When the tide goes out at Cleethorpes, the beach spreads in a vast, flat, wind-scoured expanse to the horizon. For those sitting outside the fish and chip cafes and amusement arcades of the town's faded frontage, the sea is nowhere to be seen. Everything seems a long way away from here. Even Hull. And many of the townsfolk like it that way.
When Tom Allen, associate deputy head at Matthew Humberstone CE school, North East Lincolnshire, took up post in this Cleethorpes secondary 20 years ago, he was greeted by a sign on a bridge into the town that read:
"Death to Yorkies" - an expression of local sentiment about the many Yorkshire day trippers who have traditionally descended on the town throughout the summer. They would be referred to witheringly as "cumfors" - folk who "cum for t'day".
But pupils and staff at Matthew Humberstone have surprised Tom Allen by the way they have recently taken up the cause of children living in a village in Nepal, about as far-flung as you can get - a case, perhaps, of one outback coming out in sympathy for another. Indeed, Mr Allen has surprised himself. This mild-mannered 56-year-old head of lower school would never have dreamed 12 months ago that before the year was out he'd be trailing for 12 days on foot into the Nepalese mountains to open a school his pupils had raised money for. But that's what happened. Pictures of a garlanded Tom Allen surrounded by Nepalese children at the opening ceremony of the Gramin Janta secondary school in Namje, eastern Nepal, are testimony to that.
The whole business began with Mr Allen's "anorak" predilection for collecting and trading Workington Town football programmes. He used to play for Workington in the days when the club reached the heady heights of the third division, and still enjoys the exchange with other loyal remnants of the Workington supporters club, few and far between though they are. But when, last year, he received a letter requesting a programme from Howard Green, numeracy adviser for the Isle of Man, he was intrigued by the emblem for a body called the Pahar Trust on the letter, and rang him out of curiosity. It turned out that the trust was formed to build schools in poor, remote Nepalese villages with the support of ex-Ghurkha soldiers, and that Howard Green had become involved because his father had worked with the Ghurkhas.
Mr Green had persuaded the Isle of Man to adopt the trust as its official charity (for which he has received an MBE) and had gone on to build 15 schools. Tom Allen asked Mr Green if he would come over to Cleethorpes and give a talk about the Pahar Trust to Matthew Humberstone staff and pupils. He did, and the school was hooked.
Mr Allen was intrigued by the trust's work. "Howard showed us these fantastic slides of the work being done out there, and there was a wave of enthusiasm from staff and kids about what was being achieved. I was fired up by the idea of a link with a school in Nepal and this school for all sorts of reasons - for our kids having a connection with a school in such a different country, because I'm a geographer and had been teaching about deforestation and the ways the Nepalese government was trying to combat that."
He liked the way the money raised went directly into bricks and mortar. "The Ghurkhas don't get paid for what they do, as they tend to be young men pensioned off who want to put a lot back into their country. They build the schools with the villagers, who do it voluntarily because they want schooling for their children. It seemed a tremendous thing to connect two societies that are outbacks in their own culture - Cleethorpes and Namje."
Tom Allen feels professionally rejuvenated by the project, by his journey to Nepal and by the way his pupils have responded. "I've been here for 20 years, and perhaps I should have moved on - everybody needs something different, a kick-start to get them going now and again. This has been a golden opportunity."
In no time, Matthew Humberstone school had raised pound;4,000, and by Easter Mr Allen found himself trekking for 12 days into the Nepalese hinterland for the Namje school opening ceremony. (The 10-classroom school had cost pound;20,000 to build over two years, with pound;16,000 raised by the people of the Isle of Man.) The two miles he walked through the flat Cleethorpes streets to school and back every day in the weeks before his trip did nothing to prepare him for the rigours of high-altitude walking and sleeping in huts or the open air. But the pride he felt at seeing Matthew Humberstone's name as a major sponsor on the opening plaque made the physical agony worthwhile. "To have a school out there built with money from people in Cleethorpes was wonderful."
He was inspired by the Nepalese villagers' commitment to education. Children walk for hours to get to school. Many of the teachers also have to work as farmers, and put in hours on the land before coming to teach. The Nepalese headteacher, Harkaprasad Lama, who has maintained regular contact with Matthew Humberstone, has to walk 30 miles to Dahar, the nearest town, just to send an email. On his return, Mr Allen expected to feel cynical about his own school and its pupils, about the way children, even in a socially deprived town such as Cleethorpes, have so much by comparison and appreciate so little. But he has been bowled over by their commitment. "I sat back and let the pupils take the lead. Seeing me make the effort to go to Nepal has made the whole thing more real to them."
Humberstone pupils pore over photographs of girls in Namje revising late into the night in the light of one dim lamp powered by a small generator. They are learning for themselves how important education is to impoverished developing communities. Some pupils have started writing to pupils in Namje, and a few are learning Nepalese from CD-Roms. Stephanie Oliver, 13, says: "They have taken the trouble to write to us in English, so we should take the trouble to learn their language."
Danny Stark, 15, who heads the school council, is one of those learning Nepalese and hopes to go out to Namje with other pupils in the sixth form if the political climate improves and the current threat of violent Maoist attacks on schools subsides. Money is already being raised for that trip. "I want to be a teacher," says Danny, "and I would love to do some teaching out there. This project has brought everybody together."
"I would like to think there will be a bit of Nepal in Cleethorpes," says Mr Allen. "There is so much we have to learn from them and their commitment to schooling. I want the connection to be about more than raising money."
Sue Hutson, Matthew Humberstone headteacher for the past five years, sees the school's involvement in the Pahar Trust as a real force for cohesion, and just one initiative that is helping to improve pupils' attitudes towards schooling and raise standards generally. The school has received two DfES achievement awards in the past two years for dramatically raising exam results (from 17 per cent A-Cs to 31 per cent), and was recently given pound;10,000 by Barclays Bank to set up a community newspaper in partnership with the Grimsby Evening Telegraph.
Because of the parochial nature of the town, staff are making every effort to take pupils away on trips. When Mr Allen was in Nepal, other teachers were taking a skiing trip to Italy and an art trip to Venice. Mr Allen says: "There have been some hard times in the 20 years I've been here. At one point we only had 87 kids in a year group and locals were sending their children elsewhere. Now we have 280 in a year group with waiting lists. It's a nice feeling to be part of success, it's a real exciting place to be."