Two schools at opposite ends of the social spectrum have formed an unlikely alliance. Martin Whittaker reports
Name:Beardwood high school. School type: 11-16. Proportion of students eligible for free school meals: 33 per cent. Improved results: From 29 oper cent achieving five or more grades A* to C in 2001, to 42 per cent last summer
Beardwood high school and Westholme school are neighbours, but socially they seem worlds apart. Beardwood is a state school taking children from some of the most disadvantaged wards in Blackburn. In contrast, Westholme is a Pounds 2,146-a-term independent girls' school whose pupils come from relatively well-off families throughout Lancashire.
Now the two schools are working together to break down the barriers. Once a week, sixth-formers from Westholme come into Beardwood to help GCSE students with modern foreign languages, while comprehensive staff go next door to tutor girls in Urdu.
Ruby Hussain, head of Beardwood high, says: "Given that our two schools have very different populations and that divisions exist in our community, I feel it is pertinent that our children in both schools have the opportunity to learn about each other and from each other."
Beardwood high is an 11-16 community comprehensive on the outskirts of Blackburn with 1,030 students. Although the school is in an affluent suburb, its pupils come from a wide area across the multicultural borough of Blackburn with Darwen.
A third of its students are eligible for free school meals and 84 per cent have English as an additional language.
An Office for Standards in Education inspection in October 2003 declared Beardwood an effective school, with significant improvement in the quality of its education. It has the highest value-added scores in the borough and its GCSE results have improved over the past four years.
The link with Westholme began in January last year with assistant head Jacquie Petriaho. While the key stage 3 strategy required pupils to have help in small groups with reading and writing, she found the school's staff were stretched to the limit.
"I remember thinking I wish we had a sixth form. Then I thought, hold on - we have one next door."
With parents' support the private school agreed to a group of Year 12 and 13 girls coming to Beardwood once a week to help underachieving Year 8 pupils with literacy. For their part, the girls received a certificate to add to their record of achievement.
Mrs Petriaho says the results were impressive, with some Year 8s moving from level 3 up to level 5 by the end of the year. "They struck up relationships and started talking about books," she says. "Some of these were boys who had probably never touched a book since primary school.
"All the year group did tremendously well when we tested them at the end of the year. But to me the most important thing was that the girls came into school and saw what an ordinary state school looks like. I think they were quite shocked that the school didn't look like theirs.
"We also took our children down there to have lunch with them. One of the things our kids say is that they are just normal girls - aren't they nice?"
The school decided to develop this link further after winning a pound;52,000 bid under a Department for Education and Skills scheme called Building Bridges, which aims to foster links between independent and state schools.
It built on the two schools' strengths in languages. Sixty per cent of Beardwood's students take GCSE Urdu each year, while Westholme is strong on modern foreign languages.
There was a need to improve Beardwood's French GCSE results, while there was also some demand for Urdu at Westholme, which has a significant ethnic-minority population.
So since last October the schools have shared resources. Year 12 and 13 girls from the private school have gone into Beardwood with a teacher once a week to practise French conversation with Year 11s.
Meanwhile, Beardwood staff tutor beginners' and improvers' classes in Urdu.
Six Westholme girls aim to go on to take GCSE.
The Urdu beginners' group took part in a Celebration of Culture and Diversity event at Blackburn Rovers' football ground, organised by Beardwood school. And the comprehensive's students are going next door to use Westholme's excellent ICT languages facilities.
Other departments are also interested in joining in: for example, the religious education departments are planning trips to places of worship, while the music departments may run joint workshops on Asian and European music.
What are the advantages for the independent school's A-level students? "I think it's the opportunity to go into another school and share their experiences, and to share their skills and knowledge," says Westholme French teacher Helen Hodgson. "At the same time, they are consolidating their own knowledge of the language."
Westholme's head Lilian Croston says: "It is a fantastic opportunity for both schools to really broaden the horizons of our pupils while helping them to achieve even better results."
Beardwood head Ruby Hussain said: "Parental choice in selection of secondary school, faith-based schools and housing has divided our communities on race, faith and class - Blackburn with Darwen is no exception.
"There are many parts of our country where children will never have the opportunity to understand someone from a different faith, class or racial background."