Let's hear it for the world

The proud winners of awards sponsored by The TES and HSBC combine teaching excellence with links as far apart as Ghana, China and Bangladesh. Steven Hastings reports

International secondary school of the year, pound;5,000: Polesworth international language college, Dordon, Staffordshire Three years ago, Polesworth International Language college music teacher Dudley Ray sat beneath a tree in the village of Pampawie, just north of the Equator, and learned the rhythms of Ghanaian drumming from a local tribesman. "I can't begin to express the awe and respect I felt," he says.

"I was in the presence of someone who had dedicated his life to the drums, and here he was, passing it all on to me." Mr Ray spent the rest of his visit making a DVD of village children playing the drums, persuading them to demonstrate techniques.

He says: "What young people crave is authenticity. When I got back to Polesworth, all I had to do was get everyone in a circle, give them the drums, and load the DVD - it's the African children who are doing the teaching."

Professional development has always been at the heart of the college's six-year link with Ghana. "If you don't fire up the staff, then how can the staff fire up the students?" says the school's internationalism and development education co-ordinator, Sharon Leftwich. So as well as teaching their subject, equipped only with a slab of rock and some chalk, staff who visit Pampawie engage in several days of specialist study, be it drumming or, in the case of head of social science Deb Gajic, research into Ghanaian rites of passage, later published to acclaim in The Association for the Teaching of Psychology's journal.

Pampawie is just one of a clutch of international links that Polesworth has fostered. The latest, a celebration of Polesworth's new status as an international language college, is with Bibo middle school in Shenzhen province, China, and has led to a one-year visit from a Chinese student who is teaching Mandarin. "Every link we make, we want it to have a different focus," says Ms Leftwich, who, in her role as a drama teacher, is currently working on a project that will see pupils travel to India to perform Shakespeare with a partner school in Jaipur. "The link with Ghana has a development angle, with India it's arts and food based, while with China it's about language."

A music project with schools in Poland, Spain and Germany will see each school learn songs in all the languages before performing live to the others over the internet. But while ICT has its uses, Ms Leftwich is adamant that it's the face-to-face visits which make global projects take wing.

Polesworth student Lauren Atkins, 15, who travelled to Pampawie with a group in July 2005, says it had "a huge impact" on her. "I don't waste water any more, and I don't leave food on my plate. If I have problems in my life, I think of the people in Pampawie and the challenges they face, and it puts everything in perspective." Lauren's ambition now is to return to Africa and teach.

But it isn't just the links and exchange programmes that make Polesworth a truly international school. It's also the way in which every opportunity to travel is cherished, even if it's just a skiing trip or a few days in Paris. The school is in a former mining town, and Ms Leftwich says that foreign holidays are far from commonplace. "Ninety-nine per cent of our students are white, and many have hardly travelled at all. Two weeks in Ghana isn't for everyone, but any trip abroad helps our students to see that the world is bigger than just Polesworth."

International primary school of the year, pound;3,000: Tollgate primary, London borough of Newham Tollgate primary is the perfect example of how an international dimension can transform a school. In 2001, Tollgate was in special measures with only around 40 per cent of children achieving expected levels in maths and English. Just five years later, that figure is over 90 per cent, making it one of the most improved schools in the country.

"Of course, there are lots of factors," says Iclal Lawrence, the school's international co-ordinator. "But there's no doubt that our global links have changed children's attitudes to learning."

Between them the pupils at Tollgate speak more than 30 languages, and the links are a way of tapping into this diversity. "We want to have partners in each of the different countries that our pupils come from, so that no one feels left out," says Ms Lawrence. Currently, there are 12 links, each one tied to a curriculum project. Work with a French school, for example, has been an opportunity to explore the issue of children's rights, with Les Miserables and Oliver Twist as starting points. It has also been a chance for Tollgate pupils born in French-speaking African countries to work in their first language.

But the most important link has been with Green Village, a charity-run school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for children who would otherwise receive no education. Tollgate supports its partner school through fundraising and visits, but as with all good links, both schools have benefited.

