The power of dreams

12th November 2004 at 00:00
How do deaf children from Buenos Aires enjoy a day out organised by Nottinghamshire sixth formers? Answer: a young leadership project that unites teenagers from 20 countries. Jason Mitchell and Yojana Sharma report

If London wins its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, Sebastian Coe might like to enlist help from Manor school, a specialist sports college in Nottinghamshire, to organise the games. In June, pupils travelled to Argentina to organise a global sports festival involving more than 100 primary school children, many with disabilities - and the theme was the Olympics.

The trip was part of the Dreams and Teams project, run jointly by the Youth Sports Trust and the British Council, in which young people link up with peers in one of 20 countries and learn leadership by co-organising sports events.

"The idea of an Olympics was brilliant," says 18-year-old Manor school sixth-former Chris Pearce. "It's good to have a theme. Then it's not just sport, it's an event."

Manor school hooked up with two private bilingual English-Spanish schools in Buenos Aires - Southern Cross school and River Plate school (which is located in the stadium of top Argentinian soccer team River Plate).

The English pupils had already attended leadership training organised by the Youth Sports Trust and had helped run sports events in Nottinghamshire primary schools as part of their GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism. But co-operating with Argentinian pupils was a mind-broadening experience.

"When we started doing sports leadership training I just thought it would help me get more qualifications," says 18-year-old David Cockerell. "But being able to work with children with disabilities and going to Argentina made me realise how important and popular sport is to people around the world."

Manor school serves the old Nottinghamshire mining communities, where there are pockets of serious economic deprivation. The opportunity for many people there to experience anything outside their communities is limited.

"I wanted to establish links beyond Europe to lift us out of our parochialism," says headteacher Jonathan Hickman, who sees sport as a fantastic way of learning leadership.

Manor pupils helped plan the festival by communicating with their Argentine peers via email and video conferencing, but the real challenge began once they arrived. "We had to adapt the activities for children with disabilities," says 17-year-old Abigail Scott. Some pupils came from a deaf school and the English students picked up sign language on top of their Spanish.

"Being involved in the sports festival built my knowledge of how to deal with people with disabilities, while treating them like normal people because that is what they deserve and want," says David.

This year's event was the third sports festival jointly organised by the two schools since the exchange began in 2001. In a rolling mentoring scheme, the Argentinian pupils advised the Manor pupils in emails peppered with comments about favourite pop stars and mobile ringtones. The Manor pupils in turn will mentor the next group of Argentinian pupils, who will pass on their experiences to the Manor pupils' successors.

"It's good to be a mentor because you know how the new ones feel. At the same time you know what works," says Isidore Fores Coni, 16, of Southern Cross.

Angles Esnal, also 16, says: "We made sure all the children could participate in the games. One of the events involved throwing hoops into a bowl, like at a funfair. In another game, lots of letters were scrambled together and we all had to choose the ones to make up our names."

The festival benefits the organisers as much as the participants. "Sport shows us how we can apply leadership in our lives," says Josefina Villegas, 16, of Southern Cross, during a return visit to Mansfield in September.

"Leaders are people who have the ability to guide people and I think we are all leaders sometimes."

The exchange has helped the English pupils to think globally and develop their citizenship. For example, their Argentinian peers are more politically aware, and stimulated lively discussions on Iraq. It has also improved the profile of modern languages at Manor school. The numbers opting for intensive Spanish in year 10 has jumped threefold, and many more pupils now attend the after-school Spanish club.

The school now plans to offer Spanish alongside French and German as a GCSE option - and the older pupils returned from Buenos Aires wanting to help motivate younger pupils.

"We are looking at how Southern Cross and River Plate schools can help students who are not on the Dreams and Teams sports leadership projects," says Jonathan Hickman.

Geography has also seen direct benefits. Geography teacher Dan Cook accompanied Manor pupils to a Buenos Aires shanty town and brought back material for a project on poverty. "I now have more empathy with the people there and a greater understanding of a developing country," he says.

San Roque, the shanty town, and the rich suburb of Beccar, where Southern Cross is located, represent two Argentinas. In the former, houses are tiny and none have telephones; a third of people have no job. In the latter, people have big gardens and good jobs.

Ingrid Kuker, a founder of Southern Cross, says it is important that children from both sides of Argentina interact. "Our school is not just about studying; we want to encourage certain values in our pupils. We want them to be conscious of how lucky they are."

All pupils at Southern Cross do community work and many have visited San Roque. The school encourages its pupils to think about what life is like in San Roque and it organises mass birthday parties, as well as the sports festivals, for San Roque children.

One of them, Soledad Villagra, 13, says: "I hope the parties continue. It is great to meet children from other backgrounds. It was also the first time I met a European."

Manor pupil Abigail Scott found the visit shocking. "How you go from a shanty town to middle class in 100 metres was horrific," she says. "It was an experience to know that some people aren't as lucky as us."

Dan Cook says the visit has changed the exchange pupils for the better.

"They no longer make rash comments. And even their social graces have improved. They now say please and thank you. The trip has been brilliant: we are all more rounded as a result."

The Argentinian pupils are no less enthusiastic about their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "Even if we visit England later in our lives we will never be able to come to a school and insert ourselves into the community as we have done here in Nottinghamshire," says Isidore Fores-Coni.

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