Silloth in Cumbria is about as far from Mexico City as you can get. One, a town of 3,000, is backed by Lake District fells and overlooks the Solway Firth. Space is of the essence. The other, the largest city in the world, is a teeming, vibrant mass of humanity. Solway Community School, with 250 pupils, is small even by British secondary standards. Manuel Heyser Jimenez, in the heart of Mexico City, educates around 1,500 in two daily shifts. But the students in these very different places are closing the divide. This summer, they will actually meet.
Silloth students hit Mexico at the end of March to attend school every morning. Mexico comes to Silloth in the summer term. Conceptually, they have already travelled a long way. Initially, they were asked to describe what they knew of each other's cultures: poor people; dodgy moustaches and big hats; hot deserts, speedy mice; no clean drinking water; a nation of refugees trying to escape - was the Silloth response. Mexico City was no more flattering about the Brits - hooligans; cold weather and fog; people cold in attitude; families not close. But now pupils engage in philosophical debate about the nature of citizenship and what it means for each of their communities.
The partnership is one of many successful projects to come out of Partnerships in School Linking (PSL), a three-year initiative by three development education centres in Cumbria and Lancashire which has spawned teacher exchanges and pupil dialogue between north-west England and Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, India and the Seychelles as well as Mexico. At a recent conference in Ambleside on citizenship through school linking, it was clear that such links make a significant contribution to broadening the curriculum and the cultural life of many schools in the region.
Three years ago, Clare Short, International Development Secretary, said that every school should link with a partner school in the developing world, and her department made funding available. Cumbria Development Education Centre, the Lancashire Global Education Centre in Preston and Global Link in Lancaster received pound;120,000 between them to encourage linking projects. They wanted to take schools beyond the exchange of penpals and fundraising for "poor" pupils in developing countries, to long-lasting partnerships that would feed into the curriculum.
Teacher exchange is acknowledged as an important driver of each project.
Julia Cooper, Solway's food technology and RE teacher, exchanged with a teacher from Mexico City and brought the link into her school on the back of an active school council. She said: "All the year groups were involved straight away." Each councillor's task was to report back to class, choose topics for discussion with their Mexican peers, print emails for display, and collect information about Silloth for dispatch to Mexico.
After the first year, another link group was established and new pupils are constantly joining. More staff are also getting involved. Four will be accompanying pupils to Mexico to develop curriculum materials. Julia Cooper said: "I really believe that young people from different cultures should meet and see that people are people wherever they live. This need to build on similarities is more acute now than ever." Heather Wrathall, a Solway Year 11 pupil who travelled to Mexico, attended the Ambleside conference.
She said: "When we started this link I didn't know where Mexico was even though it's right next to the US. Now I see that Mexicans are similar to us in many ways, not just poor people."
At Lancaster Girls' Grammar School, part-time music teacher Andy Whitfield and language teacher Hilary Hopwood established a link with the Akani Avoko children's home and remand centre in Madagascar through an ex-pupil teaching there. The link has enriched the curriculum - in geography through the study of Madagascar's environment, in RE through the study of family and community, and in citizenship through studying the use of resources and waste disposal.
When Andy Whitfield visits Madagascar this year he will take a video by Year 8 girls along with curriculum materials and he will also take pupils from the Madagascan school to the island's Tarika music centre where students learn to play traditional instruments. He said: "Music is a global language and we can learn about each other through it. There is so much emphasis on the academic over here that pupils don't know anything about the developing world. A major part of their education is missing. The girls here are high-achieving and largely middle class and this seemed an ideal opportunity to broaden their education."
At Park High School, Colne, Lancashire, Baden Burns, inclusions co-ordinator, uses links with a Kenyan school to engage a disaffected Year 10 group. He began working with what pupils were familiar with. He said: "I got them to write about how their own environment could be improved and to present their findings to the mayor and the director of leisure services.
Once they had done this they were more ready to look outwards to another country. It has to be step by step."
During the past three years, PSL has gone into schools, offering staff training and helping to establish links that have real meaning. As part of this they have used Philosophy for Children, a methodology aiming to develop a more reflective consideration of values at all levels of education.
Global Links in Preston has also created a play about linking called Sam Gets a Letter, and has toured the region's schools with professional actors. Using interactive theatre methods developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal in the 1960s in his Theatre of the Oppressed, the play engages pupils in a dialogue about the kind of school links they want. All of these initiatives, said Jane Yates, have been created to make schools realise how vibrant and meaningful a school link can be. She said: "Schools have to be clear about what the motivation is, what kind of link they want, who will be involved and what they want to achieve. It has to be meaningful to both parties and there has to be genuine dialogue. I have a saying: 'A link is for life and not just for Ofsted'."
For resources and advice contact the UK One World Linking Association, tel: 01246 345236 and the British Councilwww.britishcouncil.orgeducationFor more information about initiatives in the North West tel: Jane Yates, 01697 331 324 or Gisela Reynolds, 01524 36201 or the Global Education Centre Preston, 01772 252299.