Rights on the line

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady reports on an imaginative electronic mail link.

What rights should children have? This is the question which has recently been exercising the minds of Year 6 children in two schools in the London borough of Tower Hamlets and their contemporaries in a school on the Black Sea resort of Sochi in Russia. Using GreenNet, an international computer communications network specialising in environmental, peace, human rights and development issues, they have been discussing the rights of the child.

Initiated by Margaret Burr, co-ordinator of the Tower Hamlets-based Humanities Education Centre, and Elena Schpack, deputy head of Sochi No 1 School, the link is based on electronic mail computers linked to telephone lines by modems.

But the scheme encompasses much more. The two primary schools, Sir William Burrough and Osmani, have made videos to send to Russia about their communities. They have put together books in which all the children offer paintings and photographs of themselves and some facts about their lives, and have had visits from the Russian teachers.

Using the e-mail link they have exchanged lists of rights, including the revealing "to have a bodyguard" (a Russian child), "not to be called racist things" (a Tower Hamlet's pupil), the political "right to a better Prime Minister" and the perhaps facetious "right to get as much as I want". Recently the schools have also been exchanging information on children's names and their origins and collecting data on their communities and the services and amenities available to children. Soon they will compare these.

Margaret Burr had already worked on a GreenNet e-mail project in which a Southwark school exchanged information with groups in South Africa, Scotland, Zimbabwe and the United States.

"It is the immediacy which motivates children," she says. "At the time of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, for example, pupils could read the news posted on the GreenNet bulletin board, but also hear about what it meant to South African children through their day-to-day contact with schools there.

"Exchanges can be very limited experiences and very expensive. I found that an electronic link can affect many more children over a much longer period. With limited resources it is an ideal way to develop empathy and challenge stereotypes and prejudice. It stimulates them to go off and find out things for themselves. They naturally begin to take responsibility for their own learning." She met Elena Schpack at an international conference. Her Sochi school already had strong links with Cheltenham, but was looking for a link with inner-city schools in multi-cultural communities. Margaret Burr jumped at the opportunity. The link not only offered a chance for the Tower Hamlets schools to enter into a dialogue with a Russian school, but also the occasion to study the contrasting locality of Cheltenham.

The question of finance was answered when Tower Hamlets received Pounds 10,000 from the European awareness programme of the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges to cover the cost of the one-year pilot project. That included expanding it to other schools in the borough and four more are about to come on-line.

The money covers the exchange visits of the teachers and the operational costs of the link. These, however, are less than might be anticipated. GreenNet is a non-profit- making organisation which operates its network at a fraction of the commercial rate. And to save costs by cutting the time spent on-line, the schools involved download on to discs any information they receive and prepare material on disc before sending it across the link.

A theme is necessary to give a sense of direction, says Margaret Burr, "otherwise links just degenerate into pen pals - not a bad thing, but it can be so much more. This one enables kids to say what they want about their own community and to learn about another." In addition, all the schools are using the Rights of the Child Resource Pack published by UNICEF and Save the Children Fund.

Though essentially similar, the schools have different emphases. At Osmani, teacher Nia Williams is integrating the project firmly into the national curriculum as part of a geographical locality study. Sir William Burrough is adopting a more fluid approach. Each week the class checks the e-mail. "After receiving some material we might have a carpet session to discuss the issues, " says teacher Mark Bennett. Then children would go away to work on a piece of work themselves or in groups.

For the Russian school, the project is part of a re-evaluation of policy. "The Russian education system is known for its academic achievement," says Elena Schpack. "We are only just introducing ideas like self-assessment, working in social groups and decision-making." The link, she suggests, with its focus on the individual, is an important part of this shift.

In the Sochi school the project is integrated into English but is also a voluntary extracurricular activity. "The pupils don't give us a moment's peace. It has become a whole lifestyle," she says.

Excitement is mounting in the London schools, too. Young pupils are asking to be involved and children are gathering an increasing list of questions for their Russian associates questions like: Do they have television? Are there black people in Sochi? Is The Terminator translated into Russian?

GreenNet contacts. Tel: 0171-713 1941. Internet: support@gn.apc.org

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