By Tom Canning

14 November 2016 - 09:00

'Our young people are growing up in multilingual communities. To succeed in life, they will need to understand different cultures.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

Do you want to build links with schools overseas, but don’t know where to begin? Tom Canning OBE, head teacher at Tollgate Primary School in East London, shares his advice during International Education Week.

1. Be clear about why you are doing it

At the school where I work, the students speak 55 languages alongside English, and come from more than 40 countries. I want my school to have an international outlook, because I want my students to view their diversity as something to be celebrated. But that doesn’t mean a school with a less diverse demographic wouldn’t benefit from more international education, too.

We don't live in insular pockets. Our young people are growing up in multilingual communities. To succeed in life, they will need to understand different cultures. By introducing international work into the curriculum now, teachers can prepare students for what’s ahead.

2. Think creatively about how to deliver your curriculum

The world is a giant learning resource that we can use to teach pupils about diversity. The curriculum may be set, but you can make simple tweaks to improve how you teach it.

For example, in geography lessons in the UK, a typical module involves studying a rural environment versus an urban one. So you could compare a city in your own country with somewhere else in the world. For example, in the school where I work, many of our students and their families moved to the UK from Asia. In our geography lessons, we compare the city of London with villages in India and Pakistan. It works, because these students are familiar with South Asian infrastructure and can picture it, making what they are learning feel more real. The results speak for themselves: we've found that by making the content of the curriculum feel more relevant to our pupils' family backgrounds in this way, their attainment has risen to well above national averages.

3. Make sure you can sustain your international activities

When it comes to partnering with a school overseas, think long term and go into it with an open mind. Your partner school may lack resources, but they might have a particularly close relationship with their community, or have a keen interest in a particular subject area.

For the past 12 years, we have twinned with Green Village School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Although they have limited resources, they are much more advanced in the creative arts than we are at Tollgate. The students are skilled in drawing, painting, theatre, music, and dance. We took the best of their arts curriculum, and adopted some of their teaching methods. For example, we noticed they focused on teaching traditional crafts, such as clay modelling, batik textile arts, and painting. It made us realise that students could develop in this area without the school necessarily relying on monetary resources.

The connection with our partner school goes deeper than the work we carry out in the classroom. A lot of students at Tollgate are from Bangladesh, specifically Sylhet, a city in the north-east. When they go back to visit family and friends, it’s not unusual for them to drop by the school when they first arrive in Dhaka to say hello.

4. Build a partnership and develop a network

There are plenty of ways to find somebody to work with overseas, either face-to-face or online. We got a grant from the Connecting Classrooms programme to work on a project with a school in the Punjab. Thanks to the internet, you can be in any classroom anywhere in the world with a click of a button, but sometimes it's useful to see things in person. The programme helped us arrange a visit between teachers from the two schools.

Another good place to start is Schools Online. You can share ideas and lesson plans with teachers around the world and build your network of contacts by using the website's partner with a school function. You can specify what you're interested in, and find schools across the world who are also looking to start a joint project.

The TES Community, an online forum run by the TES magazine, is another great place for teachers to connect and talk to one another. Its teaching resources section is packed with inspiration and ideas for activities.

If you’re looking to work with schools in Europe in particular, eTwinning is a great place to find out about networking events and collaboration opportunities. It's an online platform that links up schools in Europe. Take a look at their project gallery to see some examples of joint project work.

5. Appoint someone to take the lead

In a busy school, it's a good idea to find a central person to act as an international co-ordinator. This person can be responsible for helping other staff get started and monitoring the impact of the activities.

At Tollgate, we set up a space for colleagues to come together and discuss how to bring international learning into our existing curriculum and plans. I've noticed that teachers are energised by coming up with new, creative ways to teach the curriculum, and are enthusiastic to share their ideas. If you can get your colleagues to embrace the principles behind internationalising their classes, they stop seeing it as an extra workload. It just becomes an interesting part of their job.

6. Don’t forget to get your work recognised

The International School Award can motivate your school to plan and monitor your international activities. It's also a way to gather ideas and gain recognition for your work. If you're stuck for ideas, their team can suggest ways to help you bring an international dimension into your classes.

Find out more about the British Council's International School Award

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