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Tony Wilmot

Going the extra mile

Tony Wilmot explains how The Queen Elizabeth Academy promotes better cultural tolerance and appreciation

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 19, 2015 | International

There’s a memory from my career in teaching that sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons. I was a young probationary teacher, in my first year in the job, working in a very nice area of Essex. I was helping to make up the staff numbers on a year 11 ice skating trip to Islington. On the back seat were the usual suspects, excited by everything they saw as we drove through North London. Suddenly, one student pushed himself against the coach window and started to make ape-like sounds and actions as the coach passed a group of young black people. The trip leader, a head of year, dealt with the incident - but the impression was made and has haunted me ever since.

Over 30 years later I am working in the rural town of Atherstone, North Warwickshire, leading a small academy on its improvement journey. Over 98 percent of the students describe themselves as white British, which is fine but brings issues with it. How do we expose the students to the myriad of cultures they need to experience in order to be successful in the 21st century? How do we show them that there is a huge world out there with a completely different set of traditions and customs to their own? How do we motivate them to have aspirations and successes beyond the borders of North Warwickshire? 

The answer arrived in 2008 when Warwickshire County Council’s international co-ordinator presented an opportunity for a senior member of staff to join a group of head teachers on a visit to a rural area of China. Ruyuan, in Guangdong Province, was the destination and the trip was a partnership with the 3000-pupil Ruyuan Middle School.  Different the school certainly was, but it did share one common feature with our school in Atherstone: all students were Chinese, which also applied to the whole of Ruyuan incidentally. Both towns were worlds apart but were each developing their own monocultural societies. We agreed we needed to address this. 

Since our initial discussions, many teachers and even more students have visited China, with Chinese teachers and students visiting Atherstone in return. The understanding students and families have developed relating to the lives and cultures of one another has been truly awe-inspiring. Every Queen Elizabeth student that has visited Ruyuan has described the experience as life changing. It is now commonplace to see Chinese students walking around Atherstone, with their student hosts proudly showing them the town. Students remain in contact using email and other online communication. 

We have the same arrangement with St Constantin School in Bucharest, with similar results and responses from students. We also had a very successful and thought-provoking reciprocal arrangement with the Narnia School in Slovakia, as well as a strong relationship with College de la Villeneuve, St Andre les Vergers in Reims, France. 

Keeping the momentum up is crucial. This aspect of our work impacts on so many aspects of our students’ development. There are some things that just can’t be taught in a classroom so we appointed our very own Global Co-ordinator – who also happens to be our head of Modern Foreign Languages - to safeguard our foreign exchange programme and ensure we keep offering our pupils opportunities to explore different cultures. 

In the future, we will continue to develop links in more countries, seeking funding streams to help where appropriate in order to give as many children as possible the chance to engage with students from other cultures. Our latest embryonic development involves a school in Silicon Valley, USA, which will again offer endless and new possibilities for our students. 

Have we changed the views of students in school? Absolutely. Is the effort worth it? You only have to speak to our students to answer that. Have we changed the views of Atherstone over that past few years? Well, that’s not for me to say but when I see a family sat around a computer Skyping a family in China, discussing each other’s lives like they have known each other forever, I do get the sense that we are doing something right. And, for that, I feel very proud. 

Tony Wilmot is principal of the The Queen Elizabeth Academy

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