When a choir of 30 children from South Africa's Free State launches into song at Olympia next week, it will be in celebration of a journey of discovery that began at BETT two years ago. Dr Charles Nwaila, Free State's superintendent general for education, was so impressed by what he saw at the show in 2003 that he set in motion a project which is now enabling learners and teachers in the province's townships to reap the benefits of ICT, working in collaboration with schools in the UK. It is just one of the fruitful partnerships being fostered as BETT expands to take on an increasingly international flavour, catering for a growing audience of overseas visitors.
"The international dimension is really taking off," says Dominic Savage, co-founder of BETT and director general of the British Educational Suppliers' Association (Besa), which organises the show. "Last year, 1,800 of our 24,000 visitors were from overseas, many directly involved in policy and decision-making."
On Wednesday a deputation of education ministers from around the world will visit the show at the invitation of education secretary Charles Clarke, who is also hosting a ministerial seminar, "Moving Young Minds", on January 10 and 11. Initiated last year, when it attracted delegates from 30 countries, the invitation-only seminar focuses on ICT in schools, and enables ministers to share their views and experiences of ICT, discussing the challenges they face and their visions for the future.
Other international events organised to complement BETT include a week-long British Council study tour for educational policymakers, which takes in briefings and visits to schools, and Besa's international conference on January 10. This year's conference focuses on raising standards through partnerships between education and industry, and workshops will feature examples of international co-operation, including a major initiative in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Seeking to build a skilled workforce that will attract inward investment, the Veracruz government has worked with Besa to upgrade the state's further education colleges, with Besa supplying the ICT resources and the UK's Association of Colleges providing training for educators. Dominic Savage says: "Increasingly we are looking for these higher-level partnerships - perhaps in some cases dealing with a whole country, or perhaps a state or province."
The 80-strong BETT delegation from Free State includes teachers and 12 to 14-year-olds from 10 schools which are piloting the use of ICT. The province's education department is being supported by Besa, and teachers are being trained and advised by visiting practitioners from the MirandaNet Fellowship. BETT week will provide an opportunity for more training, and a chance for the South African teachers and learners to visit partner schools to meet friends already made via email. Christina Preston, chair of the MirandaNet Fellowship, says: "We are helping build a website which is also a virtual learning environment, and in order to capture imaginations, one of the things we have been doing is giving the children digital cameras, scanners and painting programs. They have being recording the sights and sounds of Free State, including local heros and heroines - people from their communities who have been doing things for others."
At BETT, the children will be visiting the MirandaNet exhibition stand to sing, and Christina also hopes they will demonstrate their skills at crafts such as beadwork. She says: "There is a hugely vibrant culture in Free State, and we hope that BETT will be an enormous celebration of the local traditions."
The pilot will be assessed next year, before the rollout of out a wider initiative. Dominic Savage says: "The education department is being realistic, looking at a 10-year programme, in support of the South African government's objective that there should be an ICT entitlement for every child in South Africa by 2014. What Besa has been doing is trying to provide access to the right people and the right advice, and our approach is to keep it very practical. The trainers are all practising teachers - and that is important, because they are able to transfer the enthusiasm and good practice that is so essential to getting this right.
"In the UK we have been doing this for a long time, so we can help ensure that others who want to work with us achieve fast gains. Making international links between schools has a benefit for youngsters here, and if we work with companies in Free State to localise our software, that expands the reach of our products. Projects like this really do have benefits for all the players."
Mirandanet - South Africa Free State Choir
MirandaNet's Christina Preston says: "You can imagine how hard it was to choose which Free State children and teachers were coming to BETT, and one of the selection criteria was that they should be able to sing. They have no tradition of artists in residence or art in schools, and we have been bringing in local singers, artists and dancers and recording their work. We are also planning a database of all the artists, craftspeople and musicians in Free State, which will be will be published on the project website. The site supports action research - teachers can reflect on their practice and publish their work in e-journals for the benefit of other teachers. The children publish their work in the e-gallery, and they have their own private space which allows them to work together across continents in safety. The aim is that everyone knows what they have learned and what they need to learn, and how they can use ICT most effectively."
MirandaNet World Ecitizens
BESA international conference
Stand L35 www.besanet.org.ukbesaevents
In 1997, Steve Bacon, current general secretary of NAACE (then ICT adviser to Derbyshire LEA), set up the Mamelodi Trust with his wife, Mary. This charity, which supports educational development in the Mamelodi township of Pretoria, South Africa, is supported by NAACE, RM and The TES.
This year's BETT show will be Steve's last, as in March he is retiring after 35 years in ICT in education. Steve and Mary are planning to spend some time teaching at Zahkele School in Mamelodi.
At BETT, education secretary Charles Clarke will be promoting The International Strategy for Education, Skills and Children's Services - a plan for every school in England to be twinned with an overseas school within five years.
The Department for Education and Skills has already invested over pound;1 million developing the Global Gateway - an online infrastructure developed with the British Council for partnerships between schools.