Not much gets past Charmian Hartley, international co-ordinator at an East Sussex school. Even a diplomat in hospital was targeted in her attempts to bring the world to her pupils. Yojana Sharma catches up with her
The riots in France this month have made Charmian Hartley only too aware of the gaps between groups, nations, and cultures. It is all the more urgent, she believes, to bridge them while children are still in school.
"We are working hard to give pupils the skills to enable them to work across international barriers," says Ms Hartley, the indefatigable international director at Hove Park school in East Sussex, which won the first TESHSBC International School of the Year award.
Hove Park has links with 13 countries. This year alone, 40 international projects are in place across the curriculum. Yet three years ago, Hove Park had just achieved language college status. Its only overseas "links" were an annual ski trip, visits to Paris and a Year 7 outing.
How has the school achieved so much in such a short space of time? "At first I was completely lost," admits Ms Hartley, appointed international director in 2002 after being head of modern languages for 13 years."There was nothing to build on. It was whatever I wanted to make of it."
It made her particularly open to ideas. During a training day, staff proposed building on personal trips to set up links. A link with the Philippines started when a member of staff went on holiday there. Another's holiday in Thailand led to links with a Chiang Mai cookery school. A drama teacher's visit to India resulted in a school trip to Madhurai, southern India, to visit a famous Kathakali dance drama school.
"It was like lighting small fires all over the place, but each was kept alight and expanded by Charmian's work," says headteacher Tim Barclay.
Links are in place with South Africa through Link Community Development, with Chile through the Specialist Schools Trust, and with Russia through Brighton and Hove local education authority. Ms Hartley has used the Global Gateway to make links but says it is also important to "open your eyes, build up enthusiasm within school and go for the unexpected".
A love of languages and a curiosity for other cultures fuelled her own interest in the international dimension. Her father was fluent in French and German, acquired as a prisoner of war, and family holidays were as much to practise languages as to visit a country, she says.
At Hove Park, "the emphasis is on the whole school, not just on those studying languages", Ms Hartley says. A three-year environment project involving the science and geography departments is under way with Germany, Greece, Italy, Czech Republic and Poland, funded by the EU programme, Comenius. The links have a snowball effect. A football link with the Lyceum Zeist, in Utrecht, Holland, has led to a one-year maths and art Comenius project.
The first health and social care project between the two schools will start next year. "The maths department was not that interested in the international dimension, so I put maths and art together," says Ms Hartley.
The result was a joint project with Zeist: "Maths in the Art of Escher".
Just before half-term, she visited a friend in hospital. An American diplomat based in Croatia was in the same ward. "I gave him my card, hoping he can come back with a contact with a school there."
For Charmian Hartley, the international dimension is not about sitting in front of the computer or going down the tried and trusted roads. She heard the BBC was looking for schools to host a Radio 1 extra on black music: "I pursued it until we got it." In early November, the BBC held music and media workshops for 70 students at Hove Park. "It raised the profile of Africa within music," she says.
Applying for the British Council International Schools Award kitemark also made her more aware of what individual staff were doing after they filled in forms on their international links. It highlighted where partnerships could be developed further and where the gaps were."It meant I knew what staff were interested in and could present appropriate projects to them."
Making links is not always easy. There can be huge differences, not just across time zones but also technology. Email is not always the answer.
"Different countries have very different protocols. Sometimes there is a mismatch of expectations. You have to be calm, take time to discuss things and come to a shared agreement."
She wants to set up a network of international co-ordinators to spread good practice: "I would like Hove to be a hub for international work." And she believes the 2012 Olympics presents huge opportunities. The games could be used to increase the international dimension in schools.
She is passionate about sport. As a teenager she sprinted for Middlesex County and had hoped to become a professional athlete. "If anyone out there in the Olympic movement is listening," says Charmian Hartley, automatically putting out her feelers, "come to us, we'd like to be involved."