A new project is set to tansport children from London to West Africa - virtually at first. Sally Ramsden reports
What do Britain, Ghana and Mali have in common? No, it's not a quiz question, although it easily could be.
The answer is that they are all on the meridian line of longitude that loops round the Earth from Greenwich in London through France and Spain before hitting Africa, the South Pole and then coming back through Norway.
Greenwich shares the same sunrise, sunset and time zone as people in Burkino Faso, Ghana, Mali and Togo. Yet how much do children in south-east London know about these faraway places?
On the Line, launched today, is a multimedia project dreamed up and co-ordinated by Oxfam to help remedy such ignorance.
Working with Oxfam are The Worldwide Fund for Nature and Channel 4 (whose news presenter, Jon Snow, helped plan the initiative) and a wide range of organisations responsible for particular aspects of the project, including the Central Bureau for Educational Exchanges, Christian Aid, VSO and War Child.
Wandle primary school in the London borough of Wands-worth already runs joint projects with schools in European countries and is now set to link with St John's school in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.
Wandle and St John's plan to use e-mail to exchange resources and homework linking into Britain's National Grid for Learning and information communications technology (ICT) strategy for schools.
Wandle's headteacher, Sue Alton, envisages the two schools initially swapping teaching materials for geography and arts and crafts, perhaps leading to exchange visits in the future. English is the language of instruction in Ghana and St John's has its own electricity generator, so communications should be straightforward.
The director of St John's, Tony Mensah, says: "British schoolchildren's ideas about life in Africa are often not very real. They see images of starving children on TV and think it's all like that. Yes, there are poor communities, but there's also youth culture, fashion and music. We're not really so different after all.
"And Ghanaian kids don't know that there's poverty and unemployment in Britain. They think it's a paradise without social problems. Building a long-term link can change everyone's perceptions."
As one British student puts it: "Linking makes lessons a lot more fun. It's easier to learn when you have people from other countries involved. It makes you want to know more about them."
But On the Line was conceived as more than an ICT project. It can be part of a one-off mini-topic or a whole-school project reinforcing different parts of the curriculum.
Schools in Milton Keynes are planning a "week of discovery" about Ghana for the year 2000; cocoa production, fashion, cookery and recycling are among the likely topics. Ghanaians living in Milton Keynes will participate in classroom work.
Possibilities for arts education include hosting a visit from British-based groups such as Roots of Unity (whose music, dance and poetry from different countries can be sampled on-line) or Folkworks (traditional song and dance from Norway to Burkino Faso) to name just two.
All On the Line educational activities are underpinned by resource packs on global citizenship and sustainable development which integrate work in English, maths, science, geo-graphy and music.
Themes include food, the effects of tourism, debt and farming. Curriculum references cover Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, and some resources will be translated into French and Spanish later.
On the Line's education co-ordinator, Gillian Temple, says: "We want to inspire and reinforce cross-curricular work as well as literacy and numeracy skills. Above all we are going to celebrate what we share in common as well as our diversity."
Lines of enquiry
* Oxfam On the Line inquiries: 0870 606 1405. An informa- tion pack will be sent to all schools early next month * Local education authorities can apply for funding by January 1, 1999 to organise their own On the Line educa- tion projects * On the Line resource packs Pounds 10.99 (primary), Pounds 19. 99 (secondary) or free for teachers taking part in a project run by a local agency or attending an On the Line workshop.
* The On the Line Web site goes live after this half-term with a virtual tour of countries on the network, a project store, ideas and a news and events service: www.ontheline. org.uk