As a veteran with seven years' experience of Comenius European partnerships in two rural Norfolk primary schools, Joan Dickie has no doubt of their worth. "Staff return from visits abroad with a new perspective and fresh ideas, as well as videos and other personal materials that bring a breath of the continent into the classroom," she says. "The children, too, find it motivating to know that their work will be displayed, touched, enjoyed by children in another country. They are also fascinated by their counterparts' daily lives -in particular what they have in common rather than their differences. In a small rural community, that is tremendously valuable and helps to promote tolerance and respect."
Comenius is the schools' section of the EU programme Socrates, which supports educational initiatives bringing together people from different European nations. Thousands of teachers and millions of students in all subject areas have benefited from Comenius 1, the school partnerships strand.
So what are the opportunities and how do you get involved? The British Council -the UK agency - is your first port of call. Cristina Henriquez, Comenius 1 co-ordinator for Scotland, says: "We have lots of information on our website and we run information days, which include presentations from participating schools."
As a way of finding partners, she is enthusiastic about the contact seminars, organised by theme and education sector. "Up to 80 people of different nationalities attend, so your chances of success are high," she says. "They are a wonderful experience in their own right, but you must apply early as each national agency has a limited number of places."
Another way of tracking down partners is to register on Partbase, an online database of schools and colleges looking for Socrates partners. The Global Gateway website is also worth a look.
First, however, you must decide which type of project you want and these fall into three categories. The Language Project is a bilateral one-year partnership for students aged 14 and above. Although it includes a cross-curricular dimension, its primary aim is to bring languages and culture alive, raise motivation and improve linguistic skills.
It achieves this by getting students to collaborate on a joint project, culminating in a bilingual outcome which can take many forms, from websites and CD-Roms to newspapers, theatrical productions and videos. Communication takes place via email, video-conferencing or more traditional methods and, best of all, face to face, as a two-week exchange is an integral part of the project.
School Development Projects and School Projects last up to three years and involve at least three partners, although it is wise to start out with more in case one drops out. The former has an element of pupil participation but the main focus is on staff, who share ideas, watch each other in action and address management or pedagogical issues.
Pupils come into their own through School Projects, which should involve as many people as possible across a variety of disciplines. Like Language Projects, they may lead to a tangible end-product, but their value lies in sharing experiences and collaboration.
Collaboration is vital for teachers also, and funding is available for preparatory visits to help overcome initial obstacles. This allows them to get to know each other and agree themes. Liz Hall, Comenius 1 team leader in London, says: "It can't be rushed. It takes time to establish relationships and the project must be thoroughly planned to include realistic aims, a timetable, collaborative cross-curricular activities as well as evaluation and dissemination mechanisms." She also highlights the importance of support from senior management if projects are to be fully integrated into the curriculum.
Cristina agrees, adding that applicants should demonstrate how they will achieve effective communication. "They need to show they are working as a group and reaching joint decisions," she explains, adding that the role of the co-ordinating school is crucial as it is their job to hold it all together.
As a former project co-ordinator, Joan endorses her view, and is grateful that her school relieved her of other responsibilities in recognition of the work involved. Her reward was the enthusiasm of both pupils and staff, and some unforgettable experiences of her own, such as the day her hosts in a Spanish school laid on a gigantic paella during the three-hour lunch break, accompanied with a burst of song in three-part harmony. "When they asked us to sing a song of our own, we had a problem - it just isn't part of our tradition," she laughs. "Nor was the fact that the wine flowed freely. It was wonderful."
* Next deadline for applications: February 1 2006. British Council information: Tel: 0161 957 7755
Comenius information days and contact seminars:
A comprehensive handbook for schools participating in Comenius 1 projects www.globalgateway.org.uk