How school partnerships build bridges and boost empathy

International partnerships between schools can bring a vital perspective and connection between children across the globe

Megan Tatum

international school partnerships boost empathy in students

Earlier this year, pupils at Y Frenni School were set a challenge: to build a Tippy Tap.

Using just a few sticks, an old milk container and some string, the simple contraption gave them an easy way to wash their hands without any need for running water. The children loved it and happily shared their results with the rest of their class.

But the activity wasn’t just about problem solving or applying a bit of scientific know-how. Instead, its core purpose was to provide pupils living in the small Welsh village of Crymych with an invaluable insight into the lives of pupils at a school many thousands of miles away.

In the southern African country of Lesotho, at Mount Royal School, Tippy Taps have been a critical part of the fight against Covid-19, allowing pupils to wash their hands and keep clean without easy access to running water. And it’s an experience they had shared with pupils at the rural Welsh school as part of a partnership created via the Connecting Classrooms Through Global Learning programme, which is funded by the British Council and UK aid.

Related: What schools can gain from international partnerships

Further reading:  5 ways to teach global citizenship 

In case you missed it: How Covid-19 brought global schools closer together

The connection between the two schools, which began in November 2020, has provided teachers and students on both sides with all sorts of ways to learn, build connections and develop a deeper sense of empathy, says Y Frenni headteacher Jiwli Higginson.

“Having these connections, especially in rural areas, is an opportunity for our children to see other areas and cultures,” she says. “We’re hoping that this generation will develop and grow with a better understanding that, though we might all look and live very differently, at the end of the day, we all have the same needs.”

Introducing students to different cultures

It’s a view shared by Kerry Wilson, a teacher at the Aspire Academy in Hull, an alternative provision school that supports 11- to 16-year-olds, many of whom may be on the verge of exclusion from mainstream education.

Few of the students have had exposure to cultures other than their own, says Wilson. But when they had the opportunity to meet Daisy, a teacher from Freetown Secondary School for Girls, in Sierra Leone, with which Aspire is linked, the impact was huge.

“To have Daisy tell them about her lifestyle, about how she was brought up, and how the kids in the school where she teaches are in groups of 50 and forced to share resources – it meant the world to them.

“Some parents said that pupils came home that evening having met Daisy and had a completely different viewpoint of people coming from other countries. That’s the whole idea of it, developing this wider appreciation and knowledge of others.”

It’s why the school has also established partnerships with schools in China and Nepal, and is working on new connections in Spain and Malawi, adds Wilson. “It’s absolutely phenomenal.”

Teaching empathy through international school partnerships

Even though Covid curtailed in-person visits, both schools were able to use technology to maintain the sense of a connection. At Y Frenni, the two schools have exchanged WhatsApp messages, videos and recordings, asking questions of one another and sharing experiences from their own lives.

They even learned that their countries had deep shared moments in history, explains Higginson, with both having been flooded to provide water supplies elsewhere.

“Although it was very different circumstances, we could empathise in that we could understand their feelings of sadness, of anger and of loss. It woke up the children and brought in so many literacy themes, too – from writing poetry, to essays, and letters. It enthused the children in a new way, and that’s what education and learning is all about.”

Embedding empathy into the curriculum

At Aspire Academy, pupils have also kept in touch by exchanging messages and voice notes via WhatsApp, despite some internet connection difficulties. Teachers are sharing schemes of work via the messaging platform to allow classes to collaborate on activities, despite being thousands of miles apart.

Even without the possibility of in-person visits, the students gain a huge amount from simply chatting with their peers over Zoom, says Wilson. “To sit back and listen to the students there, and have these conversations with people whose first language isn’t English, too – it makes it so real for them,” she says. “They’ve suddenly realised there’s this big wide world out there.”

Both examples illustrate the profound impact that international partnerships can have when it comes to embedding empathy in the curriculum, says Polly Seton, local adviser for Connecting Classrooms in Wales. “It’s such a good way to develop global citizenship through having an authentic partnership with teachers and pupils in another country.”

Partnerships tend to focus on one or more of the sustainable development goals, she adds, be that climate action or social justice.

“Covid has been a gamechanger,” agrees Sharon Flint, also a local adviser for Connecting Classrooms and an education officer at charity Dolen Cymru, which facilitates similar links. Not only has it solidified the need for empathy as millions around the world face the same pandemic but it has allowed teachers and pupils to see all the various ways technology can support these connections.

At one school in Cardiff, students have communicated with their partner school in Nepal via Google Jamboard, Flint says, sharing virtual Post-its and asking one another questions about their homes and communities. Others have participated in the same activities and shared the results via video or WhatsApp messages, such as planting pea shrubs and exploring the different climates they’re growing in.  

Forging these international connections provides teachers with the opportunity to "upskill" and gain experience in building a sustainable partnership or work on a collaborative pupil project. It is an invaluable opportunity, sums up Flint.

“As soon as you add that dimension of reality and connection to a lesson, it really does change the classroom. Every teacher I've worked with has seen that really come to life. What they perceive as so different they discover is so similar, and that humanity is the same everywhere.” A vital lesson, whatever your age.

Connecting Classrooms Through Global Learning offers fantastic opportunities to work with an international partner school and make a difference on global issues such as climate change, plastic pollution, clean air, eco-systems and many more. Our local advisers can help you to get your collaboration started with free support, online training and resource packs to make your projects world class.

Megan Tatum

Megan Tatum is a freelance journalist

Find me on Twitter @1988_megan

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