The boy who asked: "Have you lived in Africa all your life?" was burning with avid curiosity. He already knew quite a lot about Zimbabwe, but here was a real, live person from Africa and she was politely answering all sorts of questions. The visiting teacher was Kestar Deda, from Mutare, a city in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. The boy, surrounded by similarly curious classmates, was at Manor Green primary school in Tameside, Manchester. Deda was there as part of a linking scheme between primary schools in both countries. It is well-organised and links have become bonds. Maurice Smith, Tameside's general adviser for humanities, is keen to point out that it is not an aid scheme but an arrangement for mutual benefit, an opportunity for learning together.
Linking with a developing country satisfies a key stage 2 requirement in national curriculum geography and, as Tameside teachers point out, the benefits of a strong link affect other areas of learning. They said that although Millbrook is not a multicultural school, the link has helped them talk knowledgeably about other races and faiths.
Tameside's educational links with Zimbabwe began shortly after a twinning arrangement at civic level and have become the most important aspect of the idea. Maurice Smith explains that the scheme is now in the third year of a five-year plan. Tameside teachers go over for three or four weeks and their visits are funded by the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers. The link is not something bolted on to the curriculum but integral to it. There are regular meetings for support and exchange of ideas. Not having the burden of constant fund-raising is a tremendous relief. Sue Gordon, a teacher at Millbrook Primary, says, "It is a real bonus having a well-organised authority scheme".
It is immediately apparent that Tameside children benefit - and comments from teachers in Zimbabwe tell a similar story: "It opens their eyes to another part of the world"; "If we learn about Tameside, it may create a challenge to find out what other countries are doing".
Sue Gordon says that whenever Africa is mentioned on TV, Tameside young people can readily relate to what they see because they know of a school there, and of children there. They know of similarities and differences. Africa is not some out-of-the-way place previously glimpsed only in a textbook.
She mentioned a very successful Egyptian project completed at her own school. On her visit to Mutare she had noticed a class learning about the Egyptians with little resource material. On her return to Tameside the Millbrook Egyptian project books were sent off to Africa to become a resource far more valuable than any textbook.
There is a regular exchange of materials. Teacher's packs have been put together and classes exchange project notes and information. One school wants to plant an African garden; poems have been exchanged as have the results of mini-beast surveys. At one Tameside school The Demon Headmaster has been read, pupils have written down their responses and now the book has been sent to Zimbabwe with the question, "Well, what do you think of it?"
Almost with one voice, Tameside teachers talk about their visits to Africa as "a life-changing experience". Many have questioned their own value systems, especially acquisitive Western values.
Margaret Seddon, head of Manor Green Primary, remarks on how interested teachers from Zimbabwe are in the whole culture of Tameside school life, from curriculum arrangements to links with parents. Her school entrance has a wonderful display of African masks and musical instruments, with children's own work alongside. Another display shows photographs, pictures, maps and models about Haarlem in Holland, part of a triangular project involving Tameside, Mutare and Haarlem.
Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN. Tel: 0171 389 4004.
Education Partners Overseas, 10 Barley Mow Passage, London W4 4PH. Tel: 0181 742 3757.
League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers, Commonwealth House, 7 Lion Yard, Tremadoc Road, London SW4 7NQ. Tel: 0171 498 1101