City-wide creativity

17th October 1997 at 01:00
A unique link-up has put development education projects at the centre of a city's policy for schools, writes Clare Jenkins

Schools in England's second city are benefiting from a unique partnership that puts development education firmly at the centre of the curriculum. The link-up between Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham Development Education Centre is the first formal relationship of its kind. The resulting three-year Forward Thinking initiative provides a framework for a wide range of school projects that aim to widen the scope of development education in the city and demonstrate the council's long-term commitment to the subject.

Birmingham is an obvious choice for such a partnership, given its multi-ethnic make-up. In the 1950s, the biggest influx of people was from Jamaica. One of the nine initial projects within Forward Thinking is Out of Many, One People - a city-wide project that aims to overturn stereotypes about Jamaica, with which many children have strong family links.

The project's photopack - produced by half-a-dozen teachers and currently on trial - seeks to challenge the positive stereotypes, such as idealised visions of beaches and palm trees, as much as the negative ones - Yardies and violence - by showing maps, and providing information and photos of life in contemporary Jamaica.

Jeff Serf of the University of Wolverhampton school of education co-ordinated the project. He says: "What surprised us was how dynamic the links were - every summer planeloads of people go back to Jamaica from the West Midlands. So a real resource is the people who live here. This is a way of legitimising what they offer."

At West Heath infants' school, headteacher Marian Davies and her staff came up with I Live in Birmingham, a city-wide project comparing children's lifestyles.

"It's important for young children to understand that I Live in Birmingham means different things to different children," she says. "Differences and similarities make the main focus of the work. Because we're on the edge of the city, many of the children have never been into town. So they see Birmingham as a big city somewhere else. We want them to see their locality as part of a bigger Birmingham."

Staff at Ward End primary realised the project offered opportunities across other areas of the curriculum - particularly for learning speaking and listening skills.

The scheme is important to headteacher Sue Gormley for two reasons. First, because Ward End contains pupils from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and second, because last year's report from the Office for Standards in Education highlighted several weaknesses at the school, among them pupils' speaking and listening skills and capacity for independent learning. "This seemed a way to draw together many strands in a positive fashion," Ms Gormley says.

Teacher Gill Sparrow agrees. Her class of six-year-olds is looking at a large colour photo of a Ghanaian family cooking outside their hut. "Why is there a goat there?" asks Rochelle. "So they can get milk from it," suggests Bobbie. "That's right," says Ms Sparrow. "Where do you get your milk from?" "A shop," says Bobbie.

Ms Sparrow says: "Asking questions is an important skill the children wouldn't have got otherwise. And they'll be that much more interested in the answers because they've asked the questions."

This teaching method is one she picked up at a day-long workshop at the DEC, which all the staff attended. Others included working in groups of four and using key words and captioning to increase vocabulary. The teachers also found that comparing photos of life in Ward End with those of Africa, imagining what was just outside the photo and creating speech bubbles, were useful for creating empathy.

Ms Sparrow's class for instance is learning that as well as the differences between people's lives around the world, there are many similarities - one picture shows schoolchildren sitting cross-legged in front of a blackboard.

And the effort seems to be paying off. "Speaking and listening skills help raise the children's self-esteem and confidence," says Ms Sparrow. "They've also learned to take turns and listen to other people's points of view, as well as how to present an argument. Their vocabulary is enriched and their writing has improved, so has their understanding of issues."

According to Birmingham DEC director Scott Sinclair, the partnership with a policy-making body is important because it helps to show how development education can form part of the core agenda in schools.

"Traditionally, schools saw development education as a good cause - something to do when they had finished with education. Now we've shown that it's meeting people's needs, because children today are growing up in an increasingly global world, with common concerns about the environment, social and economic well-being and political decisions.

Forward Thinking provides links with other institutions as well as schools. The Botanical Gardens, for instance, launched a Writing from the Oasis project, whereby five secondary schools visited the gardens, studied the plants and cultural artefacts and used them as a starting point for classroom-based creative writing that also addressed the issue of sustainability. The pupils read their stories - to be published in a pack next year - back in the gardens.

Nina Harvey, of Park View School, created a nature trail through Asian plants. She describes the visit to the gardens as "fantastic". She says: "It gave the pupils a cultural link to objects and areas of the world many already knew. I was worried about how my streetwise kids would react to the place. But they loved it."

The next issue for the DEC and the LEA to address is how to plan a curriculum to respond to young people's increasing awareness of injustice, inequality and poverty - "one that doesn't have a shopping list of race, gender and environment", says Scott Sinclair, "but asks children to embrace the whole agenda. That's a real challenge for us all."

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