International links are bringing a multitude of benefits to Welsh schools, writes Biddy Passmore
Visit a primary school in the heart of rural Wales and you could encounter surprising sights, sounds and smells. Classrooms may be decked with flags from the school's international partners. Cries of "Ciao!" may take the place of "Bore da". And the whiff of a Swedish rollmop herring may fill the air. You may even encounter a visiting teacher from the forests of Finland or the mountains of Nepal.
Far from turning in on themselves, schools and colleges in this increasingly self-confident part of the United Kingdom are seizing opportunities to reach outwards to the wider world.
They are exploring with their international partners the issues of sustainable development and global citizenship, adopted as central features of the Welsh curriculum by the National Assembly.
And, surprisingly, some of the areas that have embraced globalism most enthusiastically have not been the large conurbations, such as Cardiff and Swansea, but the rural heartlands in the north and west.
Central to supporting these links is the Welsh arm of the British Council, the organisation set up more than 70 years ago to promote cultural links with other countries. For only the second time in its history, the council has a Welsh chairman: former Labour leader and European commissioner, Neil Kinnock.
Active in Wales from its inception in 1934, the British Council has built on the spirit that led to the creation of the international eisteddfod in Llangollen in 1947.
"Wales has a long history of looking outward and forging international links," says Kevin Higgins, director of British Council Cymru. "The Welsh educational experience is often distinctive from that in other parts of the UK and provides a real opportunity to share best practice and promote our national identity."
That distinctiveness is becoming greater all the time. It is not just the mountainous landscape, emphasis on community and growth in bilingualism that lead to productive exchanges with other countries. The Welsh baccalaureate and the play-based foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds, both being piloted here, are based on European practice and naturally invite international collaboration.
Today, British Council Cymru has a staff of eight at its bright Cardiff office and a turnover of nearly pound;750,000 - most from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but with a "significant" contribution from the National Assembly. It spends about as much again on grants provided by EU programmes and on global school partnerships funded by the Department for International Development.
Most of its activity in education is concerned with school partnerships, either with other European countries or as far afield as India and the Cayman Islands. (We cover some of these in the following pages.) Also important is an EU programme called Arion, which organises study visits for decision-makers, such as headteachers and advisers.
Last year, it supported 60 European partnerships in lifelong learning and a pilot programme for a National Assembly-funded scheme to send college lecturers for professional development abroad.
And it hosts a range of delegations of educationists from overseas on a wide range of academic themes. A recent delegation from Hungary, for instance, was investigating how to set up a school inspection system.
Sometimes these visits produce not just educational but economic advantages. Last year, an exploratory visit to Swansea College resulted in an Pounds 80,000-a-year contract with the Seoul metropolitan office of education to train 40 of their English teachers every year.
Unique to Wales are a programme of school links with the southern African kingdom of Lesotho and a scheme to promote Welsh language and culture in Patagonia (page 18).
International links are not run solely by the British Council. "No one organisation dominates the landscape," stresses Andrew Templeton, British Council Cymru's education officer. "We work in partnership with other organisations."
Last summer's Wales and the World conference in Llangollen, timed to coincide with the international eisteddfod, gave a clear example of such partnership. Organised jointly with the Wales Regional Professional Development Network (local education authority advisers with responsibility for international links) and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, the conference highlighted best practice in global schemes. The main speaker was Jane Davidson, education minister, and a keen internationalist.
Next spring, a further conference will work on a model for international links that could be incorporated into school development plans.
The National Assembly's training and education department is also going global. Reborn next spring as the education and lifelong learning department, it will bring international work together in a new unit for European and international affairs.
Keith Atkins, head of Gors community school in Swansea, is convinced that partnerships with schools in other European countries and in India have been central to his school's success - and that help from the British Council in Cardiff has made it all possible.
"Without their advice and guidance, we would never have been able to enter into work that is so far outside our normal domain," he says.