Follow the flight of the swallow
Here comes another. After five years of broadcasting to schools on Channel Four with First Edition, within the one-way safety of the television tube, I'm going on line to talk "live" with many of the young people who consume the materials we transmit. I shall awaken more nervously than usual on May 15, because it is then that I shall be joining an Internet debate organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Our talking will focus on the On The Line project - most specifically around the natural migration of swallows. We shall chart their course from South Africa northward and westward on to the zero meridian line. We shall discuss the countries on the line and the people, animals and fish beneath the swallows' wings.
On The Line is a flourishing millennium project linking all the countries that straddle the zero meridian with each other - Britain, France and Spain in the north with Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana in the south. In one fell swoop - as the swallow might say - we combine the discovery of geographical, and environmental realities with the human differences and similarities which bind our world together. It is a fantastic stroke of luck that some of the world's richest and poorest countries find themselves living the shared experience of time - same sun rise, same sunset, and shared times in class where economies allow. WWF is one of the key partners in the project - Channel Four, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Voluntary Services Overseas and the British Council are also crucial to its overall success.
Over the winter, I travelled the line and learnt much both about my own educational deficiencies and my extraordinary naivety. I had never imagined that relative poverty could still support a measurably high quality of life. That affluence could breed such isolation, and that the odd laptop scattered about the developing world might enable the people to skip half a millennium of development. There is not even enough safe drinking water, let alone the electricity supply so essential to tht laptop driven connection with the Internet. Yet the reality that I could find no one in Ghana who could grasp the concept of an old people's home, spoke volumes about how families and communities place the elderly at the very centre of their village lives.
Since returning I have seen how the project has brought so many global issues alive in the classroom. Despite the difficulties in supply of both energy and hardware, the Internet is already enabling children to educate each other about the worlds they inhabit. Curriculum materials have been exchanged and schools have formally linked up. Blackheath Bluecoats - which Stephen Lawrence attended in Greenwich - is improving its use of French with a school in Burkina Faso. A school in Sheffield is working on anti-bullying strategies with a school in Accra. Adults in Glasgow are sharing their allotment experiences with farmers in Mali; fish smokers in Grimsby are linked with their counterparts in Ghana.
Durants School in Enfield and Dzowulu School in Accra are both schools for pupils with special needs. What started as an endeavour to buy books for one school has ended in the purchase of a laptop computer and digital recorder so that both schools can visually communicate with each other on the Net. The Ghanaian head, Stephen Applah, and class teacher William Altikpui have already been to Enfield and received Internet training.
There really does seem to be the chance that these links and relationships will survive long beyond the millennium hype. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that hardly anyone thinks of it as "development education" - nearly all see it as an extension of language, geography and the curriculum itself, we are only at the beginning. But logic is on your side - even at the dawning of the Internet age it helps that you and your correspondents are all in class at the same time. It is so much easier to speak to France or Spain, Algeria or Burkina, than to have to wonder whether Bombay is still awake, or San Francisco is yet up.
The World Wide Fund for Nature is inviting secondary schools to take part in a debate about sustainable development which will run until May 26. Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News will be on line on May 15. To register please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about On the Line, see www.ontheline.org.uk