An international credo enables schools to tackle tolerance and diversity through the curriculum. Rachel Pugh visits a village community college which is using European links to raise awareness as well as standards
As he stared into the hate-filled eyes of neo-Nazi skinheads during May Day riots in his home town of Dresden, Martin Seidel suddenly realised that violence was not the answer to racism. Then 14, the German youngster, born into a socialist family, had joined schoolmates in hitting out at weapon-wielding youths during one of several right-wing rallies taking place in German cities. Martin asked himself what would happen if he or his pursuer were to hit the other too hard. "I thought then that there must be a different way," he says.
Now 17, the shaggy-haired youth has found a different route to fighting xenophobia - as a sixth form student in a school in the small English village of Impington, two miles north of Cambridge. Here in the leafy campus of Impington village college, a unique international community has developed. It is centred on its 300-strong sixth form from 35 countries whose learning is driven by the credo that racism must be overcome through co-operation and the development of a European perspective.
Behind the transformation of a small, local sixth form into one with a global campaigning focus is Fiona Swanson, head of international education.
She sees her task with complete clarity: "I believe that combating racism really is a fight and that if you are not aware of it full time then you are colluding with it. Racism underpins all of the problems besetting the world."
Under her quiet but passionate leadership, this modern languages specialist has seen the sixth form double in size from 150 students to 300, more than half of whom now take the International Baccalaureate (IB) in preference to A levels. Of these, 75 per cent come from abroad, living with host families in neighbouring villages, as Martin Seidel does.
Celebrating diversity is woven into the fabric of this school with arts college status. Art rooms display intricate examples of Year 7 versions of Islamic art and a collaborative project exploring identity by sixth formers.
In fact global citizenship is now an integral part of the sixth form's teaching of modern foreign languages, English, sociology, drama, art, music, history. It has even filtered into classics and maths.
A powerful motor has been Impington's participation in two British Council-sponsored Comenius projects. Inspired by Joan Amos Comenius, the 16th-century Czech educator and worker for peace, these European Union-linked projects help schools to collaborate with other European partners to improve mutual understanding. Impington's first Comenius project, which ran from 1997 to 2000 and involved schools in Italy, Poland and Germany, convinced Ms Swanson of the potential for embedding an international dimension into the curriculum.
It also raised the spectre of race issues. How could Polish students believe racism was not a problem in their country, when Ms Swanson's own students were writing letters to Amnesty International about mistreatment of Roma people in Poland?
This provided the impetus for the recently completed second Comenius project, working with schools in Sweden, Germany and Italy. This phase had funding for teacher and pupil visits abroad, so Impington staff went all out to do more than "pond-dipping". They sought to make a difference in attitudes.
Guided by the sixth-form's head of social science, Anita Porter, students from the four schools devised a questionnaire on xenophobia and discrimination, filled in by the UK, German and Swedish schools. Their results revealed many shared attitudes and some significant differences - the most important being that, while English and German students felt positive discrimination was a good idea, it was frowned upon in Sweden.
The impact was dramatic. Fourteen out of the 20 of Ms Porter's students involved opted to do sociology at university that year. She says: "Even I, at MA and degree level, have not had the opportunity to conduct three-country research."
The current Comenius project has involved more than 1,000 students from the four countries. In the first year, students from all participating schools converged on Gernsheim in Germany for a series of music workshops against the background of the outbreak of the war in Iraq. The students'
questioning of cultural conflict spawned a song, The Boys of Basra, which has become something of a signature tune for what Comenius is all about at Impington.
Charles Berthon, the head of music, explains : "It's different to a language visit where students are just based with a family. A visit involving a collaboration - where students are so enthusiastic that they have to talk to each other - brings much better results. It continues to result in deepening understanding here."
The project's second year explored the notion of "Fortress Europe", with students identifying the link between ignorance and prejudice. which culminated with an art project in Karlshamn in Sweden.
This last year focused on friendships and Europe's potential to create harmony. The schools collaborated on an anthology of writing exploring race and identity. Impington hosted a three-day arts festival with students from the four schools participating in rock and classical concerts, an art exhibition and what was billed as a Comenius Show. The local community was encouraged to get involved.
The enthusiasm is echoed in Impington's foreign partner schools. Art teacher Solvig Johansson, who teaches at Vagga gymnasieskola, a rural sixth-form college in southern Sweden, said seeing strict English teaching in action had made her reassess her own methods. It had also challenged her own prejudices. "You lose the scary feeling about high British culture," she says. "Intellectually I knew it, but it was good to see it."
What is happening at Impington feels like a natural progression. The school opened in 1938, as an experiment by then head of education Henry Morris to provide appropriate education from the cradle to the grave. The architect of this listed building was Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement who escaped Nazi Germany to practise his ideal of building to equip people for the modern world.
The students sense the importance of what they are doing - many go on to work in social sciences or human rights. Claire Rivington, 17, from Cambourne, is an IB student who is considering studying law and German law at university in order to look at problems of citizenship.
"The programme of education here is really good, and I prefer to be in a situation where being international is normal," she says.
Claire's fellow students clearly share her views. Repeatedly in chats with students from Poland, the same phrases come up with delight: "We are all the same", and, "We all share the same hopes and fears".
There is also a deep sense of pride in their school. Many talk with passion about their intention to make a difference on the world stage when they leave Impington. Says Ulrike Gasse, 18, from Rossla in Germany: "Perhaps we will go and change the world in the places where we are."
The exam results reflect this commitment and optimism. The IB pass rate this year was 97 per cent - that's 10 per cent above the global IB pass rate and is all the more laudable when one takes into consideration the fact that half of Impington's students were learning in a foreign language.
As director of sixth form Sandra Moreton is keen to point out, a significant number of the sixth formers at Impington would have been denied access to other schools' A-level and IB programmes because of inadequate GCSE results.
"When young people are keen to learn, it is amazing what they can achieve," she says.
But the message needs to go beyond this exceptional sixth form. On a tour of the school with Martin Seidel and Ulrike Gasse, a group of younger pupils parrot their accents and swear at them. Gasse admits: "There is still a division that needs to be bridged between the sixth form and the rest of the school."
This is happening. Foreign sixth formers act as mentors in languages and other subjects. Two students from Berlin have led a Year 9 history project on 1945, drawing upon their own family history.
The international dimension is permeating the teaching from the minute children join the school. Take, for example, a Year 7 scheme of work which compares pupil diet with that of children in a township school in South Africa. Email exchanges revealed that while black South African pupils ate much fewer calories than Impington students, what they did eat was much healthier. This led to a reassessment of nutritional values and pupils asked the question, "Who really has the poorer diet?".
In the light of the July terrorist attacks in London, Impington's headteacher Jackie Kearns sees no choice but to be passionate about the international dimension as a means of teaching social responsibility.
She says: "We are unashamedly political about being Europeans here. Our students see themselves as citizens of Europe. We are not lecturing them.
They are living this."