Web pals across Europe

The European Commission has announced an ambitious scheme to link schools of its member nations by e-mail. Sarah Cassidy reports from Brussels
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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, schools may have thought they were doing their bit for international understanding by laying on some language lessons and an annual trip to France. But today, they are being encouraged to link with schools across the globe as part of a drive to teach children more about foreign cultures and languages.

Once upon a time, schools may have thought they were doing their bit for international understanding by laying on some language lessons and an annual trip to France. But today, they are being encouraged to link with schools across the globe as part of a drive to teach children more about foreign cultures and languages.

How to get schools to learn from each other has been a question that has bedevilled the education service for decades. No one could criticise a drive to share good ideas between schools; like motherhood and apple pie, it's hard to be against it. But it can be difficult for hard-pressed teachers to find the time and motivation to look beyond their own school gates, let alone to a school thousands of miles away.

But, last week, 300 teachers from 28 countries met in Brussels as part of a scheme from the European Commission to get schools to embrace their European status and twin with establishments from other European nations. A €7m (£5m) scheme, called eTwinning, was launched to get at least 150,000 schools involved.

In an idea that resembles internet dating, institutions register their details on a central website and can search a database of prospective partners to see if there is a suitable match - either by age of pupils, subject or type of project. Eurocrats are hoping that the partnerships will boost children's language skills, cultural understanding and motivation.

Successful partnerships will be those that get teachers to collaborate on joint teaching projects and to share ideas from their own schools. For Claudie Haigneré, the French minister for Europe who sent a recorded address to the eTwinning launch last week, it is also about making children in the EU feel like European citizens from an early age. "School is a place where you can learn, but also a place where you can learn to build your own identity," she says. "I am also convinced that you have to become aware of your European citizen status at a very early age."

For Olga Stanojlovic, of the British Council's Education and Training Group, the initiative is primarily an opportunity to improve language skills and cultural understanding. Jan Figel, the EU's education commissioner, agrees. "There are so many artificial problems with Europe at the moment based on a lack of understanding."

Partnerships between schools are by no means a new phenomenon. The eTwinning launch was attended by teachers from a French and a German school that had a successful "twinning" partnership for more than 50 years. But how will this latest initiative differ? Many schools may already have links with places overseas. These, however, are often based on informal contacts made by individual enthusiastic teachers - and too often they die if the original enthusiast leaves.

Another complaint is that not enough formal teaching and learning is exchanged between partner schools. While pupils enjoy learning about the weather and their favourite foods from children thousands of miles away, critics complain that partnerships that exist as little more than electronic pen pal schemes are failing to exploit the technology's full potential.

Figel told the conference that many existing school partnerships were not interlinked and that the know-how gained was not shared sufficiently with the larger school community. In February last year, the Government tried to address some of these problems by launching the Global Gateway website to enable schools to form links with countries as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Ghana and Fiji.

In November, Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, set out his ambition for every school in England to be twinned with a school overseas within five years, claiming that it would help "forge a shared understanding and responsibility for tackling the many threats facing today's world".

This new initiative involves an internet portal to "support partnership working and the exchange of ideas and best practice". But Maruja Gutierrez Diaz, head of the unit at the Directorate-General for Education and Culture, which developed it, argues that eTwinning will demand a much deeper involvement between schools. "This will be a pedagogical project," she says. "It is not about being pen pals. If schools want to get the eTwinning label then they will have to demonstrate that they have developed a serious project that addresses issues of teaching and learning. The schools do not receive the money that has been set aside by the Commission. That money is spent on support. The hope is that schools will want the prestige of being an eTwinning school."

The scheme has learnt lessons from other international schemes, such as the Comenius partnerships run by the EC. Rather than demanding that schools from at least three nations form partnerships, eTwinning will allow schools from just two countries to work together. This concession has come about as a result of evidence that partnerships of three or more countries tend to lead to less language learning than smaller groupings. When schools from many countries work together, they tend to communicate in one common language - which often turns out to be English - whereas pairings of two countries leads to dialogue in both languages.

But the eTwinning scheme must overcome some serious challenges before it can be judged a success. Although 93 per cent of all schools across Europe have internet access, this varies widely between nations. In 2002, only 59 per cent of schools in Greece were connected to the internet, compared with 99 per cent or more in Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Sweden and the UK. Other countries have computers but are not accustomed to using them routinely in schools. In France, 80 per cent of teachers use computers at home - far higher than the national average - but only 20 per cent use them in the classroom.

The funding for technical and pedagogical support will be allocated between countries according to their populations of young people. That news caused a ripple of disquiet from delegates of countries that lag behind with technology. They felt that they deserved a larger share of the cash to help them catch up.

British teachers at the launch - from both state and private schools - welcomed the initiative. Wendy Mellon, the ICT co-ordinator at Westville House School, an independent school in Ilkley, Yorkshire, has already worked with schools in Romania, Sweden and Portugal, but is now keen to make stronger links. "What I would like to do is find out how maths is taught in other countries," she says. "Rather than just having children getting together, I would like to collaborate with teachers outside the UK. We have the national literacy and numeracy strategies but I would like to see what other people do and how it works for them. I feel the UK is very insular and that we could learn a lot from looking outside this country."

The European Commission is keen for schools to shape the way the initiative develops. "We must not forget that this tool is primarily to support the twinning," says Brian Holmes, one of the officials who developed the scheme. "What will make this work is the teachers. They are the ones who should be designing and guiding this service to serve their activities."

Figel believes that the initiative will transform links between European schools. "The eTwinning action must offer a European framework for creating new forms of partnerships with a clear pedagogical value - partnerships that prove to be strategic for the schools involved and that continue to grow and add value over time for the benefit of both pupils and teachers."

Etwinning's central European portal is at www.etwinning.net. The UK site is www.britishcouncil.org/etwinning

'IT HAS MADE OUR CHILDREN MORE AWARE'

Godwin Junior School in east London is well aware of the benefits of twinning with schools around the world. Pupils at the school situated in the multicultural borough of Newham speak 34 different languages and come from 28 countries; for more than half the students, English is not their mother tongue.

The school has already developed successful partnerships with schools in Jamaica and Nigeria, and is planning to link with an establishment in Spain. Godwin Junior is so well known as a school that has embraced international partnerships that it was chosen by Charles Clarke, the then Education Secretary, to launch the Global Gateway last year.

Nina Panayis, the head teacher, is keen to join the eTwinning programme, which she believes offers an opportunity to make deeper, more structured links with schools that are geographically quite close to the UK but can have very different cultures.

"Europe is on our doorstep and we felt that we would have been doing our children a disservice if we did not look to link with countries [there] that they might not have an understanding of," she says.

The school's existing links have already had a huge impact on the way pupils see the world. "It's not so much that it has an impact on results, but it has made our children more aware of what goes on," says Panayis. "When there were hurricanes in the Caribbean, they were concerned about the Jamaican school we have a link with until we had spoken to them and they knew that they were safe. Their knowledge of other cultures has definitely widened - it has broadened their horizons.

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