"We had been finding it hard to get Bengali parents involved in our PTA, even to get them along to parents' evenings," says Ms Lawrence. "The link with Green Village changed all that. It made our Bengali families feel valued and showed how the school respects their culture."

Next month, funding from the Department for International Development will allow teachers from Green Village to make their first visit to Tollgate. It should take the relationship to another level. In particular, the children at Tollgate are excited by the chance to learn more about Bengali arts and crafts.

Preparing for the visit means more work for Ms Lawrence, who currently teaches a full timetable, organising all the international activities in her spare time. But Tollgate head Tom Canning hopes to use some of the Make the Link prize money to free up some time for Ms Lawrence to devote specifically to her global duties. "That would be nice," she says. "I'd love to have more time to work with other local schools, so that I can give them advice on setting up an international programme, and share with them some of the resources we've developed."

Special school link award, pound;1,000: Belmont House special school, Londonderry, Northern Ireland Many children at Belmont House have autism, visual impairment or mobility difficulties, and the school serves socially deprived areas - all of which means travel isn't easy. In fact, for most pupils, Belmont's overseas links have provided their first contact with a foreign country. "Pupils tend to be egocentric and concerned with their own immediate surroundings," says international co-ordinator Jane Bryce. "Getting in touch with children from other countries has opened their minds."

Staff are always looking for ways to help Belmont pupils engage with the outside world. A Comenius link with special needs schools in Germany, Poland and Portugal has led to joint projects exploring each country's culture and traditions. A recent visit by 14 teachers from the partner schools saw Belmont pupils laying on a welcoming ceremony with traditional dancing and hearty bowls of Irish stew. "One of the best things about a link," says Ms Bryce, "is that it helps children think more about their own surroundings and what makes their area special. Our children have found pride in Derry and were excited about showing off the area to our visitors."

Hosting teachers from three other countries, all at the same time, was demanding. But even the occasional communication difficulty couldn't prevent a rich exchange of ideas between staff. Belmont also has an arrangement with two universities in Ohio, and every year trainee teachers from the United States spend six weeks at Belmont. Other events with an international flavour include African music workshops, visiting overseas speakers, and an annual appeal on behalf of children in eastern Europe, all of which helps give pupils a better understanding of global issues.

"We're aware that Northern Ireland, in the eyes of the world, has a history of intolerance, and of not accepting differences," says Ms Bryce. "Overseas links give our children a chance to celebrate difference, and to see that it's not something to be frightened of."

For judges' comments and details on how to enter next year's TESHSBC Make the Link awards, visit www.tes.co.ukmake_the_link Other useful web addresses:


Make the Link prizewinners 2006

INTERNATIONAL SECONDARY SCHOOL OF THE YEAR: Prize pound;5,000 Polesworth international language college, Dordon, Staffordshire

INTERNATIONAL PRIMARY SCHOOL OF THE YEAR: Prize pound;3,000 Tollgate primary school, London borough of Newham

INTERNATIONAL COLLEGE OF THE YEAR: Prize pound;5,000 Thomas Danby college, Leeds

INTERNATIONAL COLLEGE OF THE YEAR - RUNNER UP: Prize pound;2,000 Fermanagh college, Fairview, Northern Ireland

WORLD LINK AWARD FOR SECONDARY SCHOOLS: Prize pound;3,000 George Abbott school, Guildford, Surrey

WORLD LINK AWARD FOR PRIMARY SCHOOLS: Prize pound;1,500 St Alban's CE primary school, West Leigh, Havant, Hampshire

EUROPEAN LINK FOR SECONDARY SCHOOLS: Prize pound;2,000 Bredon Hill Middle School, Ashton-under-Hill, Evesham, Worcestershire

EUROPEAN LINK FOR PRIMARY SCHOOLS: Prize pound;1,000 Stone with Woodford CE primary school, Stone, Berkeley, Gloucestershire

SPECIAL SCHOOL LINK AWARD: Prize pound;1,000 Belmont House special school, Londonderry, Northern Ireland

EDUCATION FOR ALL AWARD: Prize pound;1,500 Teesside preparatory school, Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees

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