Face to face with asylum
For many pupils at Hope high school in Salford, the 10-minute bus journey to Manchester city centre is a trip too far. Nestled in a neighbourhood renewal area - with high-levels of multi-generational unemployment and deprivation, horizons are narrow and aspiration low. Many children just don't think of going into town. Yet as part of a Comenius project, a group of gifted and talented Year 9 and 10 students carried out a piece of cross-European research into the problem of asylum seekers, which they presented personally to the children's minister, Beverley Hughes.
The group of 14 and 15-year-olds worked with counterparts in Germany and Denmark for 18 months to examine the differences in population diversity in their respective areas and delved into their own areas' social history and problems.
Hope high's experience epitomises what Comenius is about, in the view of Liz Hall, the British Council's Comenius organiser for the UK. The programme helps around 1,000 schools in the UK (145,000 pupils) by funding teacher and pupil visits to partnership countries and enabling them to get links off the ground. The Salford school has just come to the end of two three-year projects. The last Comenius scheme was in partnership with a neighbouring junior school in Salford and secondary schools in Germany and Denmark.
The aim of Comenius projects is to tackle the problems of international disunity by bringing Europe right into the classroom - to make a real difference to young people's understanding.
"Children get to know each other on a small level," explains Liz Hall.
"That's what European co-operation is all about - recognising that we are all the same, and that the fact that there are differences is interesting and is something to be explored."
The raising of standards and aspirations is just one of the positive spin-offs of Comenius, according to Hope high's assistant head, Sharon Hughes. Her pupils have been motivated by working with other youngsters in Denmark to develop a weblink between the two schools. This has given them marketable and transferable accelerated ICT skills, but an exchange with an affluent part of Germany was also an eye-opener.
"It opened them up to themselves and forced them to tap into their own resources, particularly if they were homesick," says Ms Hughes. "For my pupils, it was a sharp learning curve, but they came back with a real sense of self-respect. Without the face - to-face contact, the project would be just theory."
The motivating effect of adding an international dimension is a common theme with schools working on Comenius projects. Ravenscliffe high school in Halifax took 16 pupils with special needs - some severely disabled - to Germany. One child was so excited at the challenge of speaking in German that he picked up simple sentences. He uses only single words back home.
At Royston high school in Barnsley, pupils who had visited a Danish partner school were amazed by the difference in lifestyle of children there - they thought nothing of cycling five miles each way to school. It prompted the Yorkshire pupils to examine their own lives and the sustainability of cycling.
Says Liz Hall: "These are the people who will lead the country in the future. Technology is making the world a smaller place, but face-to-face contact is still the most important way of having a proper dialogue."
How to get funding for Comenius projectsThe standard amount for starting up a curriculum project is 1,500-2,000 euros. On top of this, funding is available for travel to partner schools, study visits and staff training.
For case studies and project ideas, go to www.globalgateway.org