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The Issue: School links

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Four years ago, Clare Short, then Secretary of State for International Development, urged every school to create a link with a partner school in a developing country. Now, with global citizenship firmly established in the curriculum, more and more schools are forming partnerships outside the UK - with 10 times as many school links now as there were in 1999. Using email, webcams, satellite phone links and virtual tours, these are a far cry from old-fashioned pen pal exchanges. But how do you find the best link? And once you've got one established, how do you get the most from it?

What is a link?

Hopping across the Channel to brush up on French verbs is important for language skills, but is not a school link. "Linking" refers to a formal, long-term and equal partnership with another school, often in a developing country. It can include everything from regular email contact between students to reciprocal visits and themed social events. But the important thing is that the link is used across the curriculum.

Vegetarian, non-smoker, GSOH - how do I find a link school?

Finding a partner is easy, and there are plenty of matchmakers out there.

Although some schools use local businesses or communities to provide links, most go through a specialist organisation. These usually have bases in a particular country or area and an established network of schools. Some provide a free linking service, while others charge for ongoing support.

Link Community Development, for example, runs a programme involving more than 300 schools in Ghana, Uganda and South Africa and more than 250 in the UK. It asks schools for a four-year commitment of pound;500 a year: for this it provides information packs, curriculum materials and long-term support, as well as initial help in finding a partner school.

The British Council, with support from major charities, operates the three-year pound;3 million Global School Partnership launched in April 2003 on behalf of the Department for International Development. The programme offers grants, develops best practice and provides advice and support, both through its website and with a series of regional workshops and training days. The website provides advice on finding a link as well as a special "dating agency" section for schools seeking a partner. Although it's not important to "match" your school exactly with another, it makes life easier if you share the same expectations, have compatible communications technology, and are working with students at the same key stages.

Getting connected

Most schools keep in touch with a regular programme of letters or emails.

Some invest in satellite links or videoconferencing equipment. Don't underestimate communication difficulties - most African schools, for example, won't have email; phone calls are expensive and mail may be unreliable or even have to depend on the diplomatic postal system. Getting an intermittent response (or even none) to friendly missives can be discouraging, so it's worth getting as many systems in place as possible before you start. And, of course, the most popular and effective way of consolidating a link is by regular and reciprocal teacher and pupil visits.

All schools agree that there's nothing to beat face-to-face contact for making the link work.

The secret of success

Links are often the brainchild of an individual teacher, and when that member of staff moves on or gets too busy, the link can fail. It's better to get the whole school involved and generate widespread enthusiasm. "It can't just be one teacher or a small clique of pupils. It needs to be embedded in the ethos of the school," says Nicholas Maurice, director of UK One World Linking Association (UKOWLA), part of the Global School Partnership.

Quite often, partner schools start the link with different ideas about what it will involve. In the most successful and sustainable relationships, both take time at the beginning to discuss exactly what they want from the programme, how it will work on a practical basis, and what they are prepared to commit to the scheme.

Perseverance is also important. Links need to be seen as a long-term commitment rather than a one-off activity to meet curriculum targets. Be warned that the initial stages can be frustrating and time-consuming, and it may be several years before the link starts to work as you would like it. "It's about building confidence for both schools," says Kate Griffin, education officer at Link Community Development. "Finding mutually beneficial activities and building them into schools where there's already lots going on takes time. But so much comes out of it in the end."

What will my school get from it?

While the link is a good basis for the global citizenship curriculum, it can be much more. Sharon Simons co-ordinates the school link between Polesworth high school in Tamworth, Warwickshire, and Pampawie junior secondary school in Ghana, which has been running since 1999. She believes linking is particularly important for schools such as hers which are largely rural with few opportunities to experience other cultures and communities. "It's completely changed our direction. On a practical level, it's produced material for everything from geography projects to food technology research - but more than that, it's been about understanding and learning through real experience. It's a way for the learning in our school to be unique."

Linking can help bring to life different cultures, races and religions; introduce issues of justice, trade and economics; provide professional development opportunities; and simply remind pupils and staff that there's a wide world beyond the exam room. But the benefits may not be confined to school. Many participants find the link a good way of getting more involved with their local communities, choosing links with countries represented at their school. Others find it a good way to draw in local business support.

"It's quite easy to have a link 5,000 miles away," says Nicholas Maurice, "but often much more difficult to find a way of getting involved with your own communities. A school link should be a way of strengthening local activity, too."

And what about the other school?

Linking is not just about raising money for schools in developing countries. In fact, many programmes steer away from any aid relationship, and Oxfam would rather fundraising were not part of linking at all. "It could be positively harmful," says its development programme assistant, Isabel Allen. "It's not so easy to avoid a condescending relationship if children are always raising money to help those they see as poorer."

Instead, Oxfam encourages visits and exchanges which create active connections rather than emphasise differences.

Despite these reservations, many link schools do raise money for their partners, often providing computer equipment and teaching resources. But although the impact of these practical improvements is easy to measure, it's the less tangible outcomes which may well be most effective. British Council link officers in each country report that a good quality link with a UK school boosts the self-confidence of the link partner, that teachers are more likely to remain for longer - providing greater stability - and that students demonstrate higher academic standards.

