Tags: Case study | Citizenship and PSHE | Classroom Teacher | Curriculum Development | Headteacher | Learning Partnerships | PSHE & Citizenship Coordinator | School Leadership & Management | Subject Leader | Teaching and Learning

Former head Dave Weston describes how links with a Finnish school paid dividends for his staff and pupils and led to further similar initiatives.

Linking with other schools around Europe offers primary schools in this country many opportunities. It provides an excellent opportunity to produce a diverse and creative curriculum, positively contributing to the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda, as well as producing a significant amount of evidence for the Ofsted SEF for every school.

Additionally, an international link can give a primary school a global perspective, further support the teaching of MFL, add to cultural diversity and provide the pupils with an understanding of the wider world. These aspects contribute to the development of a broader curriculum and more knowledge of other cultures and languages. It can also give a huge boost to motivation of the staff and pupils at a time when some schools feel restricted by the National Curriculum.

Making the link

At the Coventry primary school where I worked, we developed educational links with a number of schools in northern Europe. We chose this area because of its high standard of education, its significant access to ICT and the fluency in English of most teachers and many pupils.

Finland always comes very near the top of the OECD surveys of world educational performance. Schools in Finland and Sweden are very outward looking and they are keen to cooperate with schools in other countries to give their pupils an opportunity to learn about other cultures and further develop language skills.

Our initial school link was established by an internet contact and quickly developed into a partnership. The first link we established was with a rural primary school in Kerimaki in Eastern Finland. Primary schools in Finland cater for pupils aged seven to 13. Before the age of seven there is no formal structured school provision, but there is significant free high quality early years provision based on the kindergarten model with plenty of structured play and social development.

Our partnership was very informal and to start with we exchanged information and photographs of each school. We both viewed the partnership as a great opportunity for pupils and staff to find out about another culture, investigate languages, develop ICT skills and connect with new people.

Curriculum opportunities

In terms of curriculum development, we realised that our international partnership could support the following curriculum areas:

Geography – finding out about another European country, how to get there, knowledge of Finland in terms of its scenery, lakeland and its position in northern Europe.

Literacy – developing skills in ‘real’ letter writing (writing for a purpose), descriptive writing and speaking and listening in producing recorded tapes about our school.

ICT – communicating and sending information via the internet and producing videos of the school showing the buildings and grounds, lessons and displays and individual pupils introducing themselves to their pen pals.

History – contrasting the history of the two countries. Looking at the issues of invaders and settlers (the Russian and Swedish influences on Finland).

MFL – learning some Finnish words to show respect and an understanding of the language of our twin school. This supported the approach of our school in putting MFL into the KS2 curriculum and giving it a high status in terms of curriculum entitlement.

Art – the creating of a mural with paintings of pupils from around the world saying ‘hello’ in their own language.

The next steps

We decided that, as the headteacher, I should take on the role of international links coordinator to give the partnerships status and to make sure teaching staff were not given additional work. Then, in coordination with our twin school in Finland, we decided to set up a pen pal scheme for all our Year 5/6 pupils who wanted one.

Almost all of the 90 pupils involved wanted a pen friend and each pupil wrote an introductory letter in English and we sent them off to Finland for the link teacher there to allocate pen friends. We also let parents know that we were setting up this scheme to ensure their support.

We all started to learn a few words of Finnish and this linked in well with the Coventry LEA Primary MFL project based on a multilingual approach. Several Year 6 pupils decided to film a video about our school, including interviews with pupils and staff, and to send it off to Finland. A number of pupils in Kerimaki set up a small team to write a termly magazine from their school to give us an insight into school life at their school.

For both schools, these projects contributed to aspects of citizenship and further developed a sense of responsibility in the pupils. Involving pupils in sustaining the link took work away from teachers as we were very conscious of ensuring that the latter did not see international links as an extra burden!

Staff visit to Finland

The link developed well and added an exciting dimension to the life of our school. Pupils were always asking ‘Has the post come yet?’ and staff were starting to ask if we could visit the school in Finland.

We decided that a visit to Kerimaki, scheduled for during February half term, would be the next step and would provide a fascinating professional development opportunity. The timing would give us an insight into the harsh Finnish winter to see how a rural primary school coped with low temperatures and heavy snow.

