Setting up a partnership with schools in Europe is now as easy as switching on a computer and logging in, thanks to eTwinning, a computer-based schools partnership scheme that was launched this year by the EU Commission.
Administered by Brussels-based European Schoolnet and national support groups (in the UK, by the British Council), eTwinning is beginning to change the way schools find a European partner, whether for a small project such as exchanging information on myths or playground games in each other's countries, or for longer term links to support and stimulate language learning to GCSE or A-level.
"Signing up for eTwinning is very efficient and very effective," says Alastair Beacon, head of Kittybrewster School, a 130-pupil primary in Aberdeen, which has set up a project with Dysjaland School in Stavanger, Norway.
The eTwinning website has a partner-finding tool which enables schools across Europe to get in touch, based on common interests or projects. "We applied on a Monday and by Wednesday we had heard of a suitable partner," says Alastair.
Like Aberdeen, Stavanger has strong links to the North Sea oil industry, which provides a strong base for co-operation.
Once the partnership is registered with eTwinning, schools have access to bulletin boards, message systems and file-sharing to develop the link further.
The link with Norway has motivated the Aberdeen pupils to learn simple Norwegian words and phrases so they can communicate with the Stavanger pupils. "Simple phrases in a foreign language provide a sense of communication," says Alastair. "Many children can look at an email from Norway and get the gist."
Young pupils are far more motivated to communicate by email than to write letters to pen pals, and the swift response times of electronic mail keeps up their interest, he says.
However, eTwinning is more than just an online matchmaking agency. Brigitte Parry heads eTwinning's multilingual support service with a help desk in Brussels to steer newcomers through the process.
"There has been a big wave in investment in ICT across Europe. People are now using computers in school, but they do not use them so much for communication, so we guide them into collaborating," Brigitte says.
The eTwinning website has examples of successful partnerships and a database of projects and topics, which can be emulated. The support staff provide tips to get the most out of the links, in particular for specific projects such as maths or science.
Brigitte laughingly calls the support service "the Ikea of school twinning". "We try to give teachers the planks and screws and, if they want, a blueprint to help them put it together themselves."
The website has been particularly useful in supporting modern foreign language learning. For Pauline Stirling, MFL co-ordinator at Forelands Middle School, in Bembridge, Isle of Wight, eTwinning was useful in closely matching the island school's needs. "We had already linked up with a school in the Orkney Islands and we were looking for a link with other island schools further afield to include a language element," she says.
The eTwinning website facilitated a link with the small French island school, Pierre Loti Primary in St Pierre d'Oleron. However, Forelands also heard from schools further afield - on the French-speaking Caribbean island of Martinique and the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion. "We could never have connected with these island schools without eTwinning," Pauline says.
"We can be specific about the kind of school and project we want and will be matched up."
Based on shared interests, eTwinning is useful for preparing pupils for language learning. At Forelands, with 200 pupils aged nine to 13, the "taster" languages course in Year 6, prior to formal language learning in Year 7, incorporates the eTwinning link.
Pupils email their new-found friends in Martinique and learn to introduce themselves in French. "They are already using the language on a simple level even before formal teaching begins," Pauline says. "It is more motivating for the pupils. Now they don't say 'I'll never go to France', 'I'll never speak French' when they take up the language formally in Year 7."
The link will move into its next stage in September as the four island schools set up a bilingual website about life on an island.
Both Alastair and Pauline had already been involved in setting up exchanges and links through the EU's ambitious Comenius project. For them, eTwinning, which does not offer funding, can act as a sounding board without the huge investment in time, travel and paperwork required to obtain Comenius funding for pupil and teacher exchanges. "eTwinning is an efficient way to more closely match schools and start a link based on a small individual project, rather than having to go the whole hog of an ambitious three or four-way exchange required under Comenius," Alastair says.
Many language teachers say there is a need for a "Comenius light" scheme, which does not require travel. Overseas school trips can be a problem, particularly for primaries, where parents are nervous of young children coping with being away. Smaller schools also find it difficult to spare the staff to travel or even to organise a trip.
Kissi Wilde, international co-ordinator at Bell Vue Girls School, in Bradford, has set up projects with schools in Spain and La Reunion through eTwinning. With a large percentage of Muslim pupils, publicity given to the headscarf issue in French schools made Bradford parents nervous about travel to France, and dietary considerations also precluded a traditional exchange. "A year ago we sent 100 letters out to European schools and received no reply whatsoever, but with eTwinning we received a lot of response from all over Europe," Kissi says. "This way we can see there is enough in common to sustain a longer-term link."
Another advantage is the possibility to link up with appropriate schools on a project-by-project basis. "Under eTwinning, a project may only last just one week. With some other partnership schemes you cannot escape from the partnership if it is not working well for any reason," she says.
Although eTwinning was only launched in January, it is already a success.
Some 6,000 schools, 500 of them in the UK, signed up in the first six months, and 700 collaborative projects have been established. About 70 UK schools are involved in collaborations so far. The projects are extremely diverse, "from bullying and health to links between school librarians," Brigitte says.
Most schools go through several stages with eTwinning. First staff exchange personal emails to establish the contact, then pupils get to know each other via email. The next stage is to use technology to launch a theme for discussion. This often develops into a multimedia experience as schools exchange videos and sound tapes. Some schools hope to move on to full-blown Comenius exchanges with their partnership schools, based on a tried and tested relationship. However, some teachers warn that if key staff of twinned schools never meet face to face contacts can fizzle out. "It is essential to set up some kind of teacher exchange to keep a link going and to develop it," says Alastair.
Even well-established partnerships can peter out if a key staff member leaves one of the partner schools. The European Schoolsnet support team monitor the progress of the eTwinning partnerships and can sometimes help to revive a flagging link. "We watch how well they are doing. We help those with problems and use those who are functioning well, as examples of good practise, to encourage others to get involved," Brigitte says. "That way it can only get better and better."
More links: European Schoolnet www.eun.orgportalindex.htm
British Council www.britishcouncil.org
Comenius http:europa.eu.intcommeducationprogrammessocratescomeniusindex_en.ht ml
* The International School Award: an accreditation scheme for curriculum-based international work in schools. It is open to all schools from all sectors across the UK. Schools that gain the award are given accreditation for three years and can then re-apply to renew their award to reflect their current achievements.
* Next week in The TES: a special Global Citizenship magazine will focus on EU partnerships