Is funding available?

There is unusually good news here. First, linking need not be expensive. In the beginning, all that's needed is an exchange of letters, emails, photographs or school work to enable curriculum activity to be built around the link school.

On an even brighter note, a range of grants is available. These vary depending on where your link school is, and what kind of work is being done. A good starting point is the British Council, which has an overview of what's going on and which administers a variety of grants. Its Global School Partnership offers grants for visits in the early stages of setting up a link, and then further funding for curriculum development once the link is up and running. Sharon Simons has won four grants since starting the Tamworth-Pampawie link, and she recommends applying for funding as soon as possible. "Getting staff out to the link schools right at the beginning is key to making everything work. It becomes real and personal then, not just another curriculum activity. They always come back fired up - and pass on that enthusiasm to everyone else."

What are visits like?

The first visits are usually made by staff, paving the way for student exchanges later on. A visit from the UK to the link school typically lasts about two weeks, with the travellers staying with local families and often shadowing family members to get real experience of everything from domestic chores to health clinic appointments. Visits are rarely about exchanging teaching skills so much as agreeing practical steps to make the link work.

Although some time might be spent observing or teaching lessons, most of the visit will be taken up in meetings. When staff from Polesworth first went to Pampawie, they met the community chief and elders, the district director of education, the diocesan bishop, the parent teacher association, staff from the British Council, the Ghana International Bank and other local secondary schools, the district assembly and international aid foundations. If the visit is by pupils, it might include group meals, outings or sports matches - and often the UK pupils work alongside their hosts at a practical project. Children on visits to Gambia and Ghana organised through UKOWLA have, for example, helped to build classroom blocks, decorate workshops and fence a mango orchard.

What support can we expect?

Because linking is such a growth activity, there's plenty of support available. Again, the British Council is a good first port of call, with the Global School Partnership programme mentioned above. The Cambridge Education Foundation, another member of the consortium, will soon be offering accredited training for teachers taking part in linking; and Voluntary Service Overseas, also part of the Global School Partnership, is developing a global educators' register to support link schools. Making use of some of the thousands of returned volunteers who have worked in schools outside the UK, the register will put teachers in touch with those who can share information and resources useful to the link.

The Department for International Development is also encouraging teachers to make contact with their local development education centre to access resources and support. The 45 centres work under the Development Education Association and can provide training as well as informal support and information for link schools.

Specialist linking organisations, too, know the ropes and can be helpful in offering practical advice such as how to apply for grants or how to build the school link into the curriculum. Link Community Development, for example, offers staff the opportunity to share experiences and information, and runs an annual conference to highlight some of the issues around linking (see page 14).

What happens if we fall out?

The drop-out rate for linked schools is low. And if partnerships do fail, they tend to fizzle out rather than explode in a series of angry letters.

But there can be difficulties. These are often the result of simple pressures - technical problems about communication, other commitments using up the time needed to make the link work, a change of staff or disappointment arising from unrealistic expectations. Like all relationships, there can be rocky patches, but if you have made the partnership through an organisation, there will be plenty of help to see you through. Support staff in each of the link countries can visit the schools to iron out practical difficulties or help arrange more realistic activities. And if the breakdown is irrevocable, then they will help to set up a new link. Nicholas Maurice at UKOWLA is sanguine about links ending.

"Just because a link proves unsustainable, it doesn't mean it wasn't great while it lasted."

Does the link have to be with a school in a developing country?

Not at all. Although many of the government initiatives (and hence the grants, too) are directed towards linking with schools in developing countries, many successful links have been set up elsewhere.

Japan 21 organises partnerships between the UK and Japan, with its own grants scheme and specialist support. Schools in the United States are also popular. And old-fashioned though it might seem, there are still lots of good links to be made in Europe. Ray Kirtley, co-ordinator for the Yorkshire and Humberside Global Schools Association, points out that costs of visits within Europe are generally lower and that funding is available through the European Union.

"Having a link with a less developed country can be hard work," he says.

"Quite often there are rigid curriculums which don't allow much flexibility and there's usually some sort of aid relationship which can throw up difficulties. In Europe, most schools know what to do and can develop a good curriculum project which is clearly understood by both partners."

Many schools like linking so much that they have partners in more than one continent. Kelvin Hall school in Hull is working with schools in St Petersburg, Sierra Leone, Transylvania, Germany and Estonia, and has won the British Council's International School Award (see case study, right).

"It's all about being more outward looking," says Claudia Lorenz, the school's linking co-ordinator. "It's about being aware of yourself as part of the wider world. It doesn't matter about the type of school or where it is. What matters is getting an international perspective into the classroom."

A conference on school links, organised by Link Community Development and supported by The TES and the UK One World Association, will be held at the British Museum on October 10. Cost: pound;65 for members of the Link schools programme, pound;80 for others. For more information, contact Kate Griffin at Link Community Development:

Main text: Steven Hastings. Illustration: Thea Brine. Additional research: Tracey Thomas. Next week: School uniform

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