Anyone who reads newspapers or watches television could be forgiven for thinking that life in the developing world is one long series of famines, wars and natural disasters.
The media coverage makes these events obvious starting points for teachers trying to explore development issues such as poverty, human rights, international trade and deforestation. But they are handicapped from the outset by the distorting effects of editorial priorities on children's understanding.
A growing number of schools have solved this problem by bypassing the media altogether and making direct contact with communities in Africa and Asia for themselves. Scottish schools are linked to Malawi, Manchester schools to Zimbabwe, Wiltshire schools to The Gambia and Bradford schools to Pakistan, to name but a few examples. And their activities straddle the whole range from pen palling and exchanging objects of daily life, to visits by teachers and even exchange visits by pupils.
Julian Marcus, headteacher of St Bede's School, Redhill, Surrey, which is linked to Lushoto, Tanzania, says: "Every other year 16 of our students and four or five teachers go to Tanzania, then the following year the same number come back from our partner school. As a result 60 Surrey Year 11 pupils and sixth formers have had first-hand experience of life in a developing country, even living in people's homes. And it's been the first experience for 60 Tanzanian young people and teachers of coming to a developed country - for most it's their first time outside Tanzania."
The links tend to be sparked by some previous personal contact. Perhaps a teacher worked in the overseas community as a VSO volunteer, or a local church has regular visitors from an African diocese, or the local authority is twinned with an Asian town. Over a number of years a regular pattern of letter writing, research for curriculum materials, joint school projects and visits evolves, with the stress on developing learning experiences that are mutually beneficial.
The St Bede's pupils visiting Lushoto went to local schools, a tea factory, an agroforestry project and an associated training farm to see how a development agency is helping to show local people how to limit the effects of soil erosion. And they stayed in the homes of families with a typical income of Pounds 20 per month.
When the Tanzanians came to Redhill, they visited local schools and shops, the Rover plant at nearby Cowley, the BBC World Service to make a programme about the link that was broadcast to East Africa, and the Houses of Parliament. This was particularly useful, as government and politics is part of of their curriculum and they were able to compare the political situation with that in Tanzania, where the first multi-party elections took place last week.
Although schools can afford to send only a relatively small number of pupils or teachers in either direction, experience of meeting and working with the visitors can enhance curriculum work and understanding right across the host school. Who better to talk to Redhill pupils focusing on Lushoto in a geography locality study - and at the same time reverse stereotypes of Westerners as experts and Africans as aid recipients - than a teacher from Lushoto?
According to Education Partners Overseas, one of several organisations promoting North-South projects, there are between 150 and 200 sustained links between UK schools and schools in developing countries. However, not all links that are initiated last and EPO has published a series of evaluations and reports aimed at showing schools how they can make a link a long-term success.
The latest of these, Promoting Primary Partnerships, by Maurice Smith, a general adviser for humanities in Tameside, Manchester, where 14 primaries are linked to Mutare, Zimbabwe, identifies regular contacts, clear aims and a focus on curriculum work as key factors in building and sustaining a link. Where the local authority or church is linked to the same area there is more likelihood of visitors travelling back and forth who can carry bags of objects and curriculum projects for partners at either end to work on. Curriculum work is crucial to ensuring all pupils experience learning stimulated by the link, and invariably the link provides extra interest and motivation.
In locality studies, for instance, linking schools have a headstart in obtaining photos, artefacts and information about the area they are looking at direct from people who live there. Don Harrison, education officer for Save the Children in Scotland, has been acting as a go-between, carrying objects such as packets of mashed potato and a box of Lego pieces to illustrate aspects of home life, play and school to Malawi schools linked to schools in Grampian, Tayside, Highland and Strathclyde regions. He came back from Mzumanzi Primary clutching a plastic shopping bag containing ingeniously made spinning toys, clay models, a locally produced blackboard duster and dried maize.
"The Scottish children had also sent corn," says Don Harrison, "in the form of a Variety Pack of cereals. The learning potential on both sides is obvious: how we over-package and waste, how food in Southern Africa is not something which comes from supermarkets."
Defining the aims and objectives of a link can be difficult. The more staff and governors involved the greater the likelihood of sustaining the link. But they may not all agree. Most will accept softer goals of widening pupils' horizons, getting them to question what they see on the media - saying, "Hang on, we know people in Africa who aren't starving or being shot at" - and enhancing curriculum work. But not all would want to explore more complex development education topics such as the causes of poverty, or the direct effect of World Bank policies and the arms trade on the lives of people in the communities to which they are linked.
Maurice Smith does not think these topics are too difficult even for older juniors to handle and is producing a supplement on them for Tameside's Mutare resource pack, for use with Year 6 pupils. "When I was in Zimbabwe I saw 10 and 11-year-olds in Mutare School presenting a play on structural adjustment policy that was exceptional. The script was based on unemployment and the difficulties people face. If their 10-year-olds can do it, ours can. It's about justice, development and trade."
The Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges has published a directory of agencies supporting North-South links, School Linking Across the World, offering advice on how to set up links and obtain funding. Address: 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A, 2BN, tel: 0171 389 4004. For details of a series of regional seminars on the same theme, contact Kathleen Gillett, Development Education Association, 29-31 Cowper Street, London EC2A 4AP, tel: 0171 490 8108. Education Partners Overseas, 10 Barley Mow Passage, London W4 4PH, tel: 0181 742 3757 St Bede's was anxious that the link should provide benefits not just for those Tanzanians teachers and pupils who visit England, but for the whole community. As the Lushoto school is meant to be technically oriented but has no science laboratory - pupils get one weekend of practical science a year, when they use equipment in another school - it decided to contribute by raising Pounds 26,000 for the school to build a lab of its own, complete with a biogas disgester, run on cattle manure, to provide methane for the bunsen burners.
Raising funds could be interpreted as reinforcing stereotypes of Third World communities dependent on Western aid. But Julian Marcus insists that the benefits are not one-way, that the contacts offer British pupils experience that they will treasure for years to come.
"It makes them re-evaluate Western materialism in the light of the personal values Africans have about nature and the way they value people for themselves not for what they possess."
Upper sixth-former Louisa Barton echoed his sentiments. "We all felt that the Tanzanians had much greater riches with their vitality, generosity and genuine kindness always so evident. Their evident joy and happiness in life made me feel quite humble. The experience has enabled me to question the values in my own life which I think has made me a richer person."