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To Burwash, with origami

Primary head Trevor Powell treasures the day he accepted the offer to host a Japanese student.

How many circulars and mailshots land on a headteacher's table in a year and what percentage goes in the bin?In those first few heady weeks that all new heads have, I read every missive obsessively. It paid off. Today, supposedly wiser, I might have consigned that leaflet from the Japanese International Internship Programme to oblivion.

My school, Burwash - a village Church of England primary in East Sussex - was being offered the chance of a "positive and rewarding" cultural experience by hosting a student from Japan. It was too good to miss.

I wrote back to Tokyo, received application forms and contacted a host family through our regular headteacher's newsletter. Then we waited for Miss Masako Mikami, a 21-year-old English literature graduate from Chiba, near Tokyo. Masako's early letters promised the teaching of origami, ikebana (flower-arranging), folk music, language, calligraphy and aspects of daily life, such as the tea ceremony.

Our expectations were exceeded. Masako's effect on the school community has been remarkable, measured not least by the level of concern for her family during the recent Kobe earthquakes - the school office was inundated with calls from our parents concerned about her family.

At first Masako was assigned to each of our six primary classes for an intensive Japanese week. Each teacher used her as a technical adviser and she took groups of up to 10 children at a time. On a bigger scale, and in spite of chilly weather, she led children (plus teachers and school secretary) for daily drill exercises in the playground.

An unexpected spin-off came in maths. The Japanese counting system is a great reinforcing agent for helping young children to understand place values (36 in Japanese is expressed as three tens, plus six). The enthusiasm of our older children cascaded down to the reception class, several of whom can count to 10 in Japanese and write the symbols with an uncanny confidence. Children of all ages have pored over atlases to see exactly where Masako comes from and the route of her long journey to Burwash.

Our local catering manager worked with Masako and our kitchen staff to produce a Japanese lunch. That's when we got our first glimpse of Masako in her stunning kimono. At Christmas she helped with a Japanese dance piece in the infants' "Nutcracker" performance, while the juniors sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" in Japanese at the annual carol service. Spontaneous applause greeted our announcement that Masako was staying with us for another term.

Her prolonged stay left us with a pleasant management problem. We decided she should have a weekly timetable offering support for the class topics, such as a lower junior class making sushi for their "food" topic. It also gave her the opportunity to reach further into the community. She now helps out on two mornings at our two main feeder playgroups and was recruited to the props department of the local pantomime society for her artistic talents.

Masako realised an ambition when she came to England. Her spoken English has improved dramatically and, on her return to Japan, it seems likely she will look for a career in early years teaching - a career move undoubtedly influenced by her experiences at Burwash.

And when she leaves us at Easter for another East Sussex primary, her tangible legacy will be a Japanese rock garden, laid out by our Year 6 pupils with Hadlow Horticultural College. In the memory banks of the children there will be a respect for another culture, some rudiments of a foreign language and a positive attitude to the prospect of learning French when they reach Year 6.

In the light of our experience, we were disappointed to see that Japan has been excluded from the new national curriculum geography programmes of study at key stages 1 and 2. However, the "Dearing 20 per cent" gives us scope in primary schools to offer this cultural experience, even though key stage 3 seems to have the monopoly at the moment.

As a school we would like to take advantage of the programme again. The financial aspects are hardly burdensome - Masako paid her own airfare and an allowance to her host family. The school merely provides a school lunch each day - so Masako has experienced the full range of traditional English puddings! Our expenses in postage amounted to no more than a few pounds and a day out to Heathrow to meet Masako meant I realised an ambition to hold up a name sign at the arrivals hall!

The Japanese Embassy has provided a range of support materials, with the Japanese Festival Trust and our local school library service. But in the end, our greatest resource has been Masako herself, arriving equipped with her own calm confidence and her own things - origami paper, tea ceremony artefacts, books and pictures.

Contact address: Japanese International Internship Programme, 6-19-14, Hongo, Bunkyo-Ku, 113 Japan Fax 81-3-3818-4481 Tel 81-3-3812-0771.

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