Welcome to walk down our way
For the past two years, the tiny village of Brill, Buckinghamshire (population 1,000) has opened its doors to a class of 25 or so seven and eight-year-olds from a school in Westminster. The children from St James and St Michael's Primary in Lancaster Gate stay with families of children who are the same age as they are for two nights and then go home again.
But it wouldn't be overstating things to say that no one is the same again after that short visit. Brill is invariably white, middle class, well-heeled. And the London children are racially mixed inner-city kids, about one third of whom are refugees living in bed and breakfast accommodation, some of them six to a room. Alongside their indigenous English classmates are children of 30 different nationalities. For London, that's not unusual in itself. For Brill, it most certainly is.
Year 1 teacher Reji Raj had the idea of bringing the London children to the village when taking tea in the Brill home of his school's liaison officer, who is also chair of governors of Brill School. "We went for a walk and I thought to myself 'the children would love to come here'. She agreed, spoke to the head of Brill and it snowballed from there."
But the driving force behind it all goes beyond the standard school trip format. In Brill, Reji Raj saw enormous possibilities for delivering the key stage 1 geography requirements that involve studying a locality in a different area and contrasting with the school's. "Geography can be so boring for this age group unless you have lots of illustrations and demonstrations," says Mr Raj. "So it's an absolute bonus when the children have the opportunity to experience another place first hand."
The three days that the children spend in Brill in the summer term are spent pursuing a set programme that is developed by Reji Raj in collaboration with the geography co-ordinator at Brill, with the full support of Brill headteacher Martin Kitson. While their host children attended school, the Londoners spent their days going on nature walks and work studies in the woods, writing in their daily diaries, doing sketches, pond-dipping, visiting a farm, exploring the village, listening to talks by the vicar and other villagers about local history.
With the immediacy and intimacy that first-hand experience affords children, a 92-year-old bus driver recalling how he used to collect water from the well had an impact that could never be matched by the printed word or even video.
It wasn't all work and no play. On one of the nights, the school's PTA put on a barbeque for the children after an evening of swimming and games.
The remaining night was spent with the families, doing the sorts of things that all children do when they get together, no matter how different their backgrounds and living circumstances.
For some of the children, it was the first time they had ever been in the English countryside. Eight year old Lamy came to London from Egypt two years ago. "It was very different but I tried my best. The parents were very kind and I liked Jenny, the girl. They had a big house with a beautiful garden. The best bit was when we had sports before we went swimming in the school's own pool."
Rebecca, seven, is English and enjoyed the liberation of being in the countryside. "Some children at our school would never get that sort of experience if the school didn't take us. For me, I'm not ever allowed to go out on my own in the city, but in the village you have lots of freedom. Me and Holly, the girl I stayed with, went out for walks on our own and rode our bikes. There's loads of things you can't do here that you can do in the country."
The positive effects were felt on both sides. "The initial reason for our getting involved was to be useful to the London children," says Brill headteacher Martin Kitson. "But as the project developed, we saw our children getting a lot out of it too - more than we had anticipated."
The Kitson's, whose children attend Brill School, hosted an Afghani refugee boy who lived in a bed and breakfast. "I overheard my nine-year-old son asking him what his father did and the boy said that he had been killed in the war. What all our children learned from the experience was that these children were just the same as them in some respects and in others, so different."
Last summer, the two schools decided to equalise things a bit. While it was impossible to accommodate Brill children in London because of many families' housing problems, they came up for a day trip about a half a year after the initial visit. Together, the two parallel classes went to the National Gallery for a workshop and afterwards went to St James' Park for a picnic.
As far as Reji Raj and the people of Brill are concerned, this project will run and run. While the curricular and social benefits of the London children are obvious, there are perks for the families of deepest Buckinghamshire, too.