First, a school trip. Then a twinning arrangement. Now an English education authority is linking every school with a partner half a world away. Rachel Pugh finds out what happened after one headteacher visited China
Not many 15-year-olds in Scunthorpe have eaten sea slug, but Ben Short has - and he has tried duck brains, snake meat and chicken feet, too. In fact the laid-back teenager is introduced to visitors at Frederick Gough school, Scunthorpe, as the only pupil on a school trip to China to try every food his hosts offered.
"The duck brains were okay actually," he laughs, as he enthuses about the experience of cooking live prawns at the table and standing on the Great Wall. "One of the reasons I wanted to go to China was to learn about the culture and trying food was important. It was the trip of a lifetime and I would like to go back one day - possibly to work."
Ben is not alone at his school in having a passion to return. As an alto saxophonist and a member of his North Lincolnshire school's six-strong saxophone ensemble, he and his fellow musicians were part of a pioneering visit to Dalian, north-east China, under a unique agreement between North Lincolnshire education authority and the Dalian education bureau.
Already 17 primary and secondary schools out of the 85 in North Lincolnshire are paired with schools in what is a major industrial city and seaport. The aim is for every North Lincolnshire school to have a partner in Dalian within five years. Heads, teachers and education staff have made several visits, as have pupils, and hundreds in the UK are now in regular email contact with youngsters from a culture most have experienced only from the local take-away.
There is more to come. North Lincolnshire is centred on Scunthorpe, a town struggling to find a new role after the collapse of its steel industry, and the local authority has recognised that China has the second-biggest economy in the world and is a massive market for steel. By building Anglo-Sino relations beyond education, and feeding into local industry, commerce and government, education leaders hope to resuscitate the area's economy - and set an example to the rest of the UK.
"It might be a grand dream to think that what is happening in Scunthorpe could affect the whole of the country," admits Geoff Turner, the head of Frederick Gough. "But I feel that all children now need to have an understanding of Asia, otherwise we will be steam-rollered."
Turner started the project. To understand his motivation, one only has to gaze on the vast, blackened bulk of the Corus steelworks, which straddles acres of Scunthorpe and is visible for miles across the flat, sparsely-populated farmland around the town. Once, as British Steel, it employed 25,000, and youngsters leaving school unquestioningly went into jobs there. Now it barely employs a tenth of that.
Fighting low aspirations is the refrain on every teacher's lips in Scunthorpe. It is Turner's motivation. Since he arrived at Frederick Gough eight years ago, this inspiring former PE teacher has led it to specialist language school status, because he found his pupils and teachers blossomed when their work took on an international dimension.
The Chinese link began three years ago when he accepted a British Council invitation to headteachers to visit Beijing and Qingdao in eastern China.
"It was the most eye-opening experience I have ever had," he says. "What fired me up was the sense of enthusiasm and drive, and the sheer joy in learning I saw there."
When an invitation to join the 50th anniversary celebrations of their new twin school - Middle School 39 in Qingdao - followed, Turner pulled out all the stops and took the saxophone group out there with British Council support.
It is difficult to measure the impact on Scunthorpe teenagers of playing in a stadium in front of 3,000 people, being interviewed by local television, sharing a train carriage with a Chinese film star, spending days in schools with classes of more than 60 children, and evenings in homes where no one but another child spoke English.
Sarah Store, 14, was 12 at the time. She says: "It was scary in a way because I had never been away from my mum and dad before and it's hardly down the road! It was so different. We talked to pupils and I could not believe how much they valued school. They even stayed behind to clean it."
From this visit everything snowballed at Frederick Gough. It started an artwork and music exchange with Middle School 39, introduced Mandarin language sessions for pupils and set up three-week total immersion courses in Qingdao.
North Lincolnshire education authority came into the picture last year following an audit of headteachers that identified a gap in support for international work. Turner had already gained momentum in his work with Qingdao, so the authority capitalised on it - concentrating this time on Dalian, a region on the southern tip of the Liaodong peninsular, west of North Korea, that has transformed itself in the past 20 years.
