Georgian link brings new note of harmony

8th January 2010 at 00:00
It's common for pupils and teachers to strike up relationships with peers in France, Spain or even Africa. But Georgia was almost unknown in Scottish education until a far-thinking primary became captivated by a remarkable boy in the former Soviet republic

Datuna was two when he plummeted from a seventh-floor window. Many believed he was pushed by a close member of his family, although charges were never brought: a disabled boy would elicit more sympathy when begging on the streets of Tbilisi.

He broke his back and was paralysed from the waist down. His spleen was removed, but his broken arms never treated. For the next three years, he could be seen imploring passers-by for change in the Georgian capital.

The police picked him up. A teenage girl said Datuna had been lent to her for begging. He was taken to the Temi orphanage, at the foot of the Caucasus mountains, but was not expected to live and remained mute for months.

Datuna is now eight. And the greatest concern is about his spine, which could collapse unless he has an operation to insert a titanium rod. It is at this point that a primary school in Wishaw, described as one of Scotland's 10 worst by a Sunday newspaper in 2004, joins the story.

A few years ago, Thornlie Primary was struggling. Endemic bad behaviour resulted in an astonishing 296 half-days lost through exclusions in 2002- 03, in a school with little over 100 pupils. Attainment was worryingly poor and the grounds were constantly plagued with lurid vandalism, an ugliness that was widely accepted as a fact of life. Unsurprisingly, an HMIE report identified low staff morale.

As headteacher, David Hughes contemplated the inspectorate's plan for raising attainment - on his first day in the job, in 2004 - noise erupted in the playground. He ran out to find a boy screaming a torrent of abuse and "kicking lumps" out of a classroom assistant and a janitor.

Intervention by psychologists did not work because it was, Mr Hughes believes, too "inward-looking". The main solution to Thornlie's problems, he determined, lay in projects - he is "not interested in attainment", at least not for its own sake. Projects can fire imaginations by striving for a "laudable aim", and the natural by-product, he says, is that children "can't help but read, write, count and talk about things".

Over the years, the school came to wider attention for the way pupils transformed the grounds into a mix of performance space, flowers, murals and picnic seats. Exclusions fell steadily and are now rare.

Then along came Madge Bray, from the Georgian charity Heart of the Brave, which aims to improve the lives of troubled children and build links with Scotland. She was on the lookout for a school which had "inspiration in it" and was "open to ideas and not stuck in rigid thinking". Her friend Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, had told her about Thornlie pupils' impressive presentation at an outdoor learning conference in Perth.

Unbeknown to them, Thornlie's P6-7 teacher, Karen Sinclair, had been asking pupils to bring in newspaper headlines they found intriguing, and the escalating conflict in Georgia, and its human impact, kept coming up. So when Ms Bray contacted the school in 2008, pupils were asked if they would like to quiz someone who had been there. And a project on Georgia, which could continue for many years, started.

Strong parallels emerged between Georgia and Scotland: they were similar- sized nations on the physical margins of Europe, had a strong tradition of song and culture, and ambivalent relations with a larger neighbour. When Ms Bray (a former social worker from Aberdeen, who was nominated European Woman of the Year in 2001) tells any Georgian taxi driver she is Scottish, the standard response, given parallels to Georgian history in Braveheart, is "FREEDOM!"

Thornlie began building links with Temi, an enlightened "singing orphanage" in the Kakheti province, which encourages a unique Georgian form of polyphonic singing to build children's self-belief. Pupils were shown a video by Ms Bray and became intrigued by a boy in a wheelchair, partly because a girl in their class had spina bifida and faced similar challenges. The boy was Datuna.

Mr Hughes recalls the growing excitement: "They were saying, `We want to know more about Georgia, we want a ramp at the orphanage, we want to help that wee boy.'"

The Georgian link has led to a rich list of activities: pupils have learnt to sing in the Georgian style; they have made traditional Georgian costumes; worked with an Edinburgh University linguist specialising in Eastern Europe; and had cooking lessons from a Georgian living in Scotland. They wrote in support of a visa application for musicologist Nana Mzavandze and maths student Shorena Getiashvili - who was raised in a singing orphanage and is involved in a social inclusion project - to visit Thornlie Primary when it held a Georgian day last March.

