Bonjour, Europe! Twinning set to go beyond schools
Twinning projects between schools in the UK and other European nations are, thankfully, much more than opportunities for teachers to exchange pleasantries and pupils to stock up on flick knives and pornographic playing cards.
Impressive recent partnerships have included a bilingual production of Romeo and Juliet, performed by pupils from Oxford and Grenoble, and an anti-racism project in which teenagers from England, Germany and Sweden gauged the xenophobia among fellow students.
Both schemes are among thousands involving UK schools that have been funded by Comenius, the European Commission programme designed to help pupils across the EU learn more about each other.
But the Commission does not think that these school-based partnerships are enough. In Brussels this week it launched an additional programme: Comenius Regio.
This will also be focused on improving primary and secondary education. However, instead of twinning individual schools, it will establish partnerships between local authorities, getting regions in different parts of Europe to work together on tackling common problems, such as boys' reading difficulties, bullying and underachievement of immigrant pupils.
The aim is to create projects that are more ambitious, and may be longer lasting, than those involving just a handful of schools - although schools will still be central.
Each local authority will have to work with at least one school, though it could bring in several, as well as another institution that has a link to education, such as a university, library or charity. Or, even, the police.
Six schools in Haringey are involved in a similar, pioneering Comenius- funded scheme which has brought together the local authority and Metropolitan Police, plus councils and 30 schools in Sweden, Finland, Poland, Ireland, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. Its aim is to share the best ways of working with teenagers to help tackle the causes of violence among young people.
The project grew out of work started by PC Colin Moorhouse, an officer who used to be based at Northumberland Park Community School in Tottenham.
"When you first go into a school, the only policeman in a community of 1,100 people, you are the enemy," he said. "But within a year you are building relationships."
An anti-mobile phone theft campaign that he helped students start in 2003 was chosen as an example of best practice by the Council of Europe, and pupils contributed to the European Charter for Democratic Schools without Violence, which was written by students.
That charter is the basis for the current, bigger scheme which PC Moorhouse has been leading for the past two years and which the participating countries hope will run until 2012. He said the aim was to treat the causes of violence, rather than making knee-jerk responses to symptoms.
"About 15 years ago I was working on a child murder case. When we solved it, we were patting ourselves on the back," he said. "But the murder had been preventable, and it made me think more about what we could do to prevent crime."
Although Comenius Regio will only start by linking two authorities, officials hope it will expand in future, giving it the scope of projects like PC Moorhouse's.
He said local authorities in different countries could learn a huge amount from each other. "We had a group visit Haringey and they were amazed at the partnerships they saw and that we had cops in schools," he said. "In Sweden, the schools have found it hard to get police to work with them because they wouldn't spare any manpower."
The British Council, which oversees Comenius programmes in the UK, hopes to get at least 50 local authorities involved in Comenius Regio. This may prove challenging.
Keith Walters, vice president of the EU's Committee of the Regions' education committee and a Cambridgeshire county councillor, said he was a strong supporter of Comenius Regio, but feared most children's services directors would not know what it was. "I have severe doubts that many local authorities are aware of this," he said.
Fixing that problem is the job of Michael Butterworth of the British Council, the scheme's UK project director. He is optimistic that existing twinning projects, especially Comenius school partnerships, will provide a starting point, and said most of the local authority representatives who been to a meeting in London last week had been positive.
Finding regions in other European countries that are eager to twin with those in the UK should also prove straightforward.
Patrizia Corasaniti, a schools official for the Lazio region in central Italy, said she was keen to establish such a link, although she was concerned by England's focus on tests and inspections. "We have to be careful not to follow your bad examples," she said.
WHO WAS COMENIUS?
The Comenius programmes are named after John Amos Comenius, a 16th-century Czech educator and philosopher. He is regarded as one of the earliest champions of universal education. "Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school," he wrote.
He also believed that teachers could help instil pupils with a sense of moral purpose, writing that "schools should be a workshop of humanity". That quote was used by Jan Figel, European Commissioner responsible for education, when he launched the Comenius Regio scheme in Brussels this week. He said it underlined the work schools continue to do promoting respect, diversity and co-operation.
KEY PROGRAMMES UNDER THE COMENIUS BANNER
New scheme to improve education by getting pairs of local authorities and regions in Europe to work together on projects such as improving literacy or tackling bullying.
At least 50 local authorities in the UK to be involved, each getting up to Pounds 36,000 for staff or pupil visits and exchanges and joint teacher training.
Each project will be led by a local authority and must involve at least one school and another organisation that can contribute to education, such as a university, police force or charity.
The deadline for applications is February 20.
See www.britishcouncil.orgcomenius or email Michael.Butterworth@britishcouncil.org
Multilateral school partnerships
Existing scheme where primary and secondary schools carry out cross- curricular projects with schools in at least three other European countries.
Funding is provided to cover "mobilities", that is the times when staff or pupils will travel abroad during the two-year scheme.
The next set of application deadlines will be announced in 2009.
Existing scheme focusing on language learning, only open to secondary schools and further education colleges, where a UK institution sets up a partnership with one other European school.
At least 10 UK students, who must be aged over 12, need to participate in an exchange.
Funding is available to cover "mobilities".
The next set of application deadlines will be announced in 2009.
Details on all the schemes, except for individual pupil mobility, can be found at www.britishcouncil.orgcomenius
Individual pupil mobility
Likely to be launched next year, but it is unclear if the UK and Ireland will participate.
Pupils aged 14 to 18, from secondary schools, sixth forms and further education colleges will get the opportunity to study at a school in another country for up to a year. Three-month and six-month placements will also be possible.
Students will stay with a host family during their placement.
Schools involved in Comenius partnerships would be the first to arrange exchanges.