British schools experienced in forging links with their European mainland counterparts have quickly discovered the importance of having a clearly defined focus for their partnerships. Projects built on little more than a feeling that international contact is a good idea often fade away once the initial enthusiasm wears off. One answer is to start with a curriculum project and then build the inter-school dimension on it - which is where the Engineering Council's "TEP in Europe" comes in.
The Technology Enhancement Programme (financed by the Gatsby Foundation and managed by the Engineering Council) is already well known in British secondary schools. What TEP in Europe does is invite schools in France and Germany to become TEP subscribers in the same way as British schools, and then to work on TEP projects with partner schools in UK. The idea is that pupils and teachers in the paired schools will plan and work collaboratively, using fax and electronic-mail wherever appropriate.
The project started in April this year with a group of about 16 pilot schools, but is only now getting into its stride. Teachers, though, are already enthusiastic. Denis Hallam, head of technology at East Barnet School in the London borough of Barnet points out that this sort of collaborative planning, involving the realistic use of electronic communication, will be excellent experience for his pupils: "This is how international industrial firms have to work. They'll see the speed at which things can be done, and have a feel for the amount of discussion and communication that goes on."
In each school, the technology department works in collaboration with modern language teachers. As Denis Hallam explains, the project provides a powerful focus for practical language work: "For languages to develop well in a school you have to provide a real context." In this regard, the translation of technical terms provides both a challenge and an extra level of interest, and there are plans to produce a lexicon of technical terms for the schools. At the same time, because much communication can be by drawings, TEP in Europe ought to be less affected than are some other international projects by the fact that mainland European children are better at English than our pupils are at other languages.
Beyond language, though, lie culture and tradition, and one of the features of the project is the way that it is throwing up differences of approach to technology. Rachid R'kaina (onetime technology officer for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority now working with the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council), who is working as consultant on the project, realised right from the start that there would be these differences and that this, indeed, was a positive reason for going ahead: "There are variations on the theme of what constitutes technology. We tend to be more design orientated, whereas German and French schools are more engineering orientated."
The challenge for schools is to use these contrasting approaches creatively. The TEP materials provide a common starting point but, even so, a degree of negotiation has been inevitable. Martin Clarke, head of technology at St Clement Danes GM School in Chorleywood, for example, feels that "we can offer some expertise in the field of design". Denis Hallam, too, in negotiating the making of an electronic timing device found that "the French school was comfortable with electronics but not with additional manufacturing". As he established early contact last term with College Paul Landowski in Paris, Martin Clarke was full of plans: "My head was buzzing with them."
He quickly realised, however, that for the sake of future progress, these pioneering contacts must not shoot off down exciting dead ends, but must develop joint tasks which will work on a manageable scale: "I began to see that although this can be great, we should not rush. Maybe we'll start by looking at a soil detector. Then we can do something more adventurous."
The point is not the production of wonderful devices, but the degree of collaboration that goes into their design and manufacture - the vision is that pupils should not just be showing each other what they are doing, but should be genuinely working together.If the project is to grow, it must make sense in terms of each country's national curriculum and examination requirements and Rachid R'kaina has worked hard at this: "We've talked with the French inspectorate and made sure that the modules are in line with their education programme."
Denis Hallam sees no problem with the UK requirements: "We've fitted it into a GCSE group, and we have 10 pupils working on it."
The great beauty of the project, Richard R'kaina believes, is that it is essentially cheap and cheerful to run - the technology is accessible; the work is of a kind that pupils might be doing anyway, and there is a bonus in terms of motivation for both pupils and teachers.
This year should see good progress. Some of the teachers from the schools have met each other; initial contacts have been made by fax and e-mail; pupils are making videos and information packs so that each school can see the context within which its partners are working. Very soon now, as the experience of other successful partnerships shows, pupils will start pestering their teachers: "Any news from France today?" And from that point the teachers will find themselves running to keep up!
* Enquiries to Kate Merrell, The Engineering Council, 10 Maltravers Street, London WC2R 3ER. E-mail: KMerrell@engc.org.uk.