We have been connecting children from UK schools and war zones – and the educational benefits are beginning to show

Children worked through a series of projects in their respective schools and then communicated with each other via Facetime and WhatsApp to share their discoveries

Damian Hinds
Friday 14 September 2018 14:42 BST
Learn to Live: Connecting Classrooms initiative aims to link up students from around the world

“We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too” declares Hugh Grant’s prime minister in Love Actually. “The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.”

Filmmaker Richard Curtis has a great knack for getting to the nub of what it is to be us. He manages to distill what matters to Britons, from our occasional eccentricities to our most profoundly held beliefs.

One of the things that matters to me especially is how much we can learn from the richness of other cultures. Which is why I was so delighted to find myself on stage with Richard yesterday. Fortunately, it wasn’t an audition. Instead it was an exciting opportunity to see the power of UK aid in action, doing what it is intended to do: change people’s lives for the better.

The stage in question was in the assembly hall at St Joseph’s Primary School in Putney, south London, and Richard, international development secretary Penny Mordaunt and I were there to launch a wonderful initiative to join schoolchildren around the world in a huge, online learning community called Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning.

Using technology to reach remote and often troubled areas and bring them within the global fold is not new. The Department for International Development has been running such projects successfully for years. Project iMlango, for instance, was a pioneering e-learning partnership to provide interactive learning tools to thousands of marginalised girls in Kenya.

What’s different about Connecting Classrooms is that it emphasises global learning as a two-way thing. It is as much about equipping British children with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to thrive in the global economy as it is about sharing learning with those in developing countries.

Connecting Classrooms is a vast project to link 60,000 teachers and three million students around the world. It is supported by the government and British Council and will also work with Richard’s not-for-profit schools vehicle, the World’s Largest Lesson.

Through it, young people in schools in some of the world’s most conflict-affected regions, including South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen, will be sharing stories and some of the things that mean a lot to them as well as actual lessons with pupils here in the UK.

At St Joseph’s we saw how this actually works. The school, whose pupils speak 30 languages between them, has partnered with Marka prep school in Jordan. The school is in a refugee camp with many of the residents having come from the Gaza Strip.

Despite differences in religious and cultural backgrounds, the two schools realised they share many common values, which provided a springboard for a number of exciting pupil-to-pupil engagement activities. Children worked through a series of projects in their respective schools and then communicated with each other via Facetime and WhatsApp to share their discoveries.

The topics all relate to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and include exercises on how to solve the problem of world hunger and how gender roles and expectations influence identity. What these children in two very different communities were doing was questioning how things are where they live and the ways they could be better.

The Independent launches the #LearnToLive campaign

The St Joseph’s assistant head, Stephen Ellis, said “the whole curriculum has blossomed” from the experience.

Connecting Classrooms is being backed by £38m from Dfid and the British Council over three years. It will give children aged 7 to 14 here and in the developing world the chance to learn about global issues as well as develop transferable skills. For teachers, projects like this also offer the chance to boost their professional development which could involve online workshops, seminars or job shadowing.

Here in the UK we are constantly looking at what works well elsewhere in the world. We want to deliver a truly world class education for every child, whatever their background, and part of this is looking at other countries in the areas where they’re doing better than us – and, unashamedly, working out what we should copy. Take the Shanghai-England teacher exchange for example. Since 2014 this has seen Chinese teachers working in England to support teachers to develop a deep understanding of the mastery approach to teaching mathematics.

Initiatives like this go some way to explain why we rank so highly in the latest OECD report on global education. It rates the UK as among the most highly educated and highly skilled countries in the world, with record levels of young people in education or employment.

As Britain prepares to forge a new path in the world, its ability to make connections and establish new friendships will be key to our future prosperity.

I can’t wait to see what some of Connecting Classroom schools make of us, and what in turn we can learn from them.

Damian Hinds is the education secretary

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