By Minjeong Goh, MA student, Education Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.
6 May 2021
International school partnerships are a powerful way for pupils to learn how to change the world peacefully by creating meaningful connections between two very different parts of the world (Marion et al., 2009). Moreover, in the globalised world, intercultural understanding is a core capability for all students (Walton et al., 2015; Yang, 2017). School partnerships have various benefits and challenges depending on their aims, types, participants, geographical locations, means of communication, and financial and human resources. There are many school linking programmes worldwide, and the International School Twinning Project (ISTP) is one of them. The ISTP aims to promote peace and reconciliation through twinned schools and is run by The United Nations Association Coventry Branch (UNA-Coventry) in conjunction with Coventry Peace Award (Coventry Peace Award, 2021). The ISTP is at an early stage in planning and open to a wide range of possibilities of how it could be developed. The first step was to identify teachers’ experiences and thoughts about school twinning, and thus an online survey was conducted (UNA-Coventry, 2021).
There is no doubt that potential challenges that arise during the implementation would hinder schools from initiating and continuing school partnerships and bringing beneficial results. Therefore, this report primarily investigates diverse challenges that would affect the success of school linking and practical solutions to address them, drawing upon previous and current school linking programmes. The findings will provide valuable insights into the development of the ISTP in the future.
The report begins by exploring several school partnerships programmes, focusing on their actual and potential problems and possible realistic actions to prevent or cope with them. Next, the survey conducted by UNA-Coventry will be described in detail, including the survey process and the results. The survey findings, also concentrating on potential difficulties for school linking, will be then analysed. Lastly, the evidence-based recommendations and the limitations will be suggested to support the development of the ISTP.
2. Literature review
2.1. Types of school partnerships
School partnerships, often referred to as ‘school twinning’ or ‘sister school’ projects, exist in a variety of different types (Blum et al., 2017): 1) school-based initiatives, 2) twinning initiatives, 3) non-governmental organisations, 4) web-based online and curriculum-based projects. It goes beyond the scope of this report to examine each type of school partnership. Therefore, the terms ‘school linking’ and ‘school partnership’ are generally used interchangeably in this report, and the relevant literature will be illustrated regardless of types of school partnerships to identify challenges and solutions broadly.
2.2. Benefits of school partnerships
Gilleran (2019) reports that school linking has significant impacts on students’ ability and motivation to learn through collaborative work with others. The British Council, which runs the ‘Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning’ programme, emphasises that there is no more authentic way to educate young people about global issues than by collaborating with a school in another country (British Council, 2021). In addition, school linking can help pupils learn about cultural differences that underlie international conflicts and contribute to building a more peaceful world (Marion et al., 2009). It can encourage and develop pupils’ awareness and knowledge of different cultures to deconstruct prejudices and stereotypes (Musarò, 2008; Walton et al., 2015). In short, school linking has positive effects on not only teaching and learning in classrooms but also enhancing the ability to understand and cope with the complexities of social change and multiculturalism outside of school at more profound levels.
2.3. Activities and the use of technology
School partnerships can begin with exchanging children’s letters or artworks and further expand into fund-raising activities, extensive classroom projects, cooperative curriculum development, and visits to partner schools (Blum et al., 2017). Nowadays, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) enable schools to go beyond the traditional approach and adopt innovative ones to build and sustain relationships with schools in other countries and facilitate joint projects (Skourtou, 2002; Gilleran, 2019; British Council, 2021). In addition, school linking via Internet can stimulate an active role of pupils and enhance their progressive spirit (Musarò, 2008).
2.4. Challenges and solutions
In this section, difficulties related to school partnerships will be divided into four categories, and possible solutions will be presented.
