British pupils enjoy great benefits from linking up with schools abroad. But there's plenty to discover about other cultures closer to home, reports Steven Hastings
Bemrose secondary school in Derby has 700 students who speak 46 different first languages between them, from Persian to Portuguese. At Highfields school in nearby Matlock, there are 1,500 students, but the only first language is English. "The two schools are in the same county, with just 22 miles between them," says 18-year-old Alex Worthington, an A-level student at Highfields. "But in other ways, they are worlds apart."
Indeed, Bemrose and Highfields are proving that schools don't have to find partners on the other side of the globe to offer students a glimpse of a different way of life and an understanding of other cultures.
In 2003, a group of students from the two schools won a pound;20,000 Barclays New Futures award. The aim of their Here, There and Everywhere project was to bring together children from rural Derbyshire and inner-city Derby to promote a greater understanding of cultural differences. So, for the past two years, secondary students from Highfields and Bemrose have worked together to organise a series of joint events for children from their main primary feeder schools: everything from drama, dance and storytelling workshops to trips to Derby County's football ground.
Highfields, as its name suggests, is on top of a hill, and surrounded by green open spaces. A historic spa and market town with a population of more than 10,000, Matlock is by no means the back of beyond. But the school serves a stable, rural community and inevitably there is an element of insularity. Not only does everyone here speak English, they speak it with the same vowel sounds. "When I moved to Highfields (from Guildford in Surrey), I was known as the new boy for about two years," says Alex. "If someone comes from Wales or Birmingham, and they speak in a different way, then they can be seen as a bit of an outsider."
Alex was one of a group of students who decided that the next generation at Highfields should have the chance to experience a multi-ethnic environment.
In part the motivation was to promote tolerance and prevent prejudice, but also simply to widen the horizons of those brought up in the narrow society of the Derwent Valley. "You don't learn about other cultures or religions from a textbook," he says. "You learn through being with people and getting to know them. If part of school is to prepare you for life at university and beyond, then you need to meet people from different backgrounds.
Otherwise you're going to be in for a big shock."
Bemrose is certainly diverse. Not just because it serves a large Asian and Afro-Caribbean community and celebrates a range of religious festivals, but also because it has a relatively high turnover of students. "You become very accepting of people," says Bemrose's head of languages, Jackie James.
"It makes you outward-looking. New faces are no big deal."
It was a surprise, then, for the Bemrose students to visit one of the Highfields feeder primaries, Darley Churchtown in Darley Dale, and see an entire classroom of white faces. "I don't know who was more amazed, the children from Bemrose, or the children from Darley Dale," says Ms James.
"When we walked through the door, we were met with wide-eyed amazement by some of the children. It was the first time most of them had seen a non-white face, other than on television."
The children from Darley Dale had another surprise when they visited the Bemrose feeder primary Bishop Lonsdale, and found a new, spotlessly clean, state-of-the-art building, and not the run-down graffiti-clad sheds some of them had been expecting. "One of the group joked to his friends, 'Well, we've been here 10 minutes and we haven't been knifed yet'," recalls Ms James, "It highlights the stereotypes that people have of inner-city schools."
After more than two years of regular meetings, there are no more surprises and the children have become comfortable working together. "The awkwardness has gone," says Simon Gostick, the teacher who co-ordinated the project at Darley Churchtown, now head of Holy Trinity primary school in Matlock Bath.
"That's not to say that every barrier and every prejudice has vanished, but it has made the Darley Churchtown children aware that there is a bigger, wider world out there."
The secondary students from Bemrose and Highfields are responsible for organising the workshops; they handle everything from booking artists and venues to arranging catering. Inevitably it has meant spending a good deal of time at each other's schools and has given plenty of scope for reflection on the difference between life in the city and the country town.
The students at Highfields complain about a lack of local amenities in Matlock. "There are no bowling alleys, no cinema," says Alastair Bush, 16.
"If we want to do something it means a really long bus ride. If you live in Derby it's all on your doorstep."
But Bemrose student Nicola Morgan, 16, doesn't see it that way. "There are things to do in Derby, but they all cost money," she says. "Here you can enjoy the countryside for free. The city's always noisy, you never have any peace and quiet. When we first came to Highfields I was struck by how quiet the school was inside, whereas Bemrose seems noisy all the time. That's probably a reflection of the environment outside the schools."
In fact, the students have discovered they have a great deal in common. And thinking that the grass is always greener, or the lights always brighter, on the other side of the fence is just one of those things. "Other people see your school, or where you live, differently from how you do. It's made me more appreciative of what's around me. I don't take it for granted so much," says Alastair Bush.
The Here, There and Everywhere funding has now been spent. Lasting legacies include a website, which the students hope will inspire other schools to try similar projects, and a resource pack promoting cultural awareness, named after the project, and published by Derbyshire LEA. Now it is up to the schools to decide whether to continue working together. The two primaries would like to carry on, but admit travel costs may prove a problem.
For the two secondary schools, however, the partnership is likely to develop. Highfields is drawing up plans to become a specialist performing arts college, and has named Bemrose as an official partner, despite the distance between the two. "What we've started shouldn't be allowed to stop," says Alex Worthington. "Lots of schools are making links with partner schools overseas, and that's important, but it's also important to realise how much you can learn from schools closer to home."
For more information go to www.here-there-everywhere.com. Here, There and Everywhere, by Robin Richardson for Derbyshire Advisory and Inspection Service, is published by Trentham Books (pound;13.99)