Many more are vying to get on board the Nations movement given the laudable successes that have been realised over the years, ranging from producing the top National Grade Six Assessment [NGSA] pupil in 2017 to more than 600 individuals pursuing a Masters in Business Administration [MBA] from an Australian Institute of Business [AIB]. Nations is also in the process of publishing the final projects from 15 outstanding students. But had he not been confronted with an issue that affected him personally, establishing an educational institution of his own that serves the Guyanese community well might have never materialised. However, before we delve into the circumstances that led to the establishment of this school 20 years ago, it might be imperative for us to take a walk further down memory lane to find out a little bit more about our featured personality.
ADAPTING TO CHANGE Dr. O’Toole was born and raised in England. Yes, he is an expatriate who left his homeland and has ever since been on a mission to help develop Guyana, particularly in the education sector. However, upon his arrival here, he had no idea that his stay would have been permanent. You see, 10 days prior to his arrival, Dr. O’Toole, who hadn’t yet begun a Doctor of Philosophy [PhD] in Psychology, wedded his sweetheart, Pamela. Interesting to note, Guyana was their honeymoon destination and possibly a new place to call home. But one might be inclined to believe that the couple might have ‘eaten a tad too much labba and had one too many sips of creek water’ so they simply couldn’t leave. Dr. O’Toole recalled how he and his wife would soon find out that it wasn’t an entirely easy task to adopt a foreign country as their home. Although one of their main focuses was, and continues to be their religion, it simply wasn’t one that afforded them an income. “In the Bahá’i Faith, there is no clergy, there is no mullah, there is no magi… [you are not paid for your services]. So, in order to survive wherever you are, you have to to find a job,” explained Dr. O’Toole.
“We developed a programme based on a model of the World Health Organisation that trained volunteers in the communities to be of some assistance to kids who have physical, mental and hearing impairments and that went very well.”
SEEKING EMPLOYMENT But being a trained Educational Psychologist, a skill-set he acquired in Scotland, presented a glimmer of hope for Dr. O’Toole who was already envisaging, with his wife, raising a family here. Moreover, he headed to the Ministry of Education to apply for a position that could aptly utilise his training. His skills were immediately recognised by a woman who was a senior Ministry official, causing an eager Dr. O’Toole to become convinced that he was well on his way to earning a living that could take care of a young family. But it seems that good luck simply wasn’t on his side. “I was told, ‘You are just the man we want, we will give you a job tomorrow!’ but I ended up going into the Ministry 32 times to see her over a period of almost three months. Her secretary even apologised to me and said she [the Ministry official] had experienced prejudice during a visit to Scotland and this was her way of balancing it out,” recalled Dr. O’Toole. Disappointed by the treatment meted out to him, Dr. O’Toole quietly accepted that maybe Guyana was not the place for him to raise a family after all. He, moreover, decided that when exactly three months would have elapsed, he would head to neighbouring territory, Brazil, instead. But as fate would have it, he was eventually summoned by the Ministry and afforded a position at the Lilian Dewar Teachers Training College [situated where the National Centre for Educational Resource Development is currently housed]. For three years, he would share his vast knowledge at the institution and, according to Dr. O’Toole, “I really, really enjoyed it there.”
But during that very period, Guyana was faced with challenging times that had Dr. O’Toole and his wife wondering whether their decision to stay was indeed the right one. It was back in 1978 and Dr. O’Toole recalled, “We were at a cocktail reception at the American Embassy and suddenly the place went quiet. Somebody had just come back from Jonestown saying that 900 people had died… My wife and I looked at each other and asked ‘What are we doing here?’ If that was a movie, you would say that it was a very bad one. Anyone who knew Guyana then knew that no one would have come to Guyana back in the day to make money… So either they are a little warped or you genuinely wanted to make some contribution.” However, the two persevered even in the face of what Dr. O’Toole described as “colourful times”. He found satisfaction in contributing to the education sector at the teachers training college but eventually moved on to the University of Guyana [UG] where he was instrumental in introducing the Certificate in Special Education programme which positioned educators to work with children with disabilities. “At the time, the University hadn’t any disability training programme,” recalled Dr. O’Toole. His tenure at UG ended when he decided to again venture into uncharted territory to introduce the Guyana Community Based Rehabilitation [CBR] Programme together with Ms. Geraldine Maison-Halls. A move in this direction, Dr. O’Toole explained, was “basically to look at the then probably 98 percent of children with disabilities in Guyana who were getting no help at all. We developed a programme based on a model of the World Health Organisation that trained volunteers in the communities to be of some assistance to kids who have physical, mental and hearing impairments and that went very well.” The CBR programme was a remarkable success and continued for about 15 years during which it secured funding from the European Union and AIFO, an Italian Non-Governmental Organisation, to enable the training of persons in all the Regions throughout Guyana to become integrally involved in the programme. VISIONARY APPROACH By this time, Dr. O’Toole and his wife were parents to two young boys who were attending one of the country’s top public secondary schools. But the boys’ educational experience was less than satisfactory, Dr. O’Toole shared. “They would come home every night and say two or three or four teachers