Good rate of exchange

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Visits to children's countries of origin can bring back benefits for everyone, says Nic Barnard

Pictures and souvenirs are easy to carry, but there was one thing Keith Rutter couldn't bring home from his trip to India - at least not yet. "I would love to bring some of the pupils' motivation back to London," the deputy head of Canons High School in Harrow, north London, says of his tour of schools in New Delhi and Bangalore.

"It was absolutely clear in everybody's mind that the way forward is to get an education; it's the only thing you can bank on. Many of our pupils feel the same way, but there are a significant number who don't believe in that link between education and life chances."

Keith may yet get the chance to import some of that enthusiasm for learning. He was one of a group of heads, teachers and local authority officers on the trip, which marked the first steps to revolutionising Harrow's approach to education and, potentially, to all its services.

The school-to-school links that the returning teachers are now discussing with colleagues are only the start of what Harrow's director of learning, Javed Khan, has named the Countries of Origin project.

Its aim is to promote a greater understanding of the cultural traditions of the 60 per cent of Harrow pupils who come from ethnic minorities, and build them into the daily life of schools. India was an obvious place to start - Indian pupils, at one in five, make up the largest minority ethnic group, and the community is well-settled. Many children are third or fourth generation. And, if successful, Harrow would be at the centre of a global network of links from Somalia to Pakistan and to Jamaica.

It would involve long-term exchanges - not just teachers but social workers, educational welfare officers, educational psychologists and others - and the creation of a training facility to accredit overseas teachers to work in the UK, where ethnic minorities are still under-represented. For pupils who go on extended family visits to the subcontinent, it could mean online resources to keep them in touch with their studies back home.

The LEA hopes to work with universities to research learning styles across national boundaries. A permanent resource centre would be set up in India, with centres to follow in other countries, acting as a "gateway" for links.

Crucially, it would mean fundamental changes to what Javed calls our "Euro-centric" curriculum, to one inspired by and drawing on the traditions and culture of children's countries of origin. He talks of "fusing" the British and Indian curricula - this is about more than just "wall displays and the odd good assembly".

For example, when comparing cities in geography, classes might contrast London against a city in India instead of the usual European capitals. In narrative writing, they could draw on Indian or African storytelling traditions.

Javed is also concerned that pupils get a wider perspective on history, learning for example that, despite modern poverty, the Indus Valley of 3,000 years ago boasted an advanced civilisation well ahead of its time.

Pupils - and teachers - should not be expected to leave something as deeply personal and important as their culture behind at the school gates, he says. "The 1970s and '80s approach that we're all equal and that if you treat everybody the same we'll be OK needs to be changed. We need to treat everybody differently according to their needs."

Harrow is not one of London's poorest boroughs, but it has deep pockets of deprivation and faces challenges familiar to all urban, multi-cultural communities. With the 2002 riots in Oldham and elsewhere in mind, Javed argues that schools can play a key role in preventing successful communities tipping over into turbulence and fracture.

Harrow is relatively harmonious; nevertheless, he says: "We need a better understanding and sensitivity of the cultural, religious and linguistic dimensions of the different communities that live here." Part of the strategy will be to give Harrow staff a deeper understanding of other cultures. To that end, one aim of last term's trip was to immerse teachers in Indian life.

For Chris McDermott, head of Roxeth Manor Middle School, it was an eye-opening experience which taught him he had as much to learn from Indian schools as they did from his, especially when it came to relationships between school and community.

In Bangalore, he met teachers from one Christian school who travelled to rural areas to teach women to read and write "on the basis that if you make a mother literate, you make the whole family literate".

In New Delhi, pupils at one secondary school had taught almost 1,000 adults from nearby slums to read and write in the past year. Residents had come into the school for their lessons. As an example of an extended school, it was inspirational, Chris says.

Keith, at Canons High, agrees: "Talking to the women on the programme, they so clearly felt it was a life-changing experience. It was very moving. It made a very strong impact on our pupils."

Chris, who first mooted the Countries of Origin project in discussions with Javed, believes it is essential for preparing his students for life in the 21st century. "I see this project as all part of that vision of preparing children for the world of work, as well as any ethical and moral considerations we may have," he says. "You will not be a successful citizen unless you're able to work with human beings from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, unless you have command of ICT, unless you're flexible and able to work as part of a team."

Harrow hopes to bring in grants from the European Union for all this, but Javed believes much can be funded from existing budgets. Many elements will not be expensive to implement. "This is about using tax money better," he says. "The hundreds of pounds we spend on conferences on community cohesion and cultural sensitivity and anti-racism training - we send 100,000 people on these training events. I'd question the value of those against what we're proposing in the long run."

As to the future, he says: "In two or three years I hope we'll have set up a base in India, somewhere to work with other countries in southern Asia.

And that a number of visits will be taking place in both directions. The number of people involved will have multiplied and we'll have moved on to other services. It's not the Empire being recreated. It's a genuine two-way exchange."

l For more details, contact Carol Tobin, Senior Schools Advisor on 0208 863 5611, ext 3351

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