Links not always positive
In its report on international development and education, the Scottish Parliament's European and external relations committee has called on the Government to commission research on the impact of school twinning.
Evidence to the committee suggested these arrangements could do more harm than good, reinforcing stereotypes of life in developing countries and diverting their scarce resources away from meeting basic educational needs.
Oxfam in Scotland told the MSPs that "school-linking does not automatically lead to positive educational benefits and can even undermine these goals by closing children's minds on their perceptions of poor people in the south".
Partnerships had to be "fully managed and supported for the links to be meaningful on both sides", and the charity argued that schools should concentrate on mainstreaming global citizenship in the curriculum.
The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund suggested twinning could be one-sided and asked: "In whose interest is it that such links be established? (They) are not an unqualified good."
Allan Gawani, a teacher in Malawi, reinforced this view, pointing out: "One problem is that we are trying to be equal partners, but one cannot run away from the inequalities that exist."
The committee heard from Neil Thin, a specialist at Edinburgh University, who said schools in poorer countries simply did not have the resources to make links effective. "The capacity of schools in (these) countries to respond to the demand from Scotland for links is pretty stretched in most of the countries where it has been done so far."
The Scotland Malawi Partnership cautioned that there has been such a huge rise in the number of links between schools in Scotland and Malawi that the support given by the previous Scottish Executive "was not enough".
But Karen Gillon, the Labour backbench MSP, commented: "We will not learn through not investing in the schools programme. We must invest more in it to ensure that people get the right infor- mation before they embark on anything."
Even Jack McConnell, the former first minister and architect of Scotland's links with Malawi, who is set to become UK High Commissioner to the African nation, acknowledged that school twinning partnerships were difficult to achieve. "We should not underestimate that difficulty, particularly when we are dealing with schools that do not have internet access or access to proper resources," he said.
Nonetheless, Mr McConnell continued: "While there can be disappointments, there can also be a real enrichment of both cultures. Where that is working, it is working very well."
One secondary head, who has just returned with pupils and teachers from Malawi, reports a "hugely enthusiastic" response to his school's involvement. Tom McDonald of Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow, which has links with three schools in Malawi (including one primary with a roll of 7,000), said they also benefited his pupils' personal and educational development. "It's been a highly positive experience," he said.
The report recommended that international development should be a mainstream activity in all Government departments, and that they should embark on an awareness-raising drive using development education as a vehicle.
Development education should move from being "a collection of disparate projects to a strategically-embedded plan", according to Learning and Teaching Scotland.
But the International Development Education Association of Scotland said funding for it was "wholly inadequate".