Obamas in for York exchange

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
A Quaker school paired with one in Washington, DC could play host to the President's daughters

Has barack Obama was sworn into office as President of the United States this week, his daughters can look forward to life in the White House, chauffeur-driven limousines - and an exchange trip to a school in Yorkshire.

Sidwell Friends, the Washington, DC school attended by Malia and Sasha Obama, is twinned with independent Bootham School in York. In alternating years, a group of pupils from one school visits the other.

In March, Bootham's Year 10 pupils will play host to Sidwell teenagers, showing them a range of local historical sites. And, because both are Quaker schools, pupils will be taken to the birthplace of the movement in nearby Cumbria.

Sidwell is renowned as the school of choice for left-leaning Washingtonians. Chelsea Clinton spent her school days there, as did Ashley Biden, daughter of Joe Biden, the new Vice-President.

As Jonathan Taylor, Bootham's head, points out, the schools have much in common - for example, teachers have remarked that their morning assemblies are virtually interchangeable.

"There's a shared sense of being slightly askew from the establishment," he said. "Quakers have always been quite individualised people. But it's pretty impressive for our kids to be taken into host families who might be senators or significant people."

Having Sidwell friends in high places also helps to open Washington doors. When Bootham pupils visited the US capital last year, Joe Biden arranged a trip to the Pentagon for them, followed by a visit to his Senate office.

But Judith Campbell, the Bootham teacher in charge of the exchange, insisted her pupils were unfazed by Sidwell's high-profile parents. "We're not interested in who their parents are," she said. "Obviously, the kids know that the Obama girls go there, and that's one of the things they'll ask about. But we love the school anyway.

"The kids there may come from families that are well-travelled - they know about the world, and are politically and socially interested - but they're very much like our kids here."

Bootham pupils agree. Lizzie Foster, 15, visited Sidwell last year, and will host her exchange partner in York this March.

"She mentioned in one of her emails that the Obama daughters were there," Lizzie said. "So I might ask her if she's met them. But it's not really what we'll talk about. She's just a good friend."

Her classmate, Lucy Lewis, 14, is similarly disinclined to ask too many questions. "It's a bit of an infringement of the kids' privacy," she said. "They're just going to school. So it's a bit unfair on them if people come up and say, 'Your dad's President.' It's just school for them."

But the world's most famous political parent may make a difference the next time Bootham pupils visit Washington. Last year, plans to visit the White House had to be cancelled because of security fears.

"Next time - well, you never know," said Ms Campbell. "I wouldn't push it - I wouldn't want to take advantage - but you never know."

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