From drumming lessons to sociology, sexual health to stained glass windows, staff and pupils in Ghana and Staffordshire have upped the tempo of global collaboration. Rachel Pugh reports on an outstanding international school link
Frowns of deep concentration furrow the brows of four pupils from Polesworth high school as they struggle to balance their wood and goatskin "bobobo" drums on their feet. At the same time they are trying to make their rhythms fit in with those of the smiling Ghanaian pupils who feature in a video being played at the front of the class.
"Look at that lad! Isn't he fantastic?" says music teacher Dudley Ray, indicating one of the swaying black teenagers. "He can't stop himself from dancing. Come on. I want you all up - stick your bums out and dance!"
When the pupils collapse into their places after the mini jamming session, Ray tells them about the craftsmen he saw in the Ghanaian capital Aggra, shaving pelts for drumskins using shards of broken glass, about the heat and smells, and about the black children who approached him with great curiosity, touched his white legs then ran away screaming.
Suddenly, one 15-year-old pipes up: "Sir, I thought this was meant to be a drumming lesson?" There is a wave of laughter, but every pupil in the class knows that in this rural school in south Staffordshire, Ghana - and more precisely the isolated village of Pampawie - is an integral part of their lives and learning.
They are well aware that the Ghanaian youngsters in the video are not a mere teaching resource. Teachers like Ray have met them in their village on the edge of the rainforest and drummed with them. A small piece of Africa has taken root and run riot in this former coal-mining village in the heart of England, and the buzz is almost tangible.
The story of the partnership between this 1,250-strong school with Pampawie junior high school, in the Volta region of Ghana, is a remarkable one.
Since it began in 1999, Ghana has permeated the curriculum - from maths and science to religious education, history, geography and art.
The Office for Standards in Education has seized on Polesworth's link with Ghana as an outstanding example of the way curriculum planning can embrace creative new forms of international collaboration between schools.
The school's drama teacher, Sharon Leftwich, also serves as the UK's only management-level development education co-ordinator. She supervises a working group of 14 staff who are involved in 36 Ghana-related projects at the school. Eleven staff have visited Ghana since the link was set up, and Ghanaian teachers have visited the UK three times. This year, 24 Polesworth pupils will spend two weeks in Pampawie.
Polesworth's headteacher Andy Clarke says: "We motivate the pupils to work when the going gets tough, but Ghana inspires them and makes them dream - that's what makes education different from training."
Andy gave the go-ahead for the Ghana link. He has been there and can laugh about a chemistry lesson related to photography that was wrecked by the blistering heat of the Pampawie sun. But it is Sharon Leftwich who has given wings to the partnership.
Sharon, 24, is now also a trustee and director of the UK One-World Linking Association. When she joined Polesworth in 2000, an embryonic partnership with Pampawie junior high school had already been set up by former RE teacher Isabel Schofield. It was part of Oxfam's On The Line project, which linked schools on either side of the Greenwich meridian. One visit to Ghana had taken place, and each of the schools had set up gardens in each others'
When Isabel Schofield left her job, Sharon feared that the link would collapse, but Andy Clarke persuaded her to make a go of it.
Sharon's face shines as she describes the first link conference she attended.
"I wondered why I had never learnt anything like this at school," she says.
"I had been taught about Ethiopia and children with big stomachs, and it was a turn-off."
Here, among the flat farmland and the one remaining slag heap around Polesworth, the 99.7 per cent white school population was hardly ready to cope with the multicultural society of Birmingham, just 20 miles away. But the 480 pupils at Pampawie's junior high school, 4,864 kilometres away in a clearing on the edge of the jungle, have proved ideal partners for teaching global citizenship.
With some determined persuasiveness, Sharon Leftwich formed a working group of 14 staff, incorporated the Ghana link into the school's development plan and drew up a five-year scheme that will run until 2009.