2.4.1. Operational difficulties
School linking activities vary from school to school. According to Marion and colleagues (2009), letter exchanges are the most moving parts of the school partnership as they provide pupils with direct one-on-one personal connections. However, the one-to-one personal links can lead to reinforcement of national, ethnic, and gender stereotypes, and thus the relationships need to be managed carefully (British Council, no date). Moreover, pen pal communications can present the risk of raising unrealistic expectations, especially for people in need (Marion et al., 2009). In this case, ten-day diaries can be an alternative to pen pal friendships as they can offer pupils intimate understandings of one another with less direct relationships (Marion et al., 2009). Also, it is more beneficial for pupils to communicate in groups rather than one-to-one (British Council, no date).
Nevertheless, letter and diary exchanges require much assistance due to language barriers and logistical problems such as translation and transportation (Marion et al., 2009). In order to deal with such difficulties, new technology can be a viable solution (Skourtou, 2002) and enable curriculum development and joint projects (Blum et al., 2017; Gilleran, 2019). Nevertheless, technology is not a panacea for all problems.
2.4.2. Technical barriers
There is a broad range of Internet tools and services available, such as electronic mail, Facebook, Skype, and eTwinning, which is currently one of the most common practices of twinning in Europe, to support international school collaboration. However, Skourtou (2002: 93-94) points out that school linking via the Internet might fail because it is not ‘personal’ enough, and ‘things do not happen automatically’. Therefore, small-scale joint activities are essential in supporting and encouraging pupils to get involved and build a sense of achievement together (British Council, no date). Also, much management is required for a school to cope with delayed or no response from the partner school (Skourtou, 2002).
Moreover, virtual school partnership is limited to schools that are necessarily equipped with computers, Internet access, and a sufficient number of teachers who can use them (Musarò, 2008). Sometimes a school might be tempted to donate computers and set up an internet account for the partner school to solve the problem, but this can bring more problems than it solves (British Council, no date). In case of school linking without full Internet access, the timescale and scope of a project should be carefully planned and budgeted because it would rely on traditional means of communication, such as telephone, text messages, and the postal service (British Council, no date).
2.4.3. Challenges of continuing partnerships
Short-term school linking is often easily forgotten (Marion et al., 2009). Thus, both schools are encouraged to sustain a long-lasting relationship for worthwhile benefits (Walton et al., 2015; British Council, no date). However, keeping the momentum going can sometimes be a challenge. As teachers are stretched too thin by the demands of everyday teaching, it is not simple for them to take new responsibility for school partnerships (Marion et al., 2009; Gilleran, 2019). In addition, if the partnership depends on only individual teachers’ interest and enthusiasm, vulnerability is increased (Blum et al., 2017). Students, head teachers, other staff, parents, local organisations, and community groups can increase sustainability. ‘The more links there are, the more likely the partnership will thrive’ (British Council, no date: 16).
Nevertheless, being linked with schools in southern countries is more complicated, and thus a coordinator and organisation that take commitment are vital to ensure school partnership works best (Musarò, 2008). If the local community and local non-governmental organisation (NGO) already have connections with the partner country, they could provide support with communications and practical advice about culture and help pupils maintain concrete and direct links with their counterparts (Marion et al., 2009).
2.4.4. Lack of funds
One of the biggest drawbacks of school linking is the difficulty of raising funds (Musarò, 2008; Marion et al., 2009; Blum et al., 2017). Many schools depend on the availability of grants to fund visits, project resources, and equipment. (British Council, no date). In the case of fund-raising to build classrooms and support teacher training for partner schools, it is vital to keep the idea of exchange, not of help (Musarò, 2008). Furthermore, before embarking on fund-raising, it is recommended to reflect on motives for school linking not to undermine what is set out to achieve (British Council, no date).
