Leipzig is a long way from Rainhill, near Liverpool, but 11-year-old Daniel Kerr is able to meet and chat to pen-pan Johann while he is seated firmly behind his desk at school. Daniel looks at the screen in front of him and greets the blond, smiling Johann. "Hallo! Johann. Schon dich zu sehen. Ich bin Daniel Kerr und comme aus Rainhill."
"I am Johann, I come from Grimma in Germany," Johann replies. Behind him several of his classmates can be seen. Many of them are wearing elaborate hats and colourful clothes. It's Shrove Tuesday and in Grimma that involves more than tossing pancakes: it's a carnival day and the children are wearing fancy dress.
"Do you make pancakes in England?" Johann asks Daniel. Daniel assures him that we do and Johann goes on to show Daniel some vivid pictures of his skateboarding manoeuvres and talks about his other hobbies.
Daniel tells him about his favourite football team and shows some football and drama certificates he has recently won. It may well be a pretty ordinary exchange between two young boys, but it is one which bridges many divides, including geographical, cultural and linguistic.
Daniel and Johann are taking part in one of many video-conferencing sessions organised by their two schools.
Daniel is a Year 6 pupil at Longton Lane Community Primary School in St Helens local education authority, and Johann goes to the Johann Gottfried Seume Gymnasium in Grimma, in the German authority of Leipzig. The two are already pen friends and the schools also have a close relationship.
Pictures of Grimma occupy pride of place in Longton Lane school.
Last year the German town suffered severe flooding and forming a massive display on Longton's walls are photos of buildings submerged up to the second floor, collapsed houses and people being pulled out of the water and into dinghies. It's a lesson in community empathy.
Longton has also sent Grimma a virtual tour of the school on video and they've exchanged videos of assemblies, concerts and traditional dancing.
Pupils have composed and swapped a "A-day-in-my-life" books, using photos and text to illustrate their day at school and at home. Along the way they have learned a considerable amount about each other. Perhaps most importantly, they've learned that German children don't live on another planet. In many ways their interests and lives are similar. Though, of course, there are differences. The English children were shocked to see, for example, that the German students didn't wear uniforms and it's probable that the reaction was mutual.
The video-conferencing sessions take place two or three times a term and are the pivotal event in the relationship between the two schools. "Leipzig is too far to transport the children. This provides an alternative and very effective means of communication," says headteacher Terry Bond. "It's also about learning for a purpose. One of the problems in teaching English children languages is that they often ask: 'Why am I learning this language and when am I going to get the opportunity to use it?' We want children to develop language skills as well as having the opportunity to use them.
Video-conferencing provides that opportunity."
When the link was first established four years ago, it was used only as an exercise in cultural awareness. Children from both schools spoke English, but then "we realised that it was an ideal opportunity to use foreign language skills", says Terry Bond. So, a complete beginner, he began attending German courses and now teaches German to Years 5 and 6. His German counterpart has made a similar commitment to the English language.
Initially, the Longton Lane children used video-conferencing facilities at a nearby college, but recently they acquired their own equipment as part of the Department for Education and Skills "Videoconferencing in the Classroom Project", which has given them much more flexibility. Johann Gottfried's pupils, however, still use facilities offered by Leipzig College.
The video-conferencing sessions take place in Year 6 and the preparation for them is extensive. Children have used puppets to help them converse in a less self-conscious way with one another, practised the kind of questions they would like to ask their German friends and watched conversational videos to help them with the language. Before the session they write a script as a back-up to help them if they dry up mid-conversation. They also practice filming each other, so they won't be intimidated by the cameras.
"I didn't want to do it to begin with," says 11-year-old Rachel, after an assured performance during her first video-conferencing session. "I thought it was going to be a bit unnerving, but it's not really once you get to do it. I really enjoyed it."
And Terry Bond says: "Our children have gone from saying a few sentences in the early conferences to speaking for a few minutes now. They are answering questions in German and asking them as well and they have developed considerable confidence in German."
The sessions are part of a joint curriculum project involving Longton Lane, Johann Gottfried Seume Gymnasium and a French School which doesn't yet have video-conferencing facilities. For more information visit www.socrates-uk.netcomeniuscomenius1schools.htm. The Videoconferencing in the Classroom Project is managed by Mike Griffith of Global Leap, who specialises in the educational application of video-conferencing across the curriculum. Visit the Global Leap website at www.global-leap.com for a video-conferencing directory of schools, information about video-conferencing programmes and links to expert providers. The publication Video Conferencing in the Classroom, by Tim Arnold et al is one of the outcomes of this DfES project and is downloadable for free from: www.devon.gov.ukdcs or you can order it in print form for pound;5 postage and packaging. Tel: 01392 384839
* Planning is essential. Arrange the date and time for the video-conference well in advance to give you time to do the necessary preparatory work.
* Exchange mobile phone numbers with the teacher or expert with whom you are linking, in case you need to call them before or during the conference.
* Ensure you have a practice video-conference session before the conference itself. This will give the children a chance to get used to the technology and experiment with it in a relaxed and informal way.
* Practice speaking slowly and clearly, and encourage the children not to interrupt or speak over other people and to listen carefully.
* As well as planning the content for the conference, plan the seating arrangements and organise a range of pre-set camera positions. The children who are likely to be doing most of the talking need to be nearest the microphone.