27th August 2000

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One with east and west

By Meg Williams

In early 1983, a young Aus- trian couple, Kathrin Messner and Joseph Ortner made a brief visit to Sri Lanka. Despite the rising tension in the island at that time they rapidly fell in love with the country and decided to actually fulfil the normally inconsequential daydream of many tourists to 'give something back' in return for the pleasure and hospitality that they received. Later that year they bought a beautiful three-acre stretch of coastal land at Wathuregama, Ahungalla, a convenient 70 km south of Colombo. After a lot of travelling back and forth between here and their art business in Vienna, they finally completed building a stunning guest house, swimming pool and professional Ayurvedic health clinic set within peaceful landscaped gardens. Then they started spreading the word to potential European guests.

In 1995, the One World Foundation school was launched. The O.W.F began here in the capable hands of Sri Lankan staff with Joseph and Kathrin retaining the roles of directors. The difference between the 'Bogenvillya' guesthouse and other exclusive tourist destinations is that all visitors to the former immediately become a sponsoring member of the O.W.F as the money they spend during their stay goes directly towards funding the school.

The One World Foundation provides a free education in English to 600 students from primary school level through to G.C.E as well as catering to school and university leavers. In 1996, the Austrian Foreign Ministry gave its assistance to the organisation_ 35 percent of the funding is presently donated by the Austrian government. Although the school is extremely grateful for this support, Kathrin describes obtaining official funding as 'extremely complicated'. For this reason the couple looks forward to a time when the lovely guest house is expanded and better known and can therefore fund the school without added assistance.

The O.W.F presently has nine classrooms in three concrete buildings situated around a basketball court and playground just a hundred metres from the sea. The children have to pass a simple entrance examination before being accepted by the school. A clever time-table has been devised to give all 600 students the full benefit of the facilities.

In the morning, primary school lessons and young ladies' sewing classes are conducted by a selection of the (mainly female) 15 teaching staff. The tailoring course is a year long, after which the girls are awarded a certificate which will help them obtain a better job in the garment industry. Advanced IT courses are also on offer, thus providing school-leavers with the opportunity to gain a diploma in Microsoft Professionals or Computer Science before seeking a career.

In the afternoon lessons such as basic IT skills and current affairs are taught in English to the older children who have attended the normal local school in the morning.

The staff are selected from the Ahungalla region and then sponsored to attend an extensive teacher training course in Colombo before returning fully trained to O.W.F. They earn the equivalent of a normal government salary and although they must work marginally longer hours they are given the extra motivation of improvement fees.

All staff are smartly dressed in saris or shirt and trousers thus setting a good example for the children and older students who are all provided with the same spotless red uniforms. 'The uniform has helped to integrate children from different areas and social backgrounds, as some of the poorer ones were originally too ashamed to attend the school due to the shabby state of their clothes,' explains Kathrin.

Parents' meetings are held each month (a new experience in the region) as the involvement of the mother and father in the child's education often inspires encouragement from home that may otherwise be absent. 'Even teachers from the local government schools are now choosing to send their children here," says Joseph.

For the past two years the European Union and O.W.F have paid for the school's young and intelligent Principal, Priyanka de Silva, to travel to Gratz in Austria for one month in April. Here she attends the famous 'Pedagogisch Institute' and exchanges ideas with European teachers. O.W.F does not favour the influence of the strict British pedagogic methods that were enforced in Sri Lanka.

In Austria, Priyanka acquires knowledge of new, more interactive teaching methods that are now in use in the West and positively assimilates these in concordance with local methods. With the minds of the primary-school level children being extremely receptive at their young age, the teachers introduce them to English through a combination of singing, role-play games and visual, pictorial learning techniques.

Although Joseph and Kathrin are the school's founders, most of the growth and sustained success of the school comes from the dedication of the students, the Director, Lakshman Geemuni, the Principal, Priyanka de Silva and their local staff team.

Last Sunday a festival was held to celebrate O.W.F's fifth happy anniversary. The children danced until sunrise on Monday which explained the rather lethargic atmosphere in the classrooms I visited on Tuesday.

In five years the site has become more than merely a school, it has become 'a community centre' for the population of Ahungalla as well as a place of positive dialogue between Europe and Asia working to everyone's advantage - particularly the children's. (More details:

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