International flavour

26th September 2008 at 01:00
Closed communities become stale at best, prejudiced against outsiders at worst. Judith Judd visits a school that moved mountains so that their pupils could climb them

It is an ordinary Monday morning at Caedmon Primary School. A language assistant is taking a class through its first steps in French. Four trainee teachers from Madrid University are answering questions about their language. A Latvian student, who is on hand to help with sport, and a Greek-Cypriot assistant, who is teaching the younger children about storytelling, add to the international flavour.

Grangetown in Middlesbrough, where the school's 260 pupils live, feels different. This former steelworking community is exclusively white and one of the most deprived council wards in England. Shops have been boarded up. The cinema has closed. Unemployment is high. Most families, says Philip McElwee, Caedmon's headteacher, who has worked in the area for 18 years, have limited experience of the world. That brings community tensions. Two asylum-seeker families have moved into Grangetown in the past four years - one Iranian and one Zimbabwean. Both families, whose children attended Caedmon, faced hostility from some of their neighbours and decided to leave. But the school intervened.

"We decided we had to do something," says Simon Feasey, Caedmon's international and special needs co-ordinator. Three years ago, he and Philip agreed on a programme of international visits linked with changes to the curriculum. They wanted to tackle prejudice by helping their pupils understand as many different cultures as possible. And they wanted to do it quickly.

"Everybody is frightened about meeting targets. We decided that we would ignore the Sats results and the expectations of the local authority and instead create a vibrant international school within a year."

And so they did. In October 2006, the British Council gave them an award for embedding an international dimension in the curriculum. They began by forming partnerships with schools in Denmark, Germany and Cyprus through the British Council's Comenius scheme.

The idea was to bring all the children in the partner schools together in the classroom and through residential visits to each other. Children from Caedmon went to Arhus in Denmark and to Cyprus, and the school ran two term-long projects with the help of museums in Arhus and Nicosia.

Caedmon's next project was even more ambitious. Simon set up a partnership with two other Middlesbrough schools. Then, at a British Council Connecting Classrooms seminar, the three local schools agreed to partner three schools from Nigeria and three from South Africa. Their goal was a get-together for as many children as possible from all nine schools. After months of fundraising, it happened this April. Forty-eight African children and 12 teachers spent a week in England, enjoying day trips to York and Alton Towers and splendid displays of traditional African dancing.

However, the programme for broadening children's horizons runs much deeper than exchange visits. Throughout the year, all nine schools in the programme have introduced the same topics into the timetable. In art, pupils are contributing to a wall-hanging of pieces made using textile techniques from their own countries, and one will hang in each of the nine schools. The schools are also growing local flowers and produce and record them in photographs and diagrams as part of their study of health and the environment. In citizenship, they're discussing and agreeing a class code of conduct and considering how they elect monitors and prefects. In Africa, the head boy is a high profile figure.

But has the school persuaded parents of the value of the international dimension to the curriculum? Before the visit to Denmark, teachers held a series of meetings to explain the purpose of the trips. Philip says: "A lot are suspicious of school because of their own experience of it." Now he has parents of some of the more difficult children approaching him in the playground saying: "You will take him next year. I've told him he has to be good."

Getting the parents on board by increasing their own opportunities is just as important. So when 90 of the children visited the British Museum and the Tutankhamun exhibition at the O2 Arena in London, 15 parents went too. In the evening, teachers stayed with the children while the parents spent the night in a separate hotel where they enjoyed each other's company and talked to the school liaison teacher about their aspirations.

Stuart Burton, a parent and classroom assistant, says: "It was brilliant. I would never have gone on a trip like that to London on my own. The visits keep the children interested. The first time my daughter went away, she came back much more independent."

Caedmon's pupils talk of their adventures abroad, which include an annual trip to France, with enthusiasm. The word "respect" recurs. Jasmin, who is in Year 5, says that there was water on the lettuce in France but it would have been "disrespectful" to say so. Joseph says it's "disrespectful" not to have a go at the language when you are in another country. Teachers and parents are constantly fundraising to make sure that no child misses an opportunity to travel.

The next trip will be to Poland as part of a study of prejudice. They will go with 10 pupils from the local secondary school and eight teachers to Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz. Pupils have been reading John Boyne's holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in preparation for the trip.

Plans are also afoot for a dance performance on the theme of prejudice. Simon says: "Poland is the culmination of all we have learnt as a team." The international strand in the curriculum has offered big continuing professional development opportunities for the staff, he says.

Nine went on a preparation visit to Poland before putting together curriculum plans for this term. The local authority is supporting the visit and the teachers will produce a resource pack for use in all local schools.

Far from adversely affecting their Sats results, the school's international programme has improved them.

This year's English paper asked them to write about a memorable experience. Many chose their trips to Cyprus or France. Behaviour, too, is getting better. Five years ago, when Caedmon was formed from the merger of two schools, behaviour was "hell", according to Philip. "Now people often come in and they say how quiet and caring the children are."

No one, he adds, is dismissing the Government's emphasis on the need for rigour in the three Rs - the school simply feels the curriculum it offers is right for the community. As Simon concludes: "It brings to the school a level of interest and engagement that would never have happened without it."


Raising money for international trips

Simon Feasey, Caedmon's international and special needs co-ordinator, wrote to 800 local businesses to ask for money to fund its African schools visit. None offered a penny. So he rang the airline Virgin Nigeria, where he eventually got through to a senior executive who agreed to cut the cost of each air fare from pound;800 to pound;200. The local authority offered its outward bound centre and the cost of the visitors' meals free.

Simon also called Transpennine rail, which offered free rail travel to York, secured a free guided tour of York Minster, a visit to the railway museum and a ride on the Yorkshire Wheel. Alton Towers let them in free of charge and the theme park's Pizza Hut said yes to free pizzas. He rang Pizza Hut in Middlesbrough, told them about the free pizzas at the theme park and was offered free pizzas for the visitors' last night out. The British Council travel grant of pound;9,000, which is part of the international school award, went towards the air fares.

The school raised the remainder of the money for air fares and transport from Gatwick.

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