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Lessons on life from the school without borders

Pupils from Anderson High in Shetland attended the annual Global Classroom conference in South Africa last week. Christopher Silver was among them.

A group of tourists wandering through a South African township is not an unusual sight. They stroll past tiny shacks, walk on sand littered with glass serving as a road, hold hands with barefoot children and smell a rich tang of food, human waste, and scattered debris.

With looks of apprehensive wonder, disgust and pity, they follow a cheerful local guide, who tells them, with a lightsome air, everyday stories of degradation, struggle and survival.

Last week, a group of young people from across the globe took part in just such a tour in Cape Town's oldest official township. But, unlike a standard group of visitors to Langa, this group was charged with analysing, reflecting on and understanding the experience.

This was just one of many events that took place during the Global Classroom conference, which brought together around 100 young people from Scotland, Japan, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, and South Africa.

The conference marked the annual culmination of the Global Classroom Partnership, formed with the aim of providing students with opportunities to learn and forge friendships in a variety of different forms beyond the confines of their own borders.

This year, with the inspired and decidedly relevant title of "Sharing Pasts and Shaping Futures", conference delegates presented and discussed key issues in their countries' histories, and then went on to discuss from an international perspective their common problems and aspirations.

Yet the Global Classroom conference did not resemble even the liveliest of school history lessons. The students' textbooks were ex-political prisoners on Robben Island, their teachers were their senses as they walked through Langa, or their consciences as they heard eyewitness accounts of student protestors being killed during the collapse of the apartheid regime.

One German teacher spoke about the value she saw in taking her students to the event: "A learner needs experience; you must see, touch, taste and feel in order to understand fully - and to see different sides within one subject, which is so much more successful than the 35 minute rubbish."

The conference was opened in the chillingly appropriate confines of Robben Island, with participants spending a length of time in the cells once used by political prisoners that have perhaps done more than any other group to shape modern South Africa.

At the opening ceremony, participants heard of the realities of South Africa's past from Denis Goldberg, who was imprisoned along with Nelson Mandela at the infamous Rivonia trial.

"I remember reading in a school textbook at the age of 10, that South Africa was a democracy because all 'grown up people' could vote or stand as a representative," he said. "Yet, thanks to my upbringing, I was aware that this was false.

"I gradually came to understand that my privileges (as a white South African) depended on the oppression of other people. Eventually, it seemed time for me to pay back that privilege."

It was with these words ringing in their ears that the delegates, whose ages ranged from 16 to 19, proceeded to decipher the complex issues that might shape the futures of their own countries.

The Global Classroom partnership evolved through the international links that were created at Anderson High in Lerwick. One of the main pioneers behind the project is its ever-enthused depute head, Stewart Hay.

"As I learn how creative, talented, aware, confident young people are and I see them share thoughts in a public arena and in an international setting, as a teacher I wish that we could have all that synergy and international energy all the time," he said.

Mr Hay added that the partnership had created other realisations among the teachers who frequent the event. "The students are learning to think independently and understand in an independent way various issues. You realise that it is just as valid for pupils to ask their own questions, instead of answering when asked."

Yet despite the heavy nature of the conference's content, there is another more accessible side to it, which some see as an equally valid objective.

"Another ability that the Global Classroom has is to allow learning across borders," Mr Hay said. "In this situation a Japanese student, a Czech, or a Swede are no longer mere nationalities. Instead, they become classmates and friends."

Obviously organising such a massive project does have its difficulties - especially where the differing backgrounds and circumstances of various pupils are concerned.

Lionel Adriaan, a retired headteacher and the Global Classroom's South African co-ordinator, said: "Resources are the main problem with keeping the project going in South Africa. There are a hell of a lot of things that could be achieved and resolved if we had those resources. When people came to this conference, we made do with limited financial resources and we survived."

Despite this, there are numerous advantages that cannot be measured in financial terms for South Africa's involvement. "Many of the South African students didn't know where Langa was," Mr Adriaan said. "They've never been inside the township. I think that in this way we are doing something to bridge the divides in our country and across the globe."

For the students themselves, the conference has allowed them to build connections beyond their own communities and backgrounds. Speaking at the close of the conference, one student commented: "I have realised that you cannot judge someone until you have walked in their shoes."

Another said: "This conference has made me look beyond my own values and prejudices, and has made me see that we have a vast amount in common and very little that marks us as different from each other.

"I have learnt lessons which I could never have been taught in school, and I hope that those lessons will stay with me forever."

Christopher Silver has now left Anderson High for university

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