Last July, Clive Bush, head of Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire, visited a remote rural school in South Africa's Eastern Cape. "We drove for three hours along a dirt road and eventually arrived at some buildings which looked like chicken shacks. Inside, we found a group of 20 children with no teacher, no books, no blackboard and no electricity. They were waiting for a science lesson, so I took a piece of rock and used it to draw diagrams of the water cycle on the wall." Never in his wildest dreams did Bush imagine himself in such a situation, but visits to South Africa have become regular occurrences for him and his staff, with an increasing number of South African teachers and students making return trips to Cambridgeshire.
Five years ago, the charity Link Community Development twinned Linton Village College with a school in Gauteng, a more developed province of South Africa. Boepathutse is a junior secondary school in Soshanguve, a township 25 kilometres north of Pretoria. "At the time, we knew the school needed to become more globally aware," says Bush. "We lived in nice, comfortable Cambridgeshire and our children had very narrow horizons. We only had a handful of non-white children and realised we didn't do multiculturalism very well." Now all that has changed and children, teachers and governors at both schools have become involved in the partnership and there are talks underway for a regional link between Cambridgeshire, Gauteng and Eastern Cape. The two heads have become friends and regularly discuss school issues and development plans. Linton raised funds for the science lab at Boepathutse and has just embarked on an ambitious pound;30,000 building project for a new arts and technology centre, which will serve the whole township. Linton's head of technology, Tom Minnock, was in Soshanguve with Bush this summer, helping to set up a technology syllabus and train teachers.
Linton's pupils will make models of the new buildings and monitor fundraising. The school council, which is run on the same lines as the successful Boepathutse student representative council, will be in charge, with an opportunity for council members to visit Soshanguve next year. If plans work out, the school football team will go as well.
The Boepathutse students are very keen to host their UK partners: "It would be good for them to experience another world," says Euprecia Sebolela, one of four students who visited Linton for six weeks last year. England was "cold, green and expensive", she says, and the whole experience was "different and unforgettable". The students' visit had an enormous impact on the school and the neighbourhood, says headteacher, Sarah Seroka. Self-esteem improved and an increase in pupil numbers led to two extra teaching posts.
A few blocks away in Soshanguve and a few thousand miles away in Stockport, an equally fruitful partnership has grown up between Khensani primary school and Tithe Barn, which reached a high point in June with the visit of Khensani head Fannie Sebolela to Stockport. Although from very different environments, the heads of both schools found themselves "philosophically at the same place," says Tithe Barn's head, Tim Buckley. Whether discussing teaching strategies to encourage critical thinking, assessment, sustainable development or fundraising, they were much more aware of their shared interests than their differences. Both heads are developing resource centres and discussed opportunities for sponsorship here and in South Africa.
Carol Cross, geography co-ordinator at Tithe Barn, has played a key role in the link and has received a British Council north-south links grant to visit Khensani next March and strenghthen the partnership. Sebolela's visit to Stockport was filmed and taped, and involved the whole community with visits to parents' homes, local churches, and museums. "It's one of the most exciting things the school has ever done," says Carol Cross.
During his visit, Sebolela met Paul Jackson, the innovative head of St Kentigern catholic primary, an inner city Manchester school which works closely with Tithe Barn. "If you can get the right heads to work together, it's amazing how far you can go," says Buckley.
Tithe Barn has raised funds for computers for Khensani and there has been a regular exchange of material on literacy and numeracy, assessment, planning and governing bodies. Sebolela believes the exchange of numeracy materials has proved particularly helpful in raising maths results at Khensani.
Link Community Development Development currently asks schools to donate pound;500 a year for four years (pound;250 for smaller primaries) to support its work, but is keen to stress that fund-raising isn't the main point of a north-south link. "The best benefits are connected to curriculum enrichment and development, teachers' professional development and extra-curricular activities - on both sides." says UK programme director Anna Colquhoun.
Link Community Development, Unit 39, Kings Exchange Business Village, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH or visit www.lcd.org.uk