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Barbed-wire sanctuary

A township school in South Africa is surrounded by a security fence, but offers its children hope for the future. Martin Whittaker reports on a project that uses technology to develop a partnership

Alexandra Township in Johannesburg is one of the most densely populated and poorest places in South Africa. Rising from its shanty-town sprawl is Dr Knak's School, a modern red-brick building which offers its children security and hope of a brighter future. More than half the inhabitants of Alexandra are unemployed, and large families are crammed into corrugated iron shacks. In this township, violent crime, sexual abuse of children and HIV infection are rife.

Dr Baldev Singh, a British teacher, has made six visits to the township school and he says it defies preconceptions. Once inside the barbed-wire security fence, its classrooms and corridors are orderly, there's no litter, and the children are eager to learn. "The school is a sanctuary," he says. "It's a privilege for them to come out of that crime-ridden place."

Baldev is one of 22 teachers from John Cabot City Technology College to have worked at Dr Knak's School, in a partnership which brings professional development benefits to staff and enriches the curriculum for children at both schools. The risks are too great to take John Cabot's pupils to Alexandra. However, Baldev, the school's head of ICT, has done the next best thing - if you can't take children to see life in the township, use technology to bring the township to them.

John Cabot, in Kingswood on the outskirts of Bristol, began the partnership three years ago, through the Change for Good programme run by British Airways and Unicef, which funds relief, health and education projects in developing countries.

On the first visit, six members of staff from John Cabot visited Alexandra to work in the school and the local community. The aim was to give teachers training in literacy and numeracy, and to set up the school's first IT suite with new computers and a digital camera.

That first visit was an eye-opener as teachers found themselves confronted by classes of 60 children and issues beyond anything they had experienced.

"We worked under very difficult conditions," says Baldev. "There were children and parents dying of Aids."

On subsequent visits, Baldev took part in a community project and helped to train the township's police cadets to go into schools and work with the children to improve community relations.

"Since apartheid, South African police have been mistrusted in the townships. The police need to go into schools and work with the children, but don't know how to do it," he says. "The messages they were trying to get across were about gun crime, encouraging children to go to school, and telling the children that they have rights. In the township, child rape is a big issue. There's this belief that if you rape a child, you are cured of Aids."

Back in the classroom at John Cabot, benefits of the link are bringing global citizenship into the curriculum. It started with money raised by pupils from non-uniform days going to pay the rent on a youth centre in the township.

Increasingly, the school's South African link was discussed in assemblies and in class. And with Dr Knak's new ICT suite, pupils began exchanging information about themselves, their hobbies, families and schools.

Baldev has more strings to his bow than the average teacher. While the South African link was growing, he had also developed a new course for key stage 3 children, called E-Cit. The course, which combines citizenship and ICT, has now been adopted by other schools and helped win Baldev a national teaching award last year for innovation in education.

It proved ideal for bringing the school's South Africa link into the classroom. Pupils would go into the ICT suite and do research, for example about Nelson Mandela, a one-time inhabitant of Alexandra, and put together a PowerPoint presentation about him.

They have also made a booklet called My Beautiful World, about what is happening in their neighbourhood, presented it as a slide show and exchanged it with the children in the township. Another project, called Bin It, involved pupils in both schools using digital cameras to explore what was in their rubbish bins and exchanging photos by email. It made them realise they had more in common than they thought. "So many of our pupils were making assumptions about those kids," says Baldev. "Suddenly they find out that in their bin is the same sort of stuff and they start realising it's a global economy."

The school has held South Africa days where the whole curriculum is based on the partnership. Teachers from Alexandra have visited John Cabot and talked about life in the township.

And children in both schools have played Unicef's Wants and Needs game, which asks players to distinguish wants, such as computers and fast food, from needs, such as clean water and shelter. Baldev stresses that, far from simply taking aid to a South African school, the benefits have been mutual.

For example, the British teachers have learned a great deal from their South African colleagues about helping children deal with bereavement. "One of our PSHE teachers said he was taken aback when he heard how many deaths from Aids they have to deal with."

The use of ICT in citizenship involves John Cabot with other countries.

After the Boxing Day tsunami, Baldev got Year 7 pupils to record video diaries on their thoughts about the disaster, and they exchanged films with a school in India.

The township link is also percolating into other subjects. Jayne Crosby, head of communications, has made several visits to Alexandra to teach literacy. She has now written a module on global citizenship which includes looking at children's rights - for example to education - and discussing how they are met or not met in different countries.

"We don't want to get to the point where everybody's saying we have to have something about South Africa in the curriculum," she says. "But the idea is to make our curriculum global in as many ways as we can."


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