We applied to the British Council for some funding, which they can provide to support schools developing international links, and this application was partially successful. The host school produced an interesting programme of visits and events around Kerimaki.

Six of us went to Finland, not quite sure what to expect. We arrived in Savonlinna (the nearest town, which was to be our base) in the middle of the night with the temperature at minus 20 degrees and a good covering of snow! Each day we visited the school on the local bus service (which worked regardless of the weather). We saw pupils arriving at school on skis and with outdoor footwear outside every classroom!

We were warmly welcomed by the staff and pupils and we visited all the classes and took part in many lessons. School starts at 8.30am and finishes at 2.00pm with regular short breaks. Lunch was very early, at 11.00am, with all staff and pupils having a free hot lunch. Healthy eating is certainly on the school agenda in Finland. One of the main points we noticed was the generally relaxed atmosphere throughout the school, with pupils calling staff by their first names, with good behaviour by the pupils and far less pressure to pass tests or achieve targets. Teaching has high status in Finland with all teachers needing a Master’s degree to become fully qualified.

School management and morale

One of the areas I looked into was the role of the Rehtori (Principal) of the primary school. The main focus of their role is the school and its curriculum. Much of the administration (including the budget) is carried out by the local council. The curriculum is less prescriptive than in England, with more emphasis on creativity through craft, music and languages having a very high profile

There also seemed to be far less bureaucracy around the school with no dinner money to collect, no SIMs system to manage and no league tables to climb! For a school of 200 pupils there was a flat management structure with all teachers seemingly having the same status (with no senior management teams or responsibility posts).

One of the most important aspects of the visit was the boost to staff morale and confidence. As school finished at 2.00pm, the staff at Kerimaki planned some exciting after-school activities for us. These included, on the last afternoon, a visit to a winter sports centre to try out ice fishing, snow shoe walking and driving a snowmobile at 50 kilometres an hour across a frozen lake in temperatures of minus 20 degrees. This was an exciting finale to our Finnish visit and it gave the six of us the sort of professional development that cannot be had in a teachers’ centre or through online training.

Further links in Sweden

As a result of the success of our staff visit to Finland, we returned full of enthusiasm and looking at further ways of developing our international links. Using the web we developed an internet link with a school in northern Sweden in a small town called Skelleftea. This school has an excellent website and a wide variety of internet projects involving schools across Europe. Using e-links, our school contributed to these projects and our pupils had their artwork showcased on the website of the Swedish school.

As the number and variety of our international projects developed, we gained the confidence to apply for the British Council’s International Schools Award. This prestigious award is obtained by submitting a comprehensive portfolio showing evidence documenting various international link curriculum work undertaken by the school. This included developing a simple policy document showing the place of this work in the normal school curriculum and in the school development plan, not just as a temporary add-on.

For all international projects we kept records, copies of documents and photographs to provide evidence of the work of the school. All this evidence was submitted to the British Council for assessment and potential accreditation. Our school was successful and we received the International Schools Award in 2003. This accreditation was useful evidence for our school Ofsted inspection in 2005 and it was pleasing that our international links work was favourably commented upon in the final Ofsted report. In the future this sort of positive development should be incorporated in every school’s SEF!

Internet Links

www.etwinning.net (European schools linking site)
www.globalgateway.org (partner-finding site from DfES/British Council) www.britishcouncil.org/comenius (potential funding and support opportunities from the British Council)

www.teachernet.gov.uk

 (Headteachers’ international visits)

Tips on setting up an international link

  • Discuss the project with staff at very early stage and appoint an international links coordinator.
  • Develop an international links policy document.
  • Decide how the work will fit in to the normal curriculum and give status.
  • Use the British Council website to find a partner school and support through the Comenius scheme.
  • Involve the pupils, governors and wider community at an early stage.
  • Keep records and photographs of all your activities.
  • Try to arrange to visit your twin school and to get them to visit you.
  • Use the evidence of your work in the school SEF to showcase your curriculum successes to Ofsted.

This article first appeared in Primary Headship – Jun 2006

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