Near East

21st May 2004 at 01:00
An Essex school is building links with pupils in Shanghai to promote cultural exchange. Harvey McGavin reports

The scent of something tasty is wafting down the corridors of Deanes School. The source of the smell is the home economics kitchen, where Year 8 children are busy preparing a Chinese banquet. The menu - sweet-and-sour pork, chicken in black-bean sauce, spring rolls, prawn crackers and stir-fried rice - is familiar to lovers of Far Eastern cuisine. But for many of the children in this corner of eastern England, it is the first time they have made food like it, cooked on woks and eaten with chopsticks.

The cooking is not the only thing with a distinctly Sinophile flavour going on at this comprehensive in Benfleet, Essex. For two whole days, Year 8 pupils have abandoned their regular timetable and set off on an exploration of China.

As well as the cooking - undertaken after a quick tutorial from the chef of a local restaurant - the eight tutor groups will try their hand at a range of activities. In the school theatre, Year 11 girls have turned teacher for the day to direct a short drama using traditional Chinese dragon costumes.

In the art room, large paper mosaics of dragons are taking shape, while next door, pupils are creating decorated kites they will later fly over the school playing field.

In the library, students are finding out all they can about the 2008 Olympics, to be hosted in Beijing. And a team of reporters is roaming the school, recording the events in words and pictures. This is citizenship with a difference. In the quest to engage pupils with the new curriculum requirements, the Deanes School has cast its net wide. "We are trying to get across this idea of citizenship as a global thing," says assistant head Jason Carey, who has organised events. "And it's good fun - that's the main reason for doing it."

But there is another reason - the school has its eyes set on a more permanent link with the Far East. The Chinese connection came about after a British Council-organised trip headteacher Paul Beashel made to Shanghai and Beijing last year. As a result of that trip, Deanes has established links with Meilong Middle School in Shanghai. There are similarities - Meilong is noted for its girls' football team, which has picked up international honours - and Deanes, like all the schools represented on the trip, is a specialist sports college.

To introduce students to life in a Chinese school, Paul Beashel made a video of the trip, and the differences were soon apparent. The school day runs from 7.30am until 5pm (and Saturday mornings), and there are about 55 pupils in a class. "So many things that they saw were so different," he says. "That's what's captured their imaginations."

At Meilong, they start the day with drill - all 1,100 students lined up outside for an aerobic workout. Paul Beashel's video of this is playing on a big screen in the corner of the dance studio as one of the Year 8 tutor groups go through their paces. They've been practising all morning and Katie Trim, the newly qualified dance teacher, is impressed by their efforts: "It's an aerobic exercise so it's quite tiring, and co-ordination is the biggest thing. It's like being in the army, you have to do it all in unison. But they have picked up much more than I thought they would."

Meilong's daily drill looks set to become a novel addition to the PE curriculum at Deanes. And the international language of sport could prove one of the strongest and most interesting exchanges between the two schools. Deanes boasts a tournament-standard three-court indoor tennis arena, while at Meilong, Paul Beashel was astonished at the skills of children playing the table-top variety. And trampolining and gymnastics (Deanes have been national finalists in both) are other sports in which China is traditionally strong.

Kelly Hampstead, the head of PE at Deanes, will be visiting Meilong in the summer with Jason Carey to strengthen these ties, and also to showcase some of the more student-centred learning styles employed in the UK. And nine students will form an advance party of what it is hoped will become regular exchange trips. Compared with the usual destinations on the continent, China is more expensive (a return flight costs upwards of pound;500), but it's an exciting prospect and there has been plenty of interest from the pupils. The lucky few will be chosen according to their dedication to the project, including their efforts to learn the language - a key part of mutual understanding. Paul Beashel reports that the Chinese children he met spoke good English and were keen to learn more. As China opens its doors to the rest of the world, a smattering of Mandarin could only help his own pupils in the future, he reasoned.

So he hired Ying Adams to teach Mandarin in thrice-weekly classes at the school. After only five weeks her 20 students have already mastered a few phrases and are learning the beautiful but difficult Chinese script.

Today, Ying is busy translating back into Mandarin an English interpretation of a Chinese myth, written by the Year 8 children to run alongside the final illustrated version which they are making into a booklet.

The story tells how four dragons - representing fire, water, earth and air - battled fiercely until they realised they needed to coexist happily if the world was to survive. The last sentence reads: "Even today, the story of the four dragons is told to young children to warn them about stupid arguments which cause others to suffer."

It could be a moral for our times, but it's also an illustration of what good citizenship, like the project they are embarking on at Deanes School, should be about.

The two-day project was supported by a grant of pound;3,500 from the British Council's School Links Partnerships programme: www.britcoun.orgeducationschoolschina.htm

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