As the government increasingly recognises the importance of schools developing international links, headteacher Jim Donnelly looks at how these links can be established and what benefits they bring

The students in our schools are living in exciting times. The world they will live and work in is shrinking almost daily – at least in a metaphorical sense! The big issues that concern them are global, whether it is the impact of tension in other parts of the world on where they live or the latest discussion about global warming.

Whereas in the past most people obtained their knowledge about other countries from the newspapers, radio or television, they now find out what they want to know instantly via the internet. Even better, they can visit other countries very easily (and cheaply) and can receive guests from other countries equally readily.

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Government support
The government is increasingly recognising the importance of schools developing international links. They support the International School Award, a high-profile award that requires schools to submit a year-long action plan in which internationalism is shown to be part of the curriculum in the school. Following successful completion of the action plan schools are then given the award for a period of three years.

It has now been decided that all schools should be linked to this award scheme by 2010. This will be done by introducing two levels of involvement that, while falling short of the requirements for the full award, will still demonstrate that schools are thinking globally and that their students are benefiting from this wider dimension in the curriculum.

A key motive for developing international links is that tensions and wars in other countries affect all of us. If we do not understand why this is so, we are not in a position to hold our politicians to account for their decisions. Another reason is that there are many issues that are global in their nature. Global warming is an obvious one, as is the related issue of sharing limited resources, whether these are food or sources of energy.

Most young people are also interested in finding out about the lives of other young people who are growing up in a different country, culture and society.

Developing international links allows students to overcome prejudice and lack of knowledge. Many stereotypes exist in the media that only exposure to another culture can help overcome.

Involvement can happen in many different ways. Some schools have limited but well thought out links with one school abroad while others have an enormous variety of links.

Staff development
One secondary school gained a link with a school in Sweden that was based on staff development. Staff from the Swedish school visited the British school to look at the curriculum and methods of teaching. During the visit they saw how interactive whiteboards could help deliver effective learning. On their return to Sweden they explored the options of having some installed in their school.

A year later they sent a further group of teachers to the British school to find out how they could be most effectively used. The British school benefited also from the link, with two of their teachers visiting Sweden to see how schools there deal with what goes under the name of PSHCE here. They got many interesting ideas that they were able to put into practice, albeit with modifications to suit the different culture in our schools.

The area of modern foreign languages is an obvious one for links. Secondary schools have been used to having foreign language assistants in their school for many years. However, this has now grown exponentially with the development of modern foreign language teaching in primary schools.

Assistants come in two main forms. Firstly, there are the ‘traditional’ ones who help students with their study of Spanish, French, German, etc. Secondly, there are also assistants who are from a wide range of other European countries, whose native language is not usually taught in British schools. In these cases they will introduce a different language, at least in a basic form, but will also spend some time explaining what life is like in their country. Many subject areas in secondary schools find this very useful. A bonus for schools is that they do not have to pay these assistants.

Student mobility
Projects that involve movement of teachers and/or exchange of information are very valuable. However, things become really interesting when schools look at the feasibility of what is usually referred to as student mobility. Although this is more difficult to organise and has greater risk attached to it, it is undoubtedly the case that student mobility can take students to a new level of understanding that cannot be met by other methods of linking.

Student visits and exchanges to other countries are not new. Many secondary schools have arranged visits relating to sport, languages, history, music and so on. A ‘homestay’ exchange programme offers many advantages. However, many parents in this country are reluctant to allow their children to stay in homes abroad, which requires careful explanation to schools in other countries where the parents do not share our parents’ reluctance.

Despite the difficulties and concerns about risk, a much more adventurous range of student visits to schools abroad is taking place. A few examples will show what is possible.

One school has established a very successful link with a partner school in Hong Kong. The headteacher originally went to Hong Kong on an IPH (International Placement for Headteachers) study visit. Following that a link was established with a school in Hong Kong, that has led to annual visits both ways by 20 students and staff. The particular areas of interest are art and cookery, where both sets of students are able to learn about traditions and practices that are different to their own.

Other subject areas that can lead to similar exchange programmes include the performing arts (schools in Britain and China find these very interesting and fruitful) and the humanities (schools in Britain and Eastern Europe find they have much to share).

Nearly every link, of course, provides great opportunities for citizenship and the different political and legal systems are fascinating for children when well taught and backed up by real-life experiences. Even for those students who do not take part in visits, there is great benefit in having those who have made visits to share their experiences when they return to school.

Funding issues
Some schools are discouraged from developing international links more fully due to a concern about funding. However, schools abroad very often manage to obtain the funding without having the benefits of local management of schools (LMS) that schools in Britain have. Although some schools have been slow to take advantage of this, if the school decides that internationalism is a priority it can decide to make an allocation in the delegated budget to support it.

Other sources of funding are PTAs (in some areas) and contributions from parents. If a visit takes part mainly in school time – the formula for deciding whether this is the case or not centres around deciding if more than 50% of the visit is in normal school time – then a parent cannot be forced to pay but can be asked to make a contribution. Some schools subsidise visits which are educationally worthwhile, which makes it more affordable for parents. Schools can also sometimes access funds to support individual students. There is also a range of funding available through agencies such as the British Council.

The British Council can help schools in two main ways. Firstly they can help schools find partners abroad. The first point of contact is the following web address: www.globalgateway.org.uk. There you will be able to register your interest in finding a partner school abroad and will be able to find which schools abroad are just waiting for you to make contact.

Links are also provided to a wide range of funding opportunities and these are available from a wide range of sources. They allow for links with schools in Europe and beyond. Recent developments include opportunities to link with schools in India and the Middle East.

Staff development opportunities, lasting from a week to a year, can be accessed via this ‘one-stop shop’. The opportunities are indeed global and schools can apply in the knowledge that they will have a good chance of success with their application. Although some opportunities are over-subscribed others are much easier to obtain. If in doubt you should make contact with the nominated link person listed against the project or course in which you are interested.

Jim Donnelly is headteacher of Litherland High School. He is seconded part-time to Sefton Children’s Services as school projects’ director, which includes strategic responsibility for helping schools develop international links.

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