3. Placement and project
3.1. The United Nations Association Coventry Branch
The United Nations Association Coventry Branch (UNA-Coventry) is affiliated to the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK) and promotes the aims of the United Nations among the people of Coventry and Warwickshire. There is a wide range of projects run by UNA-Coventry as follows:
- Climate and SDG Forum
- Climate Change and Mental Health
- Footprint- Low Carbon Recipes
- Coventry Climate Action Network
- Peace and Reconciliation
- International Young Peoples Peace Essay Competition
- University Conversation Exchange
- International School Twinning
3.2. The International School Twinning Project (ISTP)
The UNA-Coventry runs the International School Twinning Project (ISTP) in conjunction with Coventry Peace Award. As the name implies, it is a twinning initiative. It means that ‘schools have school partnerships through links established as part of town-twinning and well-established community links’ (Blum et al., 2017: 9). The underlying aims of the project are to promote peace and understanding between communities and to raise awareness and knowledge of different beliefs and cultures through school twinning (Coventry Peace Award, 2021).
3.3. My role and contribution to the ISTP
I was engaged in the project with the placement supervisor (Secretary of UNA-Coventry) and the classmate. Overall, I contributed to the preliminary research on existing school partnerships, the survey design/piloting/distribution, and the analysis of the Korean responses.
3.3.1. Preliminary research
The ISTP was at an early stage in development. Therefore, all possibilities were considered regardless of its initiative and aims. In order to assess the needs of schools and identify how to support schools, it was needed to find out what experiences and thoughts teachers have. Given the timescale and scope of the placement, an online survey was the most appropriate method as online surveys have the advantages of quick responses and easy analysis (Saleh and Bista, 2017).
3.3.2. Survey design
The survey design was general rather than technical to explore teachers’ various experiences and thoughts widely. The survey consisted of the introduction as well as the five sections.
- Section 1: About your school
- Section 2: About school twinning
- Section 3: For schools or people that have previously participated in School Twinning
- Section 4: For schools or people which have never participated in School Twinning
- Section 5: Contact information
The survey design and distribution techniques were carefully considered with academic literature and the placement supervisor’s support as they affect response rates. In the introduction part, the meaning of school twinning, the survey’s aim, and the estimated time were clearly presented. Although the term ‘school twinning’ is based on twinning initiatives, it was described as school linking or partnerships in a broad sense. Dropout rates may increase when there are too many open-ended questions and questions that are required rather than optional (Andrews and colleagues, 2003; Nardi, 2018). Therefore, most questions in the survey used single- or multiple-choice selection options, and open-ended options were provided at the end of a question to allow the respondents to give any comments if needed. Furthermore, most questions were optional.
3.3.3. Survey piloting
Nardi (2018) highlights that survey piloting is essential to improve the quality of a survey and avoid technical issues. The survey was planned to cover three countries selected in consideration of accessibility: the UK, South Korea, and China. In other words, each member of the ISTP took responsibility for distributing the survey to their countries’ teachers after creating a unified survey. The unified survey was expected to obtain accurate and reliable results and facilitate the process of collecting, collating, and analysing the data. Therefore, the first step was to find a suitable online survey platform with a multilingual translation service. We found a web-based platform after testing many platforms, but we eventually decided to divide China from the survey and conduct it separately due to technical issues. In terms of the survey covering the UK and South Korea, translation accuracy, question interpretation consistency, and logical question sequencing were evaluated and significantly improved through previewing and testing the survey several times.
3.3.4. Survey distribution
I posted the survey invitation, a shortened version of the survey introduction, on the online communities for Korean teachers. According to Andrews and colleagues (2003), people who participate in the survey are interested in the results. Therefore, it was noted in the invitation that the survey results would be provided to respondents to increase the response rate. The survey URL was included in the survey invitation so that online community members could self-select whether to take the survey. I also posted the follow-up reminder invitations one week apart to each on the online community. The responses were automatically stored in the database.
3.3.5. Survey results
The survey aimed to have at least 100 respondents from the three countries, including around one-third of all the respondents involved in school partnerships. However, we only received responses from 13 Korean teachers, apart from British and Chinese responses. In addition to the low response rate, collecting all responses and analysing the data were impossible due to technical issues previously mentioned. With regards to the Korean responses, among 13 Korean respondents, only one teacher had previously engaged in school partnership. The teacher commented that the school linking project increased staff and pupils’ motivation along with other benefits, but it took extra time for planning and execution. Likewise, the majority of teachers who had not yet participated in school partnerships anticipated that school linking would offer staff and pupils motivation. They also considered extra time for planning and execution as a potential problem.
