Drawn together by an imaginary line

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
hey had been writing to each other and video messaging each other for a year before they met. When at last their first meeting took place it proved to be a test of the success of the On the Line project, the millennium scheme linking countries along the zero meridian.

Jill Hillier, a teacher at Horrington primary, was there to witness the encounter between 10-year-olds Euget from Ghana, and Christie Gray from Horrington in Somerset.

"They hugged each other instinctively, and suddenly I knew that On the Line had worked in a far more profound way than even I had dared guess," she said.

Horrington is a village school of 94 pupils. As in so many On the Line-inspired links, it was spawned by one teacher's career-changing experience with Voluntary Service Overseas. Jill Hillier worked in the Sudan about 12 years ago. She heard how On the Line was forging relationships with people who live on the Greenwich Meridian in the same time zone as ourselves, and went to Ghana to set up a partnership.

She got in touch with the headteacher at Okuaperman school just outside Accra, who was oblivious to her school's proximity to the line. Nevertheless she was thrilled to communicate with a community in the North.

After a cascade of letters, emails, photos, online chats and video exchanges she found herself with four pupils and two teachers taking Horrington by storm. And a stormy experience it was. None of the Ghanaians had the necessary defences against the winter winds howling off the Somerset Levels.

Coats, gloves, hats, and socks were garnered from anyone in the village who could rustle up spares. Teachers and parents offered beds and meals, and the children fought over who was to stay with whom.

The Somerset experience is being repeated all over the country. Joanna Carter describes the effect on her school in Cornwall. "It's had a fantastic impact," she says. "In fact we thought we'd never get through the national curriculum, but On the Line has enabled us not only to do that but to take us in directions we never had any expectation of."

I've seen it first hand, hapening in the two grammar schools in Dartford. Dozens of pupils actively communicating with, and learning from their counterparts in Spain, Mali and Burkina Faso.

At Chesham high school yet another returned VSO worker, Moyra Zaman, has driven a schoolwide project. When I visited assembly there last week I was greeted by accomplished Ghanaian drumming from a group of 16-year-olds. Girls studying fashion were adorned in West African fabrics and fierce competition had broken out in the "Warri" contest - a West African bean game.

But perhaps the most exciting development has come from Stephen Lawrence's former school - the Bluecoat, in south-east London. Doreen Lawrence says that after her son's murder, the school barely wanted it known he had been there.

She, and Stephen's father Neville, and I joined a huge On the Line celebration in the Foreign Office last week and found a dramatically different atmosphere. Here were 16 and 17-year-olds from the school, describing the impact that an Algerian dance troupe, or two amazing blind drummers from Ougadougou had made.

Neil Jones, the French teacher, has devised a project centred on the use of French in France, Algeria, and Burkina, and from it has opened up a new world of curriculum-related work. Doreen Lawrence said as she left: "This is a transformation."

On the Line has shown that if you have a good idea, it is possible to get funds. People are desperate for ideas; some are even desperate to fund them. We have been able to join up some government departments - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Depart-ment for International Develop-ment, Department for Education and Employment and the British Council. But if the new elements of the curriculum, particularly citizenship, are to work, more money must be available to gain access to the unexpected, the surprising and the life-changing. And the Government has to learn that education is too big a job to be left to the DFEE.

Jon Snow is the presenter of Channel Four News. The On the Line project ended last week. For school links on Africa go to www.linkafrica.org

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