Taking nothing for granted
For Gail Doughton, aged 17, from Aylesbury High School, her visit to a school in Kenya was a chastening experience that made her re-evaluate many of her preconceived ideas. "We take our education for granted because it is free; in Kenya they value their education a lot more than we do."
She and her fellow classmates were awed by the self-motivation of the Kenyan pupils and amazed at the sight of 30 pupils sharing one textbook, but most of all they were inspired by the Kenyan attitude to life.
As Georgia Kelley, 17, says: "Despite the fact they don't have the same material things as we have they are so happy. They don't complain and they just seemed to be getting on with their life."
Eleanor Fairfield, also 17, agreed: "It made me want to value everything I've got and be happy about everything. I thought they would be envious of our lifestyle, but they weren't, and in fact we were envious of their lifestyle."
For the 13 girls from Aylesbury High their two-week school visit to Chagaik Secondary School in Kenya's Western Highlands was the culmination of a link first set up a few years ago by their assistant headteacher, Richard Torpey, who wanted to extend the reach of his pupils "beyond Europe".
"My background is as an economist and I wanted my pupils to understand that Europe is not the whole world and our focus should not be just in Europe," he explains.
With the help of the British Council, he explored which country would most suit the school curriculum and decided on a place where English was spoken so that the project would be inclusive to everyone in the school.
He then wrote to four schools in Africa and one in India; Chagaik was the first school to reply. Although it is much smaller than Aylesbury High School, and has a mixed intake of boys and girls (Aylesbury is an all-girls school), the link has been an outstanding success. Richard Torpey went on his first visit to Kenya in 2000 and since then 10 teachers from Kenya have visited Aylesbury and seven Aylesbury teachers have been to Kenya.
Following last year's visit by Gail Doughton and her friends, 12 Kenyan students are being welcomed here this summer. Richard Torpey thinks that the project has changed all of their lives, pupils and teachers alike: "It opens everyone's eyes very quickly and very directly to things that we hadn't even imagined before."
The girls were initially apprehensive about their trip to Kenya, as no one from their school had ever done anything like it before. As 16-year-old Sinead McCallion says: "We didn't know if we would get on with the pupils there." But they were all pleasantly surprised and the girls made some real friends. "We felt like we were all the same, the boys and girls at Chagaik talked about music and they were interested in our politics and our government, in fact they were so knowledgeable it made us realise that we didn't know much about the number of MPs we had in our constituency and that kind of thing."
As well as learning about the Kenyan style of government they also learned about the natural environment. Chagaik is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by tea plantations and natural rainforest. The girls visited the tea plantations and got a real insight into how the global economy works.
The group also saw vast greenhouses with rows of perfectly formed flowers that were being cut and sold for Tesco. What shocked Sinead most was seeing labels saying "Two for one, special discount" being put on in the factory in Kenya. "I always thought that was done by Tesco, it was so weird to see the labels being put on there and it also made us feel bad because we thought the people working there must wonder why we spend pound;3.99 on a bunch of flowers when they get paid pound;1 for a whole day's work."
This exploration of the differences and similarities between the two countries has continued back at Aylesbury School in many of the curriculum areas, including geography, science, English, maths, and business studies.
One of the key areas where the link between the two countries is being studied is in the science club. Year 7 and 8 students are doing experiments, such as growing green beans and monitoring the position of the Sun, and these experiments are being mirrored by the pupils in Kenya. The children are then emailing their results to each other and comparing them.
Roshni Shah, aged 12, one of the children in the science club, explains how they plant two bean seeds in a pot and then measure the height of the bean shoots each week. "And then we see if they are growing as fast as the beans in Kenya," she says.
Aisling Higham, aged 16, a science club helper, did the research to find a company in Devon that supplies bean seeds. Green beans were chosen because they are one of Kenya's biggest export crops. The beans are not treated with anything here, but in Kenya where the beans are grown commercially they are all treated with pesticides. "When we went on our visit to Kenya one of the agriculture workers proudly showed us the bean seeds that were dyed bright blue from the insecticide," reveals Jane Larkham, the science teacher leading the science club.
Club members are also measuring the position of the Sun with the help of a shadow stick. Every Monday, they put the shadow stick in the same spot on the grass and then measure the length of the shadow. As the Sun moves higher in the sky they note the shortening shadow. They also takea compass reading to show the direction of the shadow. Aylesbury pupils have also planted a link tree - a winter-flowering cherry - in their garden. They are watching the tree grow and, every two to three weeks, photos are taken of the blossom and leaves. These will be given to the visiting Kenyan students, together with a diary of the tree. The tree diary will be one of many things the girls are preparing for the Kenyan pupils when they come over and the visit will be an exciting occasion for the whole school. "Our partnership with Chagaik has been an enriching experience for us all," says Richard Torpey.
The Commonwealth Essay Competition invites students aged 11 to 18 from across the Commonwealth to write an essay on a variety of topics. This year, girls from Years 7 to 13 have entered four essays. The school is also planning to get entries from the Kenyan pupils and put the whole lot into a book to be entered for different categories. For further information go to www.rcsint.orgessay
Year 10 students have to investigate the structure of their local economy for business studies. They make a brochure about local businesses and who is employed where. Chagaik pupils are doing the same thing in Kenya, and then schools will swap information so that students can see how economies vary across the world.
Schools wanting to get involved in international science projects should log on to the Science Across the World website, which is endorsed by the Association for Science Education.
Available in six languages, including French, German and Spanish, the site has 3,500 teacher members from 107 countries. Science Across the World supports a wide range of activities and international partnerships between membership schools.
Online and downloadable activities incorporating teachers' notes and student pages cover subjects such as drinking water and cloud seeding, tropical forests, food, disappearing wetlands, acid rain and dwellings.
Each topic requires three to six hours' work by students and can be completed as part of formal lessons or homework. Participating schools can choose their topic areas and share information with up to 20 other member schools. Although most of the activities are aimed at secondary schools, a number of key stage 2 projects are also available.
* Science Across the World has free membership for the first six months, and lifetime membership is pound;20.