Gateway to a world of learning

A new internet hub connecting pupils and teachers will make it easier to share ideas and opportunities
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Not so long ago, the global dimension of teaching in UK schools was at worst non-existent and at best focused chiefly on annual exchange programmes. Today, initiatives range from teachers using video-conferencing facilities to link school classes from opposite ends of the globe, to visiting schools abroad to learn from good practice on issues such as girls' lack of interest in science subjects.

"It is increasingly recognised that an international focus on learning within schools enhances the quality of education and is therefore seen as very important to raising standards for our young people," says Katherine Quigley, leader of the Global Gateway project. "We live in a multicultural society and a global economy and labour market," she adds. "Consequently, internationally focused learning helps place schools into a real-life context and is an important factor in helping individuals become citizens of the Commonwealth and of the world."

In fact, a recent survey showed 61 per cent of primary schools and 93 per cent of secondary schools have some international connection, involving anything from information communication technology links to partnerships with schools overseas.

Not surprisingly, the internet - the most global of all communication systems in the 21st century - has become the chief source of information surrounding the trend towards internationalism in UK schools. "The problem is," according to Quigley, "that there are so many different websites, programmes and pieces of guidance that getting the precise information that a particular school or teacher wants can be extremely difficult."

Enter Global Gateway, a one-stop shop for international activities which was conceived by the Department for Education and Skills, and is currently being developed by the British Council. "Essentially, Global Gateway will be a portal - a single website - which will bring together all the useful information into a single, powerful online resource," explains Quigley. "It will include first-level content, a powerful search facility, a real-time online help facility and generic news feeds."

And it's not just for teachers. The key customer audiences identified for the portal also include leaders, pupils, parents, school governors and local education authorities. The aim is for the website to guide individuals to the information. There will also be a facility to break down age ranges to focus searches.

The assistant help feature, which can be accessed from anywhere within the site, is expected to be particularly popular. The kind of questions a teacher might ask includes: "I would like to form a partnership with a school in India. How do I go about doing this?" Or: "Our school is performing a play and I think it would be useful to do it in French. Can you point me in the direction of any useful resources?" They might also ask things such as: "I want to find out whether funding is available to set up an exchange programme." Alternatively, a pupil might ask: "I am studying science and want to know what is available in terms of international projects for science."

The idea is that you either can be general or specific, with the online assistant providing full or more focused lists of helpful links, information, case studies and so on.

Other users of the website will carry out their own searches - perhaps to locate teachers from other countries, with whom they can share experiences of best practice. Or they might want to find ways of making a religious education class about Islam more exciting and accessible by finding Muslims abroad who can share information with the UK class about what it is to be a Muslim in, say, Bangladesh. As citizenship classes become more advanced, teachers may find themselves exploring with their students the issue of what it is to be a European. Linking their class with one on the continent via video-conference could provide a useful debate on different perceptions - and they could use Global Gateway's search facility to go about this.

Meanwhile, the news section and parts of the homepage will highlight specific events and promotions - for example, celebrating the anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa and encouraging British teachers to spend time teaching or working with teacher trainers in Africa.

Alison Hill, who has been involved in developing the Global Gateway at the British Council, explains why she welcomes the portal. "The British Council does a huge amount in increasing the international dimension of education by working in 110 countries worldwide. This work involves anything from providing international professional development projects for teachers to arranging teacher exchanges. Global Gateway will enhance this work because teachers will get a more personalised journey in their search to find out the most relevant opportunities for them."

British teachers who have gone abroad to expand their development have generally found the experience very useful, she says, and she hopes Global Gateway will encourage more to do so. "For example, we recently ran a professional development visit to Jamaica where some work was being undertaken on the underachievement of boys. They had developed a mentoring programme involving fathers coming into class and the British teachers were able to learn from this scheme and adapt it back here. Another example of a programme is one in which secondary school teachers of Spanish can access funding from us to do a course in Spain with other teachers, which enhances their cultural knowledge and updates their language skills."

Although it won't be fully launched until February next year, Global Gateway will be demonstrated at the 15th Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers (15CCEM) and there will be a soft launch during International Education Week in November at a national conference. This phased launch has been designed partly so that there is ample time to develop a credible, high-quality and focused resource. "We have employed groups of teachers who are currently helping us cut down the huge number of websites to a manageable proportion and one that is genuinely useful," says Quigley.

A further reason for the phased launch is to ensure that by the time the portal is up and running, every UK school is aware of it. Finally, because partnership is the whole premise of the Global Gateway, it is hoped that Commonwealth Ministers will wish to become International Strategic Partners - and the CCEM is a good opportunity to try and get them on board. Quigley explains: "Our objective to help our schools increase the international dimension in the work they do will not be possible unless we have partners around the world who wish to encourage their schools to link to others in the UK and in other countries. So we are hoping to persuade ministers to become strategic partners and we can then publicise on the site itself how many countries have done so. We are also hoping that ministers will appoint someone in their ministry who we can use as a contact as the portal develops."

Quigley is confident in this quest because other countries have as much to gain from the site as the UK. "When you take a question such as, 'How do I set about forming a partnership with a school in another country and what could our school gain from this?' it is as appropriate to a school in Nigeria as it is to a school in Newcastle."