But Ms Bray believes the project has achieved a rare profundity, beyond what she has seen in other schools with cultural links abroad - partly because the school staff has a deep-thinking, philosophical approach to learning, but also because the pupils have developed a close connection with an individual.

Mr Hughes had been wary at first. He did not feel "a quick charity hit" would be much use to either party: "It was important that this became not about just helping somebody, but about the relationship between Temi and Thornlie," he said. In any case, Thornlie was one of the five most deprived schools in North Lanarkshire and had a small pupil roll, so it could not raise much money.

Datuna came to Scotland in October and November. When he visited the school, things were kept low-key. No one knew if he would be too shy to speak or even want to be there. Had he wanted to leave, his wishes would have been respected.

A group of six pupils greeted him. "They were expecting wee Orphan Annie, but met a boy who's bouncy, full of beans and wants to live every moment," says Ms Bray.

Datuna impressed them with his frenetic goalkeeping skills during football games. He revelled in the corridors and playground at Thornlie - for the first time, he could set off full pelt in his wheelchair (the orphanage is surrounded by bumpy, untidy ground).

Two of the school's most excluded pupils are among his firmest friends. Jamie Green (P7), who went through a long period when he barely spoke, has found a deep rapport with Datuna. Jamie tries to express the importance of this in an interview for a DVD about the project which, Mr Hughes explains, is "the most I've seen him speak".

At school, "things have changed", says Jamie. "Like, we would say to do something last year, and we widnae dae it `cos we were too shy. Now, music goes on in the class, and we sing in the class and aw that, in front of everybody. Everything's changed. We've been happier since we met Datuna."

Mr Hughes says: "There's a deep recognition of a similar personality that has got an eye for mischief, loves sports, had disadvantages and obstacles, and is going strong. Far from us being meaningful figures to Datuna, he's become a meaningful figure to the likes of Jamie."

Tyler Surgenor, also P7, was "one of the angriest pupils I have known when he arrived in P3", Mr Hughes recalls. In December, he brought in a tub of coins (pound;37) that he, his mother and uncle collected. At a Christmas concert in aid of Datuna, he held it in the air and spoke, unscripted, to appeal for generosity.

Some of the pupils have worked with a Georgian singing group in Edinburgh, Torola. Their endeavours led to a rapturously-received Christmas concert in the capital's St John's Church, which raised over pound;1,000 for Datuna.

Scotland is a world centre in the type of operation he requires, but pound;50,000 and consent from the Scottish Government is needed before treatment can go ahead, it is hoped, this year.

Georgia's polyphonic singing is unique - predating Christianity and designated one of the "19 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by Unesco - and was witnessed by Mr Hughes and Miss Sinclair when they visited the country last year. It sounds dissonant and strange at first. Different groups compete with each other, but that tension is complementary and harmony starts to emerge. "When you first see it, it's awesome and seems like a force of nature," Mr Hughes says.

Unlike Scottish song, it is not merely "siphoned into formal occasions" like Burns Night. It springs up without warning, and is believed to have healing properties. When the Scottish visitors were in a cavernous bar, a brawl started; immediately afterwards, impromptu harmonies resonated round the room and the atmosphere settled.

The style has intrigued Ms Bray, who pioneered treatment for severely- abused children and became interested in the potential role of harmonic sounds in recovery.

Polyphonic singing, with its initial tension growing into harmony and mutual dependency, neatly sums up the journey Thornlie Primary has taken. So it is appropriate that a small group of pupils might travel to the renowned Tbilisi Music Symposium in September.

"This would be the first group of foreign children ever to sing at the symposium, so the Georgians would go wild," Ms Bray says.

But personal glory was not in the Thornlie singers' minds when they performed in Edinburgh last month. Songs were bookended by statements to the audience about how the project had increased their commitment to others, to their own community and to each other.

As publicity posters made clear, the concert was "in aid of our wee Georgian pal".


Capital - Tbilisi

Government - multi-party republic with one legislative body

Estimated 2008 population - 4.36 million

Gained independence from the Soviet Union - 1991.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today