In October 2003, Turner took a group of seven headteachers and two education authority advisers to Dalian. All came back overwhelmed by the warmth of the hospitality, the high standards teachers achieved with minimal resources, and the Chinese children's passion for learning. The trip also resulted in seven school twinnings.
A visit from head of education David Lea to Dalian in May consolidated the view that the energy there could contribute something vital to North Lincolnshire. But he was amazed to return with a formal agreement to work with an entire education authority. He says: "We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Instead of sponsoring schools we have taken on a whole area."
The co-operation agreement commits the authorities to a regular exchange of teachers, curriculum sharing, student visits, joint research projects (particularly in early years education), and shared web-based and IT-backed learning. Other ideas, such as summer schools in Dalian for gifted pupils, are under discussion.
Sharing teaching methods is crucial. The English teachers can learn from their Chinese counterparts' efficiency in teaching large groups with few resources, while the Dalian schools see English methods as models of creativity. On their recent visit, members of the 36-strong delegation from Scunthorpe gave four workshops on teaching methods covering all age levels.
Corus has seen the potential and is sponsoring the Thomas Sumpter school for 11 to 16-year-olds in central Scunthorpe to develop a joint website with nearby Winterton engineering college and its partner Chinese schools. In return, the schools are advertising the steelworks' modern apprenticeships on the website. Community development manager at Corus Scunthorpe, Karen Lloyd, is enthusiastic. She says: "The benefits will allow Corus to grow its reputation in the Far East as well as playing a fundamental part in supporting the local community."
A crucial part of the partnership is Chu Yuzhu - an administrator with the British Council in Beijing, who has been persuaded to leave her job and home for 10 months to support the project in Scunthorpe. She says: "Geoff convinced me. People need to know that China has changed."
Seeing her teach Mandarin at Broughton junior school, in a small village east of Scunthorpe, one can see the potential. Ten year olds' faces shine with excitement as they chorus a sing-song: "Wo heng hao, xiexie!" (I am fine thank you) in answer to Chu's "Ni hao ma?" (How are you?). Daniel, who has been first with every response, says: "I can't wait for my next Chinese lesson. I want to see more words!"
China is part of the fabric of the school, which is twinned with Ying Chung primary in the fishing port of Lushun, near Dalian. Four staff have just been to China; it has replaced India as the Year 6 study focus; and Broughton's website reveals a Chinese proverb as the school motto and film of a school banquet held to celebrate Chinese New Year. Broughton plans to share its strength in IT with its Chinese partner through film projects.
Peter Hargrave is amazed at the impact the project has on boys. "Motivating boys is a real issue in this area. There is no doubt that China is cool," he says.
Behind the excitement is an awareness that Scunthorpe may have set something big rolling. Deputy head of education for North Lincolnshire, Jo Moxon, says: "You go into teaching because you want to have an impact on children's lives, but never in your wildest dreams do you think you might help teachers on the other side of the world make a difference to their pupils."
DALIAN FACTS AND FIGURES
* Dalian is a city of 5.9 million people in north-east China. It is surrounded by sea on three sides, with the Yellow Sea to the east and the Bohai Sea to the west.
* It ranks eighth in China for the strength of its economy thanks to its ice-free natural port, and has attracted $23 billion of foreign investment from 72 countries since 2002. It is the only free trade zone in north-east China.
* First settlements in Dalian were 6,000 years ago. The city was occupied by the Russians in the 19th century and its name was changed to Qing Niwa, changing back to Dalian in 1899.
* During both world wars Dalian was caught in fighting between Russia and Japan and suffered major structural damage and loss of life. 1945 marked the end of 40 years of Japanese occupation and a return to Chinese rule.
* In 1984 it was granted open city status, followed the next year by the right to make decisions at a provincial level. This marked the start of the city's remarkable economic transformation.
* A number of international companies - including Nokia, Dell, Pfizer, Canon, Toshiba and Ericsson - have bases in Dalian.