"Every child has the right to a clear horizon, even when it's stormy at sea."
Stephan Vanfleteren, 2017
Founded in 1906 by Prince Albert, the future King Albert I of the Belgians, the Koninklijk Werk IBIS (Royal Work IBIS) school in Bredene on Belgium's North Sea coast continues to offer a solid education to boys from disadvantaged and socially challenged homes. Initially intended for orphans from families who worked in the fishing industry, the school continued to evolve and now accepts boys from difficult family backgrounds including those who have been abandoned by their families, whose parents are struggling with drug addiction or are unable to care for them. On special occasions, such as public holidays and festivals, the boys dress in sailor uniforms, with white, broad-lapelled tops and flat sailor caps bearing the acronym "IBIS", derived from the Egyptian deity of Thoth, god of wisdom, knowledge and writing, who was considered the harbinger of the Nile flood and is usually represented with the head of an Ibis.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Belgian fishing industry was facing a labour shortage and the fishing fleet at Ostend, Belgium's principal harbour, was struggling to recruit skilled fishermen who could skipper the new motorised trawlers that were coming into use. Despite the establishment of vocational colleges, skilled labour remained in short supply. It was at this point that Georges Daveluy and the town's liberal newspaper, l'Echo d'Ostende, came up with the idea of founding a school for orphaned children from local fishing families, historically one of the most disadvantaged groups, who could be given a decent education and trained up as fishermen.
Prince Albert took an interest in the project and sought the services of Verbrugghe Léonce, an employee of the local paper and a socially minded marine expert. Expanding the notion of a 'floating school' and making use of the cheapest accommodation available in the harbour town, HMS Albacore,
a steel-hulled former British gunboat was bought and kitted out to accommodate classrooms and accommodation for a few dozen pupils. The first group arrived in August 1906 - six to 11 year olds - and over the coming year, the floating school continued to take in orphans of fishermen and other disadvantaged boys from the area. The boys would usually stay in the school until they were 12, at which point they were encouraged to apprentice on shipping trawlers to continue their training.
Formulating the school's social purpose, Prince Albert decreed that "the floating school's principal rule should be that the children are happy and that everything will be done to ensure that these children are given the care and attention they would have been entitled to in their homes. We firmly hope that the school will improve the lot of our fishermen."
Over a hundred years later, the school has educated over 2,000 boys and continues its tradition of imparting its pupils with an appreciation of Belgium's maritime past. The premises are no longer on board the 'floating school' but have relocated to a building surrounded by water near the mouth of the Gent-Bruge-Ostend canal.
Panos photographer Stephan Vanfleteren, who grew up on the Belgian coast himself, photographed the boys of the IBIS Royal Work school in their ceremonial Sunday bests, saying that "you might consider the obligatory uniform, the discipline and the student number they receive when enrolling an anachronism from past times but it gives these youngsters a grip on the chaos in their lives."