Pakoras and fish fingers

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Six and seven-year-olds from a decaying textile town and a school on the edge of the moors spend days in each other's classrooms. Victoria Neumark joins them.

On the coach the children are fizzing with excitement. "Look Miss, there's a cow." That's Nadia. "Miss, a baby lamb." That's Rabia. "Miss, I wish you had this bus every day." That's Sabia. The coach rolls on, past the canal and the streets of back-to-backs, down the hill and past the parks, over by the moors and along by larger houses until finally it bumps up a turning and draws to a halt by Laneshawbridg Primary School.

Nicola and Laura come out to greet the children from Whitefield Infants and show them their pegs for the day. With shy delight and interest, Linda Turner's Year 2 class, whose schooling takes place in a wooden temporary classroom in urban Nelson, file slowly into Di Smith's spacious stone room overlooking moorland. There they sit, until Adam, a Laneshawbridge child unencumbered by shyness, flings his arms round Tauseef and Osman. "Come on, squash up," he says. And they do.

Ninety-six per cent of the 220 children at Whitefield Infants come from Punjabi families from Pakistan. The families came for the work in textile mills, but now that has nearly been extinguished by cheap imports from the Pacific Rim, their fathers work in minicabs, in small groceries, in trading. They are not well off and women remain on the whole firmly at home, but they are held within strong family bonds. One little girl, who lost her mother not long before, is, says headteacher Ethna Cummins, "so well cared for. Our children," she says, "are economically deprived but not socially deprived. The only exceptions would be a few of our white children who are very disadvantaged."

And as the children trot placidly after her through a small run-down Victorian building bursting at the seams and start to line-up for that day's assembly carefully holding their models of houses, their faces hold solemn, sweet smiles. Mrs Cummins sees their lack of contact with most English children as unfortunate, and not the best of preparations for life beyond the school. So when Linda Turner suggested getting her top infants' class together with the school in the Lancashire countryside, Mrs Cummins was delighted to support the idea. "They can get an insight into the English culture, see different faces, go to places they never visit. Many of them only know school and home. It's good for them to make friends with English children."

At Laneshawbridge, practically all the 140 children are white. Their families come from the affluent edges of Colne, which still houses some manufacturing, from local farms and from a council estate. Eileen Bleasdale, who has seen the roll almost double since she took over the headship in 1988, describes this ethnic mix as "almost unnatural in today's Britain". Mrs Bleasdale places a strong curricular emphasis on art and music; she also involves every parent as much as possible, be it in making papier mache with the pupils or leading a fund-raising drive to build a shiny new mezzanine classroom.

So when Linda Turner, whose two daughters have been Laneshawbridge pupils, came up with her idea of a multi-cultural project to link the two schools, Mrs Bleasdale too was enthusiastic. She particularly warmed to a pre-emptive strike against racism - "we can break down barriers before they ever build up".

What form was the project to take? Contact between the two schools built up from teachers' formal and informal planning meetngs to penpal letter-writing between the six and seven-year-olds in both schools. "It's the perfect age," says Eileen Bleasdale, "they've settled in but they've got no preconceived ideas." Funding from an LEA initiative for multi-cultural activities paid for the travel for two exchange visits; this has been withdrawn this year but the governing bodies of both schools were so impressed with the benefits of the project that they have carried on with financial support. At each school, the visitors sample the customs and traditions of the host culture, as well as participating in the school day. Afterwards letters are exchanged, albums of photographs and art work created and parents shown displays. Above all, perhaps, the children carry happy memories of different places and faces.

In previous years, activities for the visitors to Nelson have included a picnic in the garden followed by cricket, making and eating pakoras and samosas, a puppet show and dressing up in Punjabi costume. At Laneshawbridge the visitors have explored the wildlife garden and visited the country park at Wycollar - site of a once-abandoned village which "looked like they belonged to some giants" as Tahira records in the album.

As well as the overtly educational aspects of these exchange visits, the children have had a lot of fun out of the smallest incidents: Tahira and Aisha both wrote about "two slugs nearly coming to our sandwiches" and, to judge from the precious blue albums, the different mechanics of lining up to put away coats in a different school fascinate all the children.

This year, Laneshawbridge children visited Nelson at the Muslim festival of Eid, so that as well as sampling "tasty" food they also did paintings with mendhi (henna), watched a puppet show, learned the Pakistan flag and made a collage of Punjabi celebration of this joyous festival, which celebrates the end of a month's fasting. Or, as Fazia wrote: "On Friday Laneshawbridge children came to our school and we coloured pictures and we were happy. " The exchange does not only go one way. Another child wrote: "I had to look after a boy called James. He taught me how to play cabbages and fish fingers."

This year's visit to Laneshawbridge begins with whole-school assembly and Mrs Bleasdale welcoming the children to "an English day". A puppet play from Years 1 and 2 follows - "not like ours" as Razia remarks, being a semi-serious rendition of Cinderella and her ugly sisters Smelly and Spotty. The children from Whitefield, sitting neatly in front, are at first unsure how to react. Then they begin to crow with laughter, especially when Smelly and Spotty have a fight. After the usual business of an assembly - swimming certificates, a report on the school trip to London, a show-and-tell from Charlie "we all know about Charlie and his dinosaurs" and a display of models from some other children - the girls from Years 5 and 6 teach the rest of us their aerobic dancing. There's nothing like bumping into other people to break the ice. The assembly ends with "some English countryside music" and Mrs Bleasdale playing Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

After break, on the bracing moorland playground, it's co-operative work on the story of Cinderella, with Di Smith from Laneshawbridge and Linda Turner from Whitefield urging the children to "work together. Don't just put your name at the top. Don't just take turns writing. Work on it together."

"How do you spell cruel?" asks Naeem. "Come on," says Laura, nudging Razia, "it's your turn."

Then it's off to a farm owned by the parents of one of the Laneshawbridge pupils, where Highland cattle shelter calves, chickens and ducks and rabbits can be seen in pens and children, by now completely at ease with each other, start escaping over the walls into nearby fields. Eating the picnic - mostly supplied by the Lancashire LEA in the form of cheese sandwiches and crisps - comes second best to rolling down the steep grassy slope. Then there are those ghastly moments when someone says "I don't like this, I can't eat it," deftly fielded by Mrs Turner quietly scooping up the offending item. A fighter plane roars overhead. For an instant the children freeze. Subdued, they cluster around the teachers. But soon they race off to spot sheep and deer. Then it's back to some genuine Morris dancers - or as genuine as Morris dancers can be - and some intense playing before the coach home.

What did the children make of the day? They "enjoyed it" unanimously. What did they remember most? "Meeting my friend again", "a very good game called cops and robbers", "Raheel gave your rabbit some chocolate. The rabbit jumped up for more chocolate", "my friend's name was Penny", "I like finding out new games James knew". They remembered each other. As Eileen Bleasdale says, "We are part of a bigger world."

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