The Conversation: Broadening horizons

Carol Jennings' remote primary has won praise for its cultural programme. She tells Victoria Neumark about its exchanges with a London school

Victoria Neumark

Each summer your Year 6 pupils at Wells-next-the-Sea Primary exchange visits with pupils of a multicultural school in Newham, east London. Why did you want to link your rural primary to a city one?

Here in Wells-next-the-Sea we live in a monoculture. The north Norfolk shore is absolutely beautiful and life is safe and secure for our children, but most have never been outside the county.

It's a tourist area, so most parents work in low-paid jobs. They live in social housing and are not highly educated. The only non-English visitors we see are the Tamil Christians who make the pilgrimage to Walsingham.

I think education is all about developing the love of learning and access to creativity. We work hard to expand our children's expression - their vocabulary, musical and artistic skills - and try to expand their cultural horizons.

How did you find a partner school?

We work with the Yorke Trust (which promotes music education), mostly through its Pied Piper scheme, which pairs young professional musicians with schools to perform operas and concerts. Rodney Slatford, its chairman, mentioned that Gallions Primary in Beckton was interested in an exchange with a Norfolk school. I said: "We'll do it."

How do the schools compare?

We have 156 children aged three to 11, practically all white English, housed in an old secondary modern building in a beautiful old port, with above average numbers of children on free school meals and with special needs.

We have a choir and are starting an orchestra club. So far we have two classes where everyone plays either clarinet or keyboard. The teachers are learning along with pupils. It's our ambition that every child should play an instrument.

Gallions is purpose-built and has 430-plus multicultural pupils aged three to 11, speaking 35 languages, a high turnover and a greater than average number of pupils on free meals and with special needs. All the pupils and many staff learn how to play a musical instrument.

So, we've lots in common and lots to learn from each other.

What do you offer your visitors?

Each summer, Gallions sends 40 children and five teachers here for three days. They sleep in a nearby youth hostel and scout hut.

They come to the beach, make sand sculptures, eat fish and chips. That mile-and-a-half walk to the shore is tough for city children!

We go on a boat trip to see the seals off Blakeney Point - they love that - and on the way back we see Sandringham House.

We exchange songs: they've taught us anti-slavery songs and we've taught them sea shanties. We do part-singing and harmony, with musical accompaniments.

And they work in school: they control models with computer technology, create art work, describe the local geography.

How do your pupils react to the city?

The visits are full of learning. We work in school on history and geography, then go out and see it. We go on the London Eye, walk along the river to the Tate Modern, cross the Millennium Bridge and go on a sight-seeing tour.

Our MP, Norman Lamb, hosts us on the terrace at the Palace of Westminster and holds a debate in a meeting room. The children relish expressing their views: last time, upholding the right of children to choose education or work after 16. Equally, they relish going up the Clock Tower.

Our final Indian banquet, catered by restaurateur parents at the school, was wonderful.

How have the two sets of pupils taken to each other?

Right from the first year, it's meant a lot: hugs and tears when they go.

There have been eye-openers on both sides: our pupils are shocked that people travel on the Tube every day; theirs that you can leave a bike unlocked in the playground.

They chatter away about their lives: mosque school every Friday or 10-mile coastal treks.

The deepest learning has been exposure to different cultures and understanding what we share. We used to give ours a big pep talk about acceptance of difference, but that's not necessary any more.

Now the visits have become a tradition: even our youngest ones ask when the Gallions pupils are coming. And it's lovely when they walk through the port to the shore: the whole town welcomes them.

We're all about building communities: our other projects include a celebration of Wells' fishing heritage.

Are there practical problems?

The risk assessments take up a thick book. I can't possibly let the pupils even paddle in the sea. We pick a day when the tide is far out and they can sketch the beach huts and sculpt sand.

And you need your wits about you escorting children in a big city.

But it's not too expensive for us, since we sleep on the floor of the London school, in three rooms.

And we're always learning. From the day I started teaching, I've been smitten with helping children learn.

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Victoria Neumark

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