The art of recovery

Sarah French

Rather than just donate money to assist the Asian tsunami victims, a Sheffield school is using Sri Lanka as its focal point in its new business and enterprise course. Sarah French investigates the educational value of responding to world events

Children up to their necks in water fight to keep their heads above the waves and raise their arms skywards in the hope that help will come.

Mothers scream in terror as their village is engulfed. Fathers float by, clinging to debris as more water washes over the roofs of their homes.

The images of the tsunami that devastated south-east Asia in December are recounted in paint by MBFathima Mursitha, a 13-year-old pupil at Mahmud Ladies college, in Kalmunai, in southern Sri Lanka. Her village was among those wrecked by the giant waves. Nineteen of her fellow students died; many more lost one or both parents and their homes.

MKF Nisra, 15, was luckier. He goes to Al-Azhar school, in Mawanella, in the north, which was unscathed. His painting of rescue helicopters and boats trying to reach people in the stricken parts of his country was inspired by the television news broadcasts he watched.

A picture by 18-year-old Lucy White from Wales high school near Sheffield, south Yorkshire, is a strong image of a single wave painted in midnight blue set against orange sky.

One story, three interpretations, as the teenagers express on paper their memories and thoughts on the devastation. Although created thousands of miles apart, their work has come together in an exhibition at Lucy's school as part of a tri-lateral partnership borne out of the catastrophe.

After the disaster, Wales high raised pound;5,000 at events, from a concert to a sixth form rugby match, and decided they would like to help a specific school. The British Council put them in touch with Mahmud Ladies college.

Gareth Hughes, international dimension co-ordinator at the school, says:

"To restart the college they needed things such as satchels, pens and pencils and our money helped them to buy those things and support the immediate recovery effort."

The British Council invited them to join the second school, Al-Azhar, in the Tamil-controlled north, in a tri-lateral arrangement where all three schools support each other.

Wales high was undaunted by the challenge since it has many years experience of partnering with schools in Romania, France, Paraguay, South Korea and Tanzania. It first earned the British Council International School Award, an accreditation which lasts three years, in 2002, and has reapplied.

What makes the link with Sri Lanka more than a fund-raising exercise is that it has formed the centrepiece of the business and enterprise course offered as part of the curriculum enrichment programme to lower sixth students. Fourteen pupils opted for the course in September. Their first task was to organise the joint art exhibition, drawing on their skills in event management, sales and marketing, publicity and promotions.

Each school supplied 15 pieces of work and pound;500 was sent to each Sri Lankan school to pay for transport costs and materials. The Yorkshire students acted as exhibition guides, others sold raffle tickets and Sri Lankan cake, made from recipes sent by the students' friends abroad, and the school's musicians played Sri Lankan tunes. The event raised pound;600, which Wales school has agreed to match and will send to the two schools to be spent as they see fit.

Louise Young, director of community links and a business studies teacher, says: "For most of the sixth-formers on the course, it has been their first experience of business and enterprise. They have been very enthusiastic.

It's added a new dimension to the course in terms of social enterprise and shown students that it's not all about making a profit."

The students say the course is as rewarding as it is educational. Thomas Hinch, 16, says: "It's helped us learn about cultural differences as well as about business."

The Sri Lankan students kept in touch via updates and pictures of the exhibition as it developed. They will soon see it for themselves when the exhibition tours, first visiting Al-Azhar school.

The three schools have formed a mutually beneficial and, they hope, lasting partnership based on respect and understanding. It's worked for Wales high in its other overseas connections, and is fundamental to how it answers any suggestion of paternalism; that offering sympathetic handouts to schools in developing countries can reinforce stereotypes of poor people being victims who need rich westerners to sort out their problems.

In line with British Council principles of mutuality and exchange of ideas and resources, the link benefits all. Miss Young says: "It's not just a case of 'We have money so we can help you: it's a two-way street. We are developing proper international links where our students can learn just as much from their students as they can from us."

They also point to the fact that many of the ideas so far have come from Sri Lanka. Student Megan Cooper, 16, says: "Because we are sending things to and fro and they know how much effort we're putting in to help them, it has created more of a bond between us. You feel like you've really achieved something."

Says Matthew Hibberd, 16: "At our age there isn't a lot we can do so we're helping them the best way we can and this way you feel more connected. I didn't even know where Sri Lanka was before."

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Sarah French

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