3.3.6. Reflections and lessons learned
Thanks to the placement supervisor’s extensive experience and support, the survey was relatively well conducted. It was also a great opportunity for me to develop a deep understanding of data collection methods, particularly online survey. However, at the end of the survey, I realised that privacy and confidentiality assurance was not included in the survey invitation and introduction. The promise of confidentiality and privacy is required for the survey (Nardi, 2018). Moreover, survey response rates are highly related to privacy and confidentiality assurance (Saleh and Bista, 2017). The promise of confidentiality and privacy might have improved the quality of the survey and the response rate at the same time.
4. Findings and recommendations
4.1. Data analysis and interpretation
It is worth focusing on the potential difficulties for school linking to provide insights into the development of the ISTP. The bar chart below shows what the possible problems for school partnerships might occur. Extra time for planning and execution, language problems, and inadequate financial support are the main potential challenges.
*Note: 12 Korean respondents who had not yet participated in school partnerships answered the question, which allowed them to choose multiple options.
It is probably not surprising that extra time for planning and execution is seen as the potential problem that might occur the most when linking schools, given the existing literature outlined above. The exchange of letters that seems simple should be carefully managed and requires much assistance (Marion et al., 2009; British Council, no date). Whereas ICT facilitates joint activities as part of school partnerships, designing and implementing them are often dependent on individual teachers’ interest and enthusiasm (Blum et al., 2017). Moreover, although teachers often do not have enough time to fully engage with joint projects (Gilleran, 2019), programmes and associated activities should be well planned and managed to minimise negative impacts on intercultural understanding (Walton et al., 2015). In order to lighten teachers’ burdens, parents are able to contribute to and organise activities (Marion et al., 2009), and head teachers should play a key role in school linking to establish and maintain a partnership with governors, parents, and the local community (British Council, no date).
As previously stated, Internet tools and services can help address language problems, but technology has not broken the barriers yet perfectly. For example, the eTwinning portal, a multilingual online platform for teachers to conduct joint activities, comes in 28 languages, but teachers still experience language difficulties (Gilleran, 2019). In this case, if the local community and local NGO already have connections with the partner country, they could provide language support and practical advice about culture (Marion et al., 2009).
Fund-raising to cover visits, project resources, and equipment will be challenging but has valuable benefits. Nevertheless, it should be recommended to identify the aims of school partnerships and the impact of fund-raising on each aim (British Council, no date). Marion and colleagues (2009) highlight that inviting guests who have connections with the partner country, such as exchange students and staff from NGOs to schools to share their stories, can be a practicable alternative to teacher and student’ visits between the schools and maintain enthusiasm for school partnerships.
The survey offers some insights regarding the potential problems when linking schools across the world. The possible difficulties may prevent many schools from starting and sustaining school partnerships and thus benefitting from them. In this report, I examined the factors that would influence the success of school linking and identified practical solutions drawing on past and current school partnerships programmes. Recommendations are as follows:
- UNA-Coventry and Coventry Peace Award, together with head teachers should set up a group comprising of teachers, parents, pupils, and the local community to support teachers to plan and run joint activities and projects with the partner school.
- UNA-Coventry and Coventry Peace Award should become or find the local community or local NGO that already has connections with the partner country to help schools overcome language barriers.
- UNA-Coventry and Coventry Peace Award should provide advice and support to schools in setting and ranking the aims of school linking for prioritising and allocating resources efficiently.
The potential challenges are based on the Korean respondents who had not yet participated in school partnerships. Although one of the possible problems, extra time for planning and execution, matches the actual challenge, the rest are still potential obstacles. Furthermore, the data analysis and interpretation draw on the Korean responses, and thus the recommendations need to be complemented with the findings from the survey for British and Chinese teachers.
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