didn’t turn up at school today. It got so depressing overtime that myself and my wife decided to go to see the Head Teacher, but she merely said with a smile, ‘Don’t worry, maybe next year we will get a Maths teacher’. I thought to myself, ‘My God, it is unbelievable that she would tell me that with no apology whatsoever’. She didn’t bother to say ‘We were going to get teachers in this area or that area’; it was as if it didn’t even matter.” Concerned by the plight his children were in, Dr. O’Toole knew that he had to find a solution and he had to do so at the soonest possible time if his children were to benefit from a decent education. But little did he know that his solution was within reach. As a professional, Dr. O’Toole had worked on more than 30 consultancies for the United Nations and he recalled that it was while on just such an undertaking in Togoland, one of the poorest countries in West Africa, that he came across a project that would not only help to address the challenge being faced by his children, but change the course of his life. “While I was there, a friend said to me, ‘Come, let’s go see a school’, and since I didn’t have anything to do that weekend, I did. It was April, 20 years ago, we visited this beautiful school in Togo, which was an absolute mess, but the school was like an oasis of peace in a troubled city. It was managed by a husband and wife who happened to be Bahá’is. I said to myself, if they can do it in that troubled place, then by August we could be able to open Nations in Guyana,” Dr. O’Toole related. REALISING SUCCESS Upon his return to Guyana, he and his wife wasted no time in fast-tracking the preparations warranted for opening a private education institution. But all this was unfolding after moves were made in Guyana by the Government to bring an end to the operation of all privately operated schools. Determined to make a difference in the education sector, Dr. O’Toole said, “My wife and I worked to put together a 100-page package about the vision of the proposed school… It was understandably really a lot of work.” Once both he and his wife were satisfied with what was detailed in the proposal, they headed to the then Minister of Education, the late Dr. Dale Bisnauth, to share their vision of a school with vast potential. They were astonished that getting permission to establish the school was the simplest of conversations. “I got out of the car and headed to the Minister’s office while my wife parked. By the time she had finished parking the car and was coming to meet me, she saw me coming down the stairs and thought our proposal was denied… But he [the Minister] had said yes immediately. After all of our months of preparation, he just looked at me and literally gave me his permission on the spot. His words were ‘With your reputation, I will give permission immediately’,” recalled Dr. O’Toole. After a protracted hiatus, School of the Nations was the first private secondary school to be re-established in Guyana. Already another institution, Mae’s, had introduced a privately operated primary level school too, Dr. O’Toole recalled. But managing a school was no walk in the park. “Initially, it was difficult. The speed at which it opened surprised us. We started at a rented property at Parade Street, Georgetown, with about 180 children from Nursery to Form Four,” recalled Dr. O’Toole. The institution is now operated out of a massive complex situated at 41 – 42 New Market Street, Cummingsburg, Georgetown, catering to students from pre-school to Sixth Form. In fact, an assessment of the various schools’ results at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certification Examination [CSEC] by the Ministry of Education revealed that the quality of the work done there placed it second to only Queen’s College, the country’s premier public school which, Dr. O’Toole noted, had a 150 years head start. “I think the essence of the success of Nations is that we know how to make partnerships. So, for example, we have partnerships with AIB that has allowed 620 people a chance at doing their MBAs; we have partnerships with Cambridge University, the University of London, the Association of Business Executives, which has 232 centres in the world and we are the fourth largest… So the growth has been exceptional,” said an animated Dr. O’Toole. In fact, he was eager to relate that many of the graduates of Nations have even gone on to secure impressive employment. FIRST PRIORITY But educating the nation has not been the only role played by the institution. Research is also a big part of the institution through the Nations University Research Institute [NURI], which has over the years conducted a number of notable research projects that have helped to influence change, not only in the local society, but even further afield. “We realised we can produce work of quality here and since then we have taken on projects with the International Labour Organisation [ILO], the United Nations Children Fund [UNICEF] and the United Nations Population Fund [UNDP].” The outstanding work of NURI recently allowed for Nations to be awarded a USAID contract to conduct research for an after school project in the Sophia and East La Penitence areas, Dr. O’Toole disclosed. Spearheaded by Dr. O’Toole himself, this project as well as a few others has seen the integral involvement of the Sixth Form students of Nations. “I really enjoy what I am doing here. We have formed a real bond with our staff and our students too,” said Dr. O’Toole as he added, “One of the reasons behind the start of Nations was to see if we can put this vision of unity and diversity into practice.” By embracing this approach, Dr. O’Toole, through his school, has been practicing the central teachings of the Bahá’i Faith. According to Dr. O’Toole, “Now that parents know that we have the academics covered, we are telling them that that is not our first priority, our first priority is how do we develop these lovely gems [children]?” The Bahá’i Faith, Dr. O’Toole disclosed, “teaches us to regard man as a mine, rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” It is just this inspirational notion that Dr. O’Toole has been tapping into in his quest to continue the evolution of an institution that has been helping to transform education in Guyana.