Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Twinning Schools

Does anyone else remember the post war European twinning program which saw communities making arduous bus journeys and arriving exhausted to enjoy the hospitality of families they could barely communicate with?

Cockermouth, where I live, still has a thriving partnershipwith Marvejols, a rural town in the south of France.  My favourite memory of this twinning would be the time my first husband (then my boyfriend) and his brother were eagerly awaiting their duty of entertaining the two teenage ballet dancers (guaranteed to be fluent in English) who were coming to stay with them.  Suffice to say it was their mother who cuddled the eight and nine-year-old girls who arrived and struggled to communicate with them with the aid of heavily Cumbrian accented phonetic French from a phrasebook.

I came to believe then and do still firmly believe in the importance our learning to build direct relationships with people overseas which bypass the mass media and government.  I also think our children benefit greatly from having the opportunity to stay with another family.  But I believe it’s time we explicitly decoupled these two ambitions and incorporated them in different experiences and in this blog I will explain why.

Between 2000 and 2002 I had the wonderful privilege of leading the maths teaching component of a British Council aid project in Jordan.  The Jordanian government had requested that UK teachers support their teachers as computer rooms were introduced into pilot schools for the first time. 

The Jordanian teachers and Jordanian Department for Education workers we met were razor sharp in demanding we justify in precise detail the benefits of introducing computers into schools and it was in the climate of the highly stimulating dialogue that we realised that we were at a transition point between stand alone computer technology and the internet, and the benefits that each brought to education were very different.   

Over the two years of the project I came to believe that it was time to re-launch the European twinning project as a global project with a bigger emphasis on students studying the social, political and geographical context of their twinned school in collaboration with students at that school using the magic bullet the internet promised to be.  When I travelled to Jordan in late 2002 to celebrate the conclusion of the initial project the Middle East was preparing for imminent war and it seemed everyone was gone.  But as is often the case in these dark hours the people of quality were left and in this rarefied company my colleague Steve Moss and I were able to have long conversations with many inspiration people. We listened to their hopes and fears for the future and guided them towards the twinning vision we had come to be so passionate about.  And then we went home and the bombs fell and it seemed nothing would come of it.

But we had reckoned without Dr Khalid Toukan who listened to his ministerial department and went on to request that the British Council’s next project be a trial link between schools in Cumbria and in Jordan.  In 2003 and 2004 top studentsfrom Jordan and Cumbria traveled with teachers to each other’s schools, taking assemblies they had prepared with their friends at home and inspiring their communities to think deeply about each other’s cultures through their excellent use of the latest audio visual technologies.
The British Council went on to make Connecting Classrooms a flagship project and last year I had the wonderful experience of watching my son’s year 3 assembly about his school's link with a school in Ghana (created within the British Council infrastructure) which was empowered by real insight and resources from his teacher’s visit there.  I hope my children will also benefit at secondary school from further new links which are supported by Connecting Classrooms.  You may remember a TV advertising campaign last year which encouraged schools to link up in the run up to the Olympics under the patronage of athletes and teams who would be coming to Britain for the Olympics.  This project is also supported by the British Council twinning infrastructure as are many more.
Now the internet is delivering all we dreamed of and more the potential of these links to benefit student learning across their curriculums have greatly increased.   At present most links are with developing countries but it was my original intention that each of our secondary schools would link with a variety of partner schools including some in developed countries and I still hope this will be possible in the long term.
However what’s missing is the other big benefit of the European twinning program - the experiences children have when they leave their own families and go to stay with another family.  Very few children actually get to visit their partner schools.   
In a recent blog Matthew Taylor suggested that we should link contrasting schools in the UK.  I would like to strongly endorse this idea.  We could build strong and lasting links between pairs of UK schools with contrasting contexts, nurturing a culture which believes that children benefit from coming to understand the lives of other people, receiving love and invitation of another family and exploring parts of society they would not normally be able to access.  With care and support we could link schools in contrasting areas.  Parents and host parents could chat freely to ensure children are better supported in their exchange than was possible in the early days of European twining and friendships could be made this way. 
We’ve become very good at teaching our primary children to travel away with their classes.  Now I’d like to see children embark in low cost family to family exchanges during Key Stage 3.  Here in Cumbria we have tremendous problems persuading children to leave home to go to university and we have little ethnic diversity so it would be nice to see our schools linking with schools in cities so that an exchange could be combined with exposure to university life and exercises to build students’ confidence in seeing university (or moving away from home in another context) as being a possible futures for them, as well as giving them real opportunities to properly experience the variety of British minority cultures.  In return we can offer both our farming and rural culture and our energy coast to inspire children who have had access to neither.
As with ‘Connecting Classrooms’ the benefits of teachers having the opportunity to travel and explore the lives of others up close are multiple and substantial.
I believe that by decoupling the objective of having most children travelling and staying with other families at a young age from the objective of children coming to understand life in other countries we can create two schemes which would both be more robust and viable in the long term than their wonderful and inspirational parent – the European twinning project. 

Dr Toukan was awarded the Gandhi Peace Medal in 2003.  He is a key architect of projects like Sesame  , the Middle East synchrotron project which founded jointly by Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.  Looking back now it is difficult to describe how impossible the idea of British and Jordanian children taking each other’s assemblies seemed to so many people in 2002 and the psychological barriers which had to be overcome.  I have not met Dr Toukan since 2002 but I am deeply indebted to him for his patronage of our trial link project and I would like to publicly offer my thanks to him, his staff at the department for Education in Jordan, Tim Gore and his staff at the British Council in Jordan and all involved in Cumbria for bringing this project to life and demonstrating its incredible potential.


  1. Sounds kind of like exchange student programs. I was an exchange student in Brasil in high school and it changed my life.

  2. Thanks for you comment Sue. The European twinning project is a bit like exchange students programs but it involves the whole community. All sorts of groups travel and long term friendships are made which cross generations. People become close family friends across the miles and are invited to family occasions and so on.

    One of the problems with the exchange student program is that it is a scary and quite expensive thing to do. I think if students had been part of global twinning programs such as Connecting Classrooms and had been on exchanges in their own countries (both of which should be realistic for virtually all students) they'd be more likely to feel confident about trying an international exchange which involves language barriers and so on. We're putting some missing rungs back in a ladder. You made the leap but many were too scared to.