In December last year, John Fisher, headteacher of Rush Common Primary School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, took his entire staff of 28, including teaching assistants and administrative staff, to Austria. His aims were to reward them for a good Ofsted report, and lift their spirits after the tragic death, from cancer, of a young colleague, at the same time as providing some valuable inservice training. The visit was hosted by an Austrian primary school, with which Rush Common has developed close links, as part of a Comenius international exchange programme.
"It was a beautiful time of year, we were up in the mountains, and I think everybody felt truly valued," says John Fisher. "We all grew closer together, and to work with the Austrian teachers was tremendous. We felt part of a real project, and it was a huge boost."
Three years ago, with encouragement from Oxfordshire's international education officer, Ike Garson, Rush Common began its first Comenius partnership by establishing curriculum links with four primary schools, in Austria, Finland, Norway and Nottingham.
The group decided to work jointly on an environmental project, which involved children compiling and sharing information with one another about their homes, schools and communities, even emailing temperature readings to one another as they monitored weather conditions around the world.
Teachers from all the schools travelled to meet one another, to share ideas and discuss plans for the project. Rush Common's art teacher, for instance, spent time in Austria advising on art work, and a spectacular waterfall, painted by Rush Common pupils, now hangs in the Austrian school.
The idea of Comenius, part of the European Union education programme Socrates, is to develop the European dimension in school education by supporting partnerships such as these. Through the British Council, Comenius makes EUgrants available to UK schools which forge partnerships with at least two European schools, and work together on curriculum initiatives for up to three years. Teachers get free travel, and enjoy some continuing professional development, while opening children's eyes to the realities of global citizenship.
Ike Garson, a former modern linguist and deputy head, sees projects like this is as a vital tool in "the battle against the insularity of the school population - teachers and pupils". Many children now experience holidays abroad, but while they may have an idea about what the world looks like, he argues, "They don't necessarily get under the skin of that world".
One way to do this more effectively is to establish relationships between schools in different parts of the world, "to explore the culture and the context in which different children live." An interest in language-learning may be a by-product of this, but its chief aim is to prepare children for future life and work in a global community.
For teachers, Ike Garson believes, international exchange is not only "hugely motivational", but gives them a chance "to inject a degree of creativity into their teaching", as well as creating "an outward-looking ethos" in their school.
Oxfordshire teachers have had more chances than most to reap these benefits, thanks to the enthusiasm of their international education officer, who came to the post on a short-term secondment in 1996 and never left. By September 2004, 27 per cent of Oxfordshire schools will have been involved in an international exchange of some kind, compared with an average across the UK of only 3 to 4 per cent per county. In this school year alone, Oxfordshire has already seen 216 of its teachers pursue professional development overseas.
Some choose to work further afield than Europe. Eleven schools, for instance, took part in a pilot project in Uganda, funded by the Department for International Development, building one-to-one partnerships with Ugandan schools; 30 more UK schools will join this project later this year.
In addition to school partnerships, there is also a whole raft of opportunities for teachers to undertake study visits all over the world.
Teachers' International Professional Development (TIPD) visits are funded by the DfES and managed by different agents, including the British Council, the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers and the Specialist Schools Trust.
The visits are organised thematically, so that, for instance, a group of teachers may look at provision for gifted and talented children at schools in Adelaide, at primary maths strategies in Alberta, or at creativity and the arts in Barbados. Teachers taking part all produce reports of their findings, which are disseminated on their return.
"Taking a teacher out of their routine in itself is a great motivator for further thought and debate. If that occurs abroad, then they receive the stimulus of a different education system," says David Wilson, head of Faringdon Community College in Oxfordshire, which runs an active international programme. "It gives them a chance to reflect on practice in their own school, while seeing what's happening elsewhere - that's the power of it. And the teachers feel great: they're looked after, they're stimulated, and they come back raring to go."