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Bootle leaps into the unknown

What better way to enrich the lives of pupils from an impoverished environment than by bringing the world to their door? Rachel Pugh reports on a school where African dance and emails to Valencia are commonplace

Five teenage girls in green wellies leap in unison across the drama studio, their hair flying. The energy of their Zulu chant makes the furniture vibrate. "Come on! Get rid of any girlie stuff," urges the head of drama, Carmel Carey-Shields, as they re-create a dance they learned during a residency by Black Umfolosi, an African troupe. "You are supposed to be in the diamond mines!"

In a classroom above, 15-year-old design and technology students are emailing a school in Barcelona about an electronic time-piece they are making with yet another school in Cologne. A couple of rooms away, pupils are compiling information from partner schools all over Europe for the front page of their Euro-newspaper, Que ce passe-t-il?

This is Hillside high school in Bootle, Merseyside, where the only limits on the school's compassionate world view are cash and computer technology.

Hillside has just won a British Council International School Award, one of 96 in the United Kingdom this year. It is Hillside's second such award.

Hillside's international perspective is impressive, especially as it is one of the poorest schools in the borough of Sefton, north of Liverpool. Half of its 870 pupils are from families in the bottom 2 per cent of the official indices of multiple deprivation. But deputy head, John Phillips, says this should not hold them back: "We don't want our kids to think they are poor - we want them to think they're great," he says.

Beyond Hillside's 1930s school building, the skyline is dominated by the towering presence of Walton prison, Anfield and Goodison Park , and the cranes on the docks. The school is determined to give its students broader horizons. "The world is very small in Bootle. If you live here, Manchester, which is just 35 miles away, seems a long way off," explains John Phillips, himself a native of the place.

A historian and passionate linguist, Phillips first started Hillside's international links in 1986 as one of six English schools in a European Studies Project using email at a time when it was virtually unknown. The experience convinced him of the internet's potential as a bridge-builder, so he developed other projects involving contacts abroad. When Laetitia Shemilt came to the school as headteacher seven years ago, she backed him by putting international links at the top of Hillside's priorities.

"We are the most deprived school in the borough," Ms Shemilt says, "but we are a child-centred school. We have the idea that if you believe in children and give them the possibilities, it can be life changing."

As part of its work for the award, Hillside has nurtured a five-year relationship with a high school in Spain. Valencia's IES Districte Maritim is, like Hillside, in a poor area of dockland. Last year the Bootle comprehensive led a project called Eurotec with two other schools in Spain and Germany. This was a joint design and technology initiative requiring email communication between pupils in three countries. It culminated in a residential course on Merseyside where pupils worked together in multi-lingual teams to produce a sweet dispenser. This year's Eurotec goal is to make a time device.

Among many projects, pupils gain a European dimension through a tourism course involving internet use. Music staff have organised well-attended tapas and Spanish music evenings. There have also been subsidised visits abroad.

When the dance group Black Umfolosi worked with pupils in all years at Hillside earlier this year, they made a huge impact, and opened up global vistas. Stephanie Byott, 15, one of the five dancers working with Carmel Carey-Shields, explains: "It has really made me think about other countries. It was just talking to the men about the way they live and what they eat. It was just dead interesting."

Hillside's international stance depends on computer technology, and perhaps this is what excites children. But for Jonathan Kelly, 15, the technology is just a means. He says that working on Eurotec has broadened his interests: "Before I did not enjoy languages much - I prefer science - but this has made me want to take my Spanish further."

The Spanish schools are just as enriched. Alfonso Gonzales, who teaches at the Institut Maritim in Valencia and co-ordinates the international links with Hillside, says: "In my school we have many poor people and it is difficult for them to travel. That's partly about motivation. You have to know something about other countries to want to visit them. For my pupils it is possibly the first time they talk to someone in another country."

At Hillside, staff are beginning to see pay-offs for all their efforts, which they ascribe at least in part to the international dimension. In 1996, a scant 9.8 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSE grades. By 2003, that figure rose to 37 per cent, and the school is aiming to reach the national average within two years. Attendance has also risen, from 85 to 90 per cent.

The work continues: there are plans for a return visit by Black Umfolosi, projects involving parents, and links with schools beyond Europe. "If you give people the chance and believe in them, they will take up that challenge. But how can they choose from the unknown? Our job is to show them that unknown," says Ms Shemilt, the headteacher.

For international schools awards criteria see: www.britishcouncil.orgeducationschoolsindex.htm


1 TOTAL IMMERSION: Pupils at Newnham Croft primary school in Cambridge devoted a week focusing on Spain, China, Sri Lanka and Russia. As well as taster language lessons, pupils created displays of cookery, art and drama.

Newnham Croft, which has children from 40 countries on its roll, encouraged parents and friends to share their culture.

2 INVOLVE OTHER SCHOOLS: Highcliffe school, Christchurch, involved seven local primaries in a One World arts project. Each school focused on a country, working with musicians and artists to produce a performance, culminating in a joint concert before an audience of 900.

3 USE EXISTING RESOURCES: Woodbridge high school, Essex, has many pupils who speak languages other than English. It encourages them to gain qualifications for this skill. Community language learning in eight tongues is extended to staff, parents and 110 local people.

4 USE THE NET: Ysgol San Sior, Llandudno, a church-aided primary school, makes potato traps to catch small creatures. Pupils display their captures on their website and encourage schools across the world to try it for themselves. So far, they have had responses from children in Sweden, Australia, the USA, Botswana, and Argentina, as well as a research station in Antarctica.

5 REWARD LANGUAGE LEARNING: The Italian course at Southwick primary school, Sunderland, offers the incentive of a certificate in Italian. This has proved to be a useful motivation in a deprived area, where 45 per cent of children have no passport and have never travelled abroad.

6 MAKE IT RELEVANT: A European environment and biodiversity project supported by the Eden Project in Cornwall spurred an initiative in a local school, Penrice community college in St Austell. It links Year 9 science pupils and Year 10 language students with pupils in Austria, Spain, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

7 EMBED IT IN THE CURRICULUM: Plascrug community school, Aberystwyth, has woven international work into many subjects, using stories from abroad in literacy lessons, dances in PE, fabric patterns in art and emails in ICT.

In geography, they contrast Eritrea with St Lucia; in religious education, they compare the faiths of differentcountries.

8 GIVE PUPILS WITH DISABILITIES A WORLD VIEW: The Shepherd school in Nottingham makes international work relevant for pupils aged 3 to19 who have severe learning difficulties. These children have the opportunity to learn two languages, and they correspond with pen pals in Finland.

9 STUDY INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS: The Warriner school in Bloxham, Oxfordshire, has been studying the work of Unicef, Oxfam and Unesco, and has discovered how sharing expertise - such as drilling clean water wells or building schools in local materials - can help people change their lives for the better.

10 KEEP IT HIP: Year 10 pupils at Tavistock college, Devon, have been working on a prototypes for new mobile phones in partnership with schools in Italy, Portugal and Finland. This joint design technology project will be followed up with a visit to the Nokia factory in Helsinki next summer.

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