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It's all Greek, kissing on cheeks

Mr Clark may be omnipotent at St Oswald's special school, but he is surprisingly unknown in foreign climes

One boy just couldn't get his head round it - none of these people knew Mr Clark. He was in rural Greece with three other pupils from St Oswald's, a special school in Glasgow, and they were fast learning that the world beyond their school walls was a vast and often puzzling one.

"For our kids, Mr Clark - the acting head, who was then depute - is like mum, dad, God and everything else," says art teacher Melanie O'Donnell, who helped the school get involved in a two-year Comenius project.

They knew the trips would throw pupils into unfamiliar territory, but their surprise at Mr Clark's diminished sphere of influence gave a clearer sense of how they make sense of the world.

The project has already taken pupils and staff on five-day trips to Greece and Spain, and will conclude this year with visits to Slovenia and Turkey, all fully funded by the British Council. The children who take part, all aged between 13 and 17, will rarely, if ever, have been outside the UK.

"For some of our pupils, it might seem as if everybody is speaking a foreign language, which they are struggling to understand," says Mrs O'Donnell.

Now they are not only encountering new cultures, but taking part in mainstream classes with children who have little, if any, English. It is a "mind-blowing" experience that at times leaves them "stunned".

One girl decided she didn't like Greece as soon as the plane landed in Athens: for her, the airport was Greece. Pupils kept asking why "that man" was speaking funny - referring to different people, which led teachers to conclude that they were seeing all Greek males as a clone of the same person. These reactions to unfamiliar experiences have, in turn, given teachers a "unique insight into our pupils' daily lives", according to Mrs O'Donnell.

The surroundings abroad were as welcoming as they were unfamiliar. The small St Oswald's groups - four pupils went to Greece, four to Spain and three are travelling to Slovenia (the Turkey trip is for teachers only) - find themselves among foreign children eager to try out their smattering of English or find some other way to communicate.

In Greece, their new friends were in a rural area going through hard times and visitors were a source of great excitement. "The whole school would be crowding round our pupils," Mrs O'Donnell says. "Some of them would never have seen a foreigner."

The Scottish school caused similar excitement when 16 children from partner schools visited Glasgow. Each school was sharing information about its own country online, through projects such as Castles and Culture. In Scotland, the visitors got to go to a real Burns supper and ceilidh.

"Our European friends enjoyed meeting our pupils so much that some of them were crying when they had to leave," she recalls.

The pupils from abroad have "accepted our pupils completely" and their own tentativeness in English has put everyone on a level footing.

"Wee details" that might distract English-speaking mainstream pupils are "not so apparent", and "everyone has been in the same situation of striving to communicate through any means, whether verbal or gestural".

St Oswald's staff have been impressed by the project's impact. Pupils are more aware of other cultures and the difficulties faced by people arriving from abroad. The confidence gained from adventures abroad has helped progress in the classroom, with particular benefits for communication skills.

Now, since hearing about their friends' adventures, pupils have been "clamouring" to go to Slovenia this month.

The surge in confidence is best summed up by an S2 girl, unfamiliar with the intimacy of Greek greetings. She "stepped back as if she'd been struck" when first met by a kiss on both cheeks but, as Mrs O'Donnell recalls, learned fast. "By the middle of the visit, this girl was kissing on cheeks like nobody's business."

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