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Cultures add colour to all-white classroom

Indian and Jamaican arts help children to make links. Helen Ward reports.

POET Parm Kaur has just recited her verse about the morning routine in rural India to children at a village school near Dunmow, Essex.

"The line about 'women handshaping dung'," said Miss Kaur, "What's that about?"

The eight, nine and 10-year-olds at Great Easton Church of England primary giggle - some things are the same whether you farm in the Punjab or the east of England. "Cowpats!" they reply.

The poetry reading is the start of a cross-cultural project which aims to enhance the arts and raise children's racial awareness in a school where every one of the 135 pupils is white.

Miss Kaur will visit five times in a month with dancer and set designer Donna Lettman. By the end of the project the children will have written poems, learnt a dance and put together a small production.

The project is designed to link into children's other work through the term's topic, Connections. This enables class teacher Sam Govey to build on what the children have learned between visits.

After breaktime, instead of their usual maths or English lesson, the 34 children find out more about the project.

Ms Lettman puts on a reggae track and starts to swoop, swerve and strut.

The children are fascinated.

"I love dancing," said Jennifer Kesterton, aged nine. "I do ballet, tap and jazz." Classmate Mark Milligan, eight, said: "I've never seen a dance like that before. I think it will be a really good experience, better than maths." The project started after the Office for Standards in Education criticised Essex County Council for doing too little to combat racism.

Great Easton, which was in special measures until February 2000, is one of six primary schools in the county which are working with 14 artists whose backgrounds range from Nigerian to eastern European Jewish.

Headteacher Gill Hopkins, who began her career as a secondary school geography teacher, said: "I had promised staff there would be no more initiatives. But when this came along I felt it was a really good opportunity to develop the arts and to address cultural matters in what is a very white part of Essex.

"The children have to be aware of the world outside. They have no experience here of the cultural mix and diversity of the country."

Jamaican-born Ms Lettman said: "Instead of presenting a culture we are looking at the interactions between cultures, the way cultures adopt things from somewhere else. For example, when Jamaican ska music came to England it was adopted by the Mods and then influenced Madness."

Pupils will also be able to discuss what they are doing with children in Jamaica and India by email. So the links will be maintained once the project has ended.

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