Playing their role as citizens of the modern world

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Amid the usual monotones of traditional school garb, girls showing no trace of self-consciousness are wandering around the school in the bold colours and metallic shimmer of traditional Indian dress.

But this is Bishopbriggs, not Bangalore; St Ninian's Academy, to be precise, winner of the international schools award at the Scottish Education Awards.

"All these pupils came out and were walking down the corridor wearing saris. No one batted an eyelid," says Jo Hughes, principal teacher of religious education, who has been instrumental in developing the school's international work.

The sight - a celebration of the East Dunbartonshire school's links with projects in India - is so unremarkable due to attempts in recent years to broaden the concept of international education.

Mrs Hughes emphasises that the school has long had links with other countries but these tended to be peripheral to the curriculum and characterised by rallying calls to raise funds for worthy projects.

"If we could raise that type of enthusiasm, why couldn't we transfer it to education as well?" she says. "We're trying to get away from just giving money to charity."

There was an element of resistance at first from staff concerned about an extra strain on busy schedules, but they have since realised that a more sophisticated approach to internationalism ties in well with Scotland's new curriculum.

"If we're going to deliver A Curriculum for Excellence properly, we've got to do it on a global dimension." Mrs Hughes says. "You can't say you're a responsible citizen if you're only responsible for one wee bit of the world."

Awards judges were impressed by links with schools in India, Japan and China, and by the determination to make a difference to local communities through expeditions to countries including Nepal, Mongolia, Tanzania and Madagascar.

"Pupils don't just go and climb a mountain, they go to help," says Joe Coyle, principal teacher of modern languages. "It's the old St Peter thing: 'I give a man a fish and he will eat. I teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.'"

St Ninian's Academy works hard to avoid patronisingly simplistic portrayals of other countries. A sophisticated presentation from three S3 pupils shows the contrasting technological industries in Japan and India.

"I always thought Japan was poor, but it's one of the richest countries in the world," says one presenter, Jordan McElhaney.

The importance of learning about other countries is ingrained early on. Languages is part of it.

"Then you can go and see the different cultures and that," says 13-year-old Rebecca McCafferty, in an S2 French class. "It'll help when you're travelling when you're older."

Classmate Thomas Walker, 12, is less convinced: "I don't like French - I don't know why we need to learn it. It's not like we're going to live in France."

Even so, he reveals that he attempted to use his language skills on the social networking website Bebo by introducing himself to a French boy with "Je m'appelle".

"The kids are really aware of the world around them and have a nice respect for other cultures because of what they see going on in school," says Susie McCahill, a modern languages teacher.

Perhaps the most impressive example of international awareness is the school's justice and peace group. It was started by third-year pupils, following 2005's Make Poverty History campaign. They queried why the school was not contributing more to the cause.

A short while later, they had set up a stall outside the Tesco store in Kirkintilloch. (The school is temporarily housed in Bishopbriggs, waiting to move into a new building in its traditional home of Kirkintilloch.) They talked to shoppers about fair trade products, and asked which items in their shopping basket they would like to see with ethical branding. The most popular choices were presented as a wishlist to Tesco - which agreed to stock fair trade versions of those 10 items in its Kirkintilloch store.

Since then, the group's activities have included collecting signatures for a petition demanding the replacement of Trident nuclear submarines, talking to S2 pupils about connections between money and power, and creating displays on issues such as HIV and Aids in Africa.

Founder member Hannah Terrance is now in S6, but the international awareness of younger pupils has produced a steady stream of recruits who will ensure the group's long-term future.

"The international aspects of our school are right across the curriculum," the 16-year-old says. "Every pupil is involved in one way or another."

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