In 2001, her own visit to Pampawie with Andy Clarke proved to be hugely influential - for them and the school. After a six-hour drive down the baked-red, single track road, the pair were greeted by the entire village.
"I felt like Victoria Beckham," says Sharon. "Every man, woman, child and chicken was running by the car shouting, 'Akwaaba mebroni' ('Welcome, white woman.') It was the most humbling and incredible thing I had ever done in my life."
They found a school with open-sided classrooms into which goats would wander. Spotless pupils sat attentively at their old-fashioned double desks, desperate to learn. Smiling teachers gave inspirational lessons, though with few resources, and were anxious to learn new methods.
While the Ghanaians were convinced that England must be paradise, the Polesworth visitors were overwhelmed by the close-knit African community, where two tribes lived peacefully side by side, regardless of the various divisions between Christian, Muslim and traditional African religions.
The visitors knew that Polesworth had much to learn from Ghana. They left after agreeing with the tribal chief and the local mayor that Pampawie needed a library. It would be a joint project, not charity. The Africans would erect the building (now completed) and Polesworth would bring books and resources this summer.
The best way to understand the impact of the link in Polesworth is to eavesdrop on lessons. Head of science Tony Lawton is marking a homework project he set a Year 9 group - to design leaflets for travellers about the dangers of rabies and malaria. He is also planning to get pupils to look at diet and compare their own fat-rich intake with that of the African meals dominated by "fufu", a cassava dough.
Nearby, some Year 10 pupils are making a set of lesson plans in PSHE that include plays and question boxes for other teachers about the scale of the AidsHIV problem in Africa. Their teacher, Will Gratton, describes the warning leaflets that greeted him as he arrived in Ghana, and the bemusement of Pampawie children when he used a wooden model from England to teach them how to put on condoms. One Polesworth girl says: "Our school will know how important the HIVAids problem is in Africa. We are part of a global problem. If it is a problem in Africa, then it is also our problem."
GCSE and A-level students are learning about Ghanaian culture by studying African textiles for art coursework. One pupil describes how he learned about African counting systems in maths through a game called "mathematical crystal maze". A Year 9 RE group is looking at poverty in three countries, beginning with Ghana. This involves the study of literacy, climate and natural resources. Psychology and sociology students have studied gender and equality through the African experience.
Alex Town, 14, says: "Learning like this makes you want to burst out of the bubble of Europe and escape into new continents."
Such enthusiasm has been generated through pupils' direct experience of being taught by brightly-clothed teachers from Pampawie in their own Staffordshire school. Youngsters are bursting to reveal new phrases they have learnt in the Twe language, about their drumming, and about the shock of the African teachers on seeing Tesco's shelves stacked with all kinds of food.
The local community has also been drawn into the partnership arena through the school's drumming concerts at Polesworth's 9th-century abbey, which also brings its Fairtrade stall to the school twice a year. Polesworth high's feeder primary schools also know about Pampawie. Oakfield primary school, in Rugby, will send two teachers to Ghana at Easter.
The first visit to Ghana by Polesworth pupils will add yet another dimension. Already, the two dozen 13 to 16-year-olds are preparing with cue-cards full of Twe phrases, camping trips and cultural evenings. They know the trip will be as life-changing for them as it has been for their teachers, and they are all keen to give something - other than a game of football or an exchange of songs - in return.
Hannah Watts, 14, says: "The Pampawie pupils have something to teach us about the way we live. We have too much here, and we should be giving something back. Going to Ghana will be like a wake-up call to what we should be doing."
Ultimately, Andy Clarke would like Polesworth high to be the first UK school to gain "international college" status. Such has been the impact of Ghana on the school that he and his staff are now looking at possible partnerships with schools in China and India.
"I used to feel that we at Polesworth got too much out of the link," he says. "Now I feel it is properly reciprocal."
For more information contact Sharon Leftwich, email:firstname.lastname@example.orgG8 supplement, June 10, with 'The TES': what school links can do for African schools