One teacher, 30 nations and a day to remember

19th February 2010 at 00:00
The Eurovision Song Contest inspired an school to create a multi-award-winning project

Perky choruses that colonise your brain for days. Traditional costumes vying with pop-star glitter. Technical hitches during voting. The dreaded "nul points".

All the Eurovision Song Contest essentials have fallen into place, but this is another competition altogether - in which no contestants have hit their teens.

Schoolovision is a hugely ambitious international education project which has won accolades across Europe, and started in a village in East Lothian.

Michael Purves, a P4-5 teacher at Yester Primary in Gifford, was already a passionate exponent of eTwinning, a European Union-backed initiative that helps around 50,000 schools throughout Europe run joint projects of all kinds. When he started his pupils blogging about sport and health with children from a school in Finland, they came second in the UK eTwinning awards.

But Mr Purves had grander plans. Sitting at the dinner table in November 2008, he told his wife he wanted to start a new project. He had no idea what, except schools from all 30-plus countries signed up to eTwinning would be involved.

"Like the Eurovision Song Contest?" his wife asked - and from that eureka moment, Schoolovision was born.

Mr Purves mulled things over, then spent a few weeks contacting five or six teachers from each country. Soon, schools from 30 nations had signed up. Many had to be turned away, as the idea of Eurovision for schools had huge appeal.

While the contest is lampooned in the UK, it is taken seriously elsewhere, as Mr Purves's wife from St Petersburg impressed on him when Russia won in 2008. In Iceland, Poland and Turkey, whole days were set aside to decide who should represent the school.

The first big task was for schools to shoot films introducing themselves. Some had never made a video, so Mr Purves built up teachers' confidence with home-based web conferences. But he was learning, too, from graphics expertise in the Polish school and video-editing skills in Germany. Once completed, a series of 30-minute pupil web conferences were arranged. Each school was given 10 questions about its country, which its pupils answered live in front of their new European friends.

The impact on the Yester pupils was profound, as Mr Purves recalls: "One said to me, `It's brilliant that we can ask these children about their country and they can tell you - that's far more fun than looking for something in a book.'"

There were headaches. Some schools wanted to sing pop songs, so Mr Purves spent two weeks trying to contact music producers in Sweden and the United States to ask permission. The copyright stumbling block was overcome when he discovered a pound;140 fee to the Performing Rights Agency provided blanket cover.

Each school's video had to be submitted a week before voting on May 15 - the same day as Eurovision. As the deadline approached, Yester pupils rushed home each afternoon to check for new songs on the Schoolovision website.

On the day, 23 out of 30 schools took part in live voting, along similar lines to Eurovision. The Norwegian jury managed to persuade the mayor of its home town, Oddo, to read out the results.

The live vote took 80 minutes, with only minor hitches when one or two schools struggled to hear. Performers ranged in age from five to 12. Hungary's kindergarten class was the only act with "nul points", but the school remained delighted with the experience, said Mr Purves. Yester finished 13th with its rendition of "Auld Lang Syne".

The winner was "Hejkal" ("The Bugaboo") a highly-professional entry from the Czech Republic, with snappy footage of the track being laid down in a recording studio. Its catchy chorus became a common sound in the Yester playground.

Mr Purves delivered the trophy in person. After a flight to Prague, and 130 miles by train to Brno, he discovered how seriously the project had been taken - the mayor and the country's deputy education minister were in the welcoming committee.

Schoolovision has been laden with accolades. In November, it won Best Cross-Border Co-operation in Europe at the eLearning Awards in Lithuania. This month, it won the Creative Use of Digital Media prize at the eTwinning European Awards in Spain.

The contest will be held again this May. Most of last year's schools are taking part, and four more nations: the Basque Country, Belgium, Croatia and Macedonia.

As Corina Ciobanu, a teacher from Romania, says: "We learned that wherever you are, we have the same feelings, the same preoccupations, the same love for what we do.";


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