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Fruits of the next best thing to Trenchtown

Just organising a trip to a local museum is hard enough these days, so tight is money and time.

Little chance, then, of development educationists being able to offer pupils first-hand experience of sights and sounds of the world outside Europe to help bridge the gulf. But Jackie Walker, formerly project worker with DEED (Development Education in Dorset) and now an independent development education worker, is not one to let a few thousand miles stand in the way of experiential learning. To help inject reality and a deeper understanding of DEED's schools project linking Dorset and Jamaica, she took a group of Year 10s from Beaminster School to the next best thing to Trenchtown - Brixton.

Spending a day cruising through a market, throbbing to reggae tunes, and seeing and smelling foods on the stalls that they had never imagined before, these rural children had a brief but lasting glimmer of another world. They also had a taste of what it feels like to be in a racial minority.

Jackie Walker, herself a British Jamaican, set up the "Jamaica No Problem" project to research and analyse the historical, social and economic links between the West Indies and the West Country. People from the ports of Poole, Weymouth, Bridport and Sidmouth settled in the Caribbean as pirates and as traders, some of them growing fat on profits from sugar, rum and, most notoriously, from the slave trade.

The slave trade was financed from Dorset directly, too, in the form of wool shipments to West Africa which bought the slaves that were then sent to the Caribbean, where they worked the sugar plantations to produce the sugar that was exported back to this country.

But they weren't all unscrupulous moneybags. Many people were deported from the West Country to the Caribbean for political subversion. Their dialect and music were added to the great cultural and human melting pot of Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the links continue: bananas from the Caribbean enter Britain through the Geest terminal in Bournemouth, continuing the trade tradition. The worldwide recession has left the two trade centres with high unemployment and increasing dependence on tourism, for which both Dorset and Jamaica pay a heavy price.

The work generated by the "Jamaica No Problem" project in two Dorset schools has been achieved, at Beaminster, through collaboration between teachers of Year 9 geography, history, English, art, music and drama.

In geography, teacher Jason Goddard focused first on the artificial Caribbean, the images and myths that the tourism industry projects. Then the realities of Jamaica as a developing country were explored, looking at the move from subsistence to commercial farming, at the prominence of enclave industry, at the toll that these trends take on the indigenous population and at the role the outside world has had in perpetuating these practices.

Discussion and role play exercises were used to debate environmental and social issues. "We worked in conjunction with Jackie but laid out our own plans," Mr Goddard says. He enjoyed being able to bring in poetry, music and literature to construct a more rounded picture of the Caribbean past and present. He derived a lot of satisfaction from, "looking at development, society, tolerance and giving value to things that ordinarily may be misunderstood. The children have been able to see that what they are studying in geography has historical significance and they can follow it through into art, literature and music".

For Jackie Walker as an African Caribbean woman working in mainly all-white schools, presenting links that give children a bridge between themselves and the world is crucial: "I work with the constant sound of people saying, 'What's that got to do with us?' To come into a school and talk about what happens in Jamaica or Ghana is too much, too different. I want to show the parallels with the world that they know so that empathy can be built up. Local history tends to focus on great families and great estates, far removed from the children's realities and also from international connections. Dorset historically has had a strong economic position. To expose this to children today who don't feel they have an economic position, who feel vulnerable to change - and to relate this to children growing up in Jamaica gives us a lot to work with."

So too, presumably, will the experience of wandering around Brixton on an uncharacteristically Caribbean-like spring day. One parent reportedly pleaded with her daughter not to go on the trip and one of the children was so nervous about the whole thing she asked Jackie what she could and couldn't say to the locals. But when they clambered back into their bus they were buzzing with new ideas, new experiences, new connections that they were able to make between what they had been learning and what they had been seeing for themselves.

School funds enabled each child to make a Pounds 5 purchase from the market, which will be the subject of written work. In addition, they will each have to write a report on their visit. Jackie Walker will also be evaluating the project and has produced a schools pack of facts, background material and follow-up ideas. She holds this project up as a model for others to learn and take heart from.

"This belies what schools are always saying, that they can't do interesting cross-curricular work because of the national curriculum. In this single project, children have been learning about dialect poetry, about the history of slavery, looking at art forms, doing dramas on slavery and have gained a sophisticated level of understanding about development and colonialism in the process."

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