Two sides of town get together

4th July 2003 at 01:00
An experiment to twin schools to broaden pupils' cultural knowledge has been a big success, and they don't have far to travel. Nic Barnard reports

THE mums in the audience are distinguished by their headscarves and blonde highlights but they all share the same proud grins.

Up on the stage, their children - Asian and white - run through poetry and plays, showing off the results of their schools' twinning exchange. They haven't known each other long, but they speak a universal children's language - the language of David Beckham, annoying sisters, playground scraps and favourite dinners.

Twinned schools are hardly unusual. Every year, pupils all over Britain head off to Germany, France, even Africa to learn about other cultures.

They travel hundreds or thousands of miles. Or, if they are these children from Batley, West Yorkshire, just four.

Warwick Road and Birstall primary schools are on opposite sides of town but could exist in parallel worlds. Birstall serves an almost exclusively white community, while all but two pupils at Warwick Road are Muslims.

For 12 weeks this year, eight and nine-year-olds at both schools have been on what can only be called an exchange. Every Wednesday morning, two buses would take them across town to share lessons and breaks with their opposite numbers.

It has proved wildly popular with the children and is now seen by Kirklees education authority as a model for the whole LEA - if they can find the money, that is.

The push came from the Muslim community in meetings between North Kirklees Asian governors' forum and local heads, including Warwick Road's Mick Hayes. Muslims make up a fifth of the school population and about nine primaries are predominantly Asian (secondary schools are more mixed). At Warwick Road, the children are mostly Gujarati Indian, in a community described as "pious and conservative".

"These kids go to school then to the madressah for Islamic studies in the evening and weekends," says Saied Laher, of the forum and chair of West Yorkshire Black Governors' Support Service. "The only white people they see are on telly or out shopping."

Race relations in Kirklees are generally good, although there is talk of British National party activity in some white areas. However, everyone is aware that Bradford, where frustrated Muslim young people rioted two years ago, is just up the road.

Zarina Kazi pats the shoulder of her son, Julaibib, who is wearing a Manchester United shirt. When she grew up in Dewsbury in the 1970s she was the only Asian in her class. Now there is only one white boy in Julaibib's.

"They are born and bred here, but they are going to go out into the world to work and they need to know how to mix."

College lecturer and dressmaker Farida Degha agrees: "I meet English people through my work but the kids don't have the chance. They don't need this segregation."

A discreet survey of children's attitudes carried out before the experiment showed innocent preconceptions but little prejudice. Pupils were shown pictures of each other's communities and invited to pose questions. Warwick Road, seeing a church notice inviting people to worship Jesus Christ, wondered "Who is this Christ? What are his powers? Why does that building look like a castle?"

At Birstall, they wanted to know what "that moon thing" on the minaret was.

The findings prompted teachers to devise a personal and social health education project exploring issues of identity and individuality, rather than specifically on culture and religion.

Nevertheless, head Mr Hayes says he is pleased by children taking on race and religious issues "in a really open, innocent way".

Feedback from the pupils was remarkably positive. The biggest complaints centre on late buses. Some of the white pupils, though, did not like being "stared at in the playground" - perhaps a useful role reversal. And not all the Indian kids liked pizza.

At the end-of-project celebration at Batley's Al Hikmah centre, the children work together easily.

The mini-dramas are witty, charming and touchingly innocent. Bullies see the error of their ways, colours form rainbows, friendships are celebrated.

Children stand up and talk about their houses and hobbies. Two girls read out a roll call of everyone in their group and one thing that makes them special ("He can run very fast, she keeps her bedroom tidy").

Ilyas, aged nine, says: "I thought they were our religion, but they are another religion. At the beginning that worried me, but once you know them it is not that bad. They like sports and so do I."

Organisers worried about parents' reaction, particularly at Birstall. Some have complained in the past at their children learning about Islam. In the event there was no negative feedback.

Nicole Thackray's dad, Peter, says: "Sometimes the kids don't say much. But I noticed on Wednesdays that she'd tell me all about what's been going on.

Nicole tells me she has made friends. But getting them playing together out of school is the next step. I hope we can get to that stage."

See 16-page supplement, Respect, for more ideas on how schools can bridge divides

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