Sarah Farley reports on a programme of European visits and debates
Slovakians visiting Northampton may well be surprised to find there are some pupils in the town who not only know a fair bit about their culture, but can greet them with one or two words of Slovakian.
This knowledge has arisen through Slovakia being chosen by pupils of the European club at Lings Upper School, Northampton, as their focus for countries which joined the European Union this year.
Nicola Hudson, head of Year 10 with responsibility for citizenship, says:
"All the schools in Northampton were invited to a conference about European Union enlargement by the Study Support Unit for Northamptonshire. We each picked a country to learn about and then prepared presentations for the other schools. Then we attended a day of debates in which we heard issues such as the pros and cons of the euro, and open borders, debated by pupils."
The European club was started at Lings to foster interest about the EU. The 20 or so Year 10 pupils who joined are enthusiastic about their experiences, especially a three-day trip to Brussels to visit the European Parliament, organised with assistance from their MEP, who helped arrange sponsorship, and with subsidies from the gifted and talented scheme. The group toured the Parliament building, looking in on the galleries to see where different countries sit and how the translators' boxes are arranged.
They were given information about how the EU works and how it can benefit members.
Student Amanda Swain says: "We have only seen reports about the EU on television before, and these have usually been pretty boring, so we didn't know what people did there. We saw how countries are working together to help people have more opportunities to travel for work, or to tackle health and environmental problems. I don't think they tell you the truth in the media about how much support there is from the EU."
At the conferences, the opportunity to hear and challenge the views of people closely connected with the EU - such as Liberal Democrat MEP Bill Newton-Dunn -and those with an interest, such as local Labour Party youth group leader Jack Scott, has been an added stimulus to the students.
Armed with information, and having seen something of how the European Parliament works, they have discussed the issues among themselves and with their parents. Although they now have more sympathy for the reasons for taxation to provide better health and social care, they are almost all against joining the euro. At the debates attended by the school, the students also voted against open borders but for enlargement.
Rebecca Jones says: "The visits and talks have given me a more universal view of politics, not just for this country. Going to the European Parliament helps in understanding the way countries operate differently but can work together. It also highlights the importance of learning languages.
We need to speak more than English."
Next year, the European club will organise a day of debates at the school and show other pupils how to prepare the presentations. Also on the cards is a trip to Paris to hear more debates.
As part of the same scheme, students from Montagu School in Kettering attended a European awareness conference. Debbie Smith, head of languages, feels that the experience has been of great value to the pupils. "It opened their eyes to the possibilities of living and working abroad, and the relevance of learning languages which you can use for work," she says.
The 20 Year 10 pupils researched enlargement of the EU through leaflets and websites. "At first they found it hard as it was more like an A-level topic, but the more they got into it, the more they enjoyed it, and they produced some excellent work on the debates they had heard on the euro and whether the EU is doing enough for the environment," says Debbie Smith.
Montagu School is planning a citizenship day in December which will incorporate information about the European Parliament. Bill Newton-Dunn has agreed to speak and the Year 10 group will lead discussion groups.
Debbie Smith says: "I have seen the students involved with the project grow in confidence as they have tackled new ideas, gained knowledge and met people from outside the school. They have changed from being undecided on major issues because of a lack of information, into keen, informed Europeans."
* Study Support, Northamptonshire County Council
Tel: 01604 236454