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By Promote ShetlandSeptember 23rd 2009

Traditionally, Shetland has been an outward-looking place. The islands had connections with other communities in prehistoric times and trade grew during the Viking period. There were especially strong links with the Hanseatic League, a trading association centred on what is now northern Germany that stretched into Russia and as far as the Mediterranean. Later, Shetlanders were to work on whalers off South Georgia or on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Seafarers from the islands have served on every ocean in both the navy and the merchant navy. They're still known for their seafaring abilities today.

This international outlook is embedded in the Shetland psyche but, these days, exploration isn't confined to seafarers. Many islanders today travel extensively for leisure as well as for business purposes and young people are to be found, often during "gap years", doing work placements in New York, volunteering in Africa or mixing smoothies in Sydney cafes.

However, people and ideas flow into Shetland as well as outwards. Over centuries, people from many lands have found a welcome and have settled here. An early, documented example is that of a Hanseatic merchant from Bremen in Germany, Segebad Detken; he settled in the islands, traded for 52 years and, when he died in 1573, was buried at St Olaf's Church on the island of Unst. More recently, people from all over the world have made a new life in Shetland, sometimes in connection with the oil industry or with fishing or possibly as nurses or restaurateurs, artists or writers. Shetland schools have long had children from many backgrounds on their rolls.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that Shetland should have been the place where, in 1988, an international educational initiative was conceived by a group of teachers at the Anderson High School in Lerwick. In October 1989, the first event was held, when students from Gymnasium Zlin in the Czech Republic were hosted by the Anderson High School in Shetland.

The date is significant; this was a time of huge change in Europe. Just a few weeks later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened and demonstrations in Prague heralded the beginning of the two-week "velvet revolution" that ultimately forced the resignation of the Czech government and its replacement by a democratic system. Within three years, similar popular movements had led to the replacement of every eastern bloc government. The vision behind the Global Classroom, the breaking down of barriers between peoples, could not have been more topical.

Exchanges continued over the following years, with the Anderson High developing links with schools in Towa, Japan; Dienholz, Sweden; and Cape Town, South Africa. Through the 1990s, the network steadily expanded and the Global Classroom Partnership was formally established in 1996. Schools in Scotland, England, the USA and Australia were added. In 1997, annual conferences began to be held in one of the participating schools; each is attended by perhaps ten delegates from each of the other schools. The young people stay with host families rather than in hotels or hostels, ensuring that they gain a deeper understanding of life in the particular country. As well as travelling to participating schools, students have taken full advantage of the growing availability of the internet; it has been a huge asset, enabling students to share ideas and work together on projects. Teaching using video links began, with students in Shetland having lessons in German direct from Germany. This was later expanded, allowing Advanced Higher students in Shetland to share maths with women students at Nara Women's Secondary School in Japan and history and modern studies with South Peninsula High School in Cape Town.

Although the project has grown in its scale and reach, it has remained true to its original vision. The aim is to build knowledge, insight and understanding between young people in very different countries. Teachers are extensively involved too, with work being undertaken to link curricula and share learning materials. One project involves the evaluation of learning and teaching in participating schools; the work is done by a small team of student researchers who are supervised by graduate co-ordinators.

Several other specific projects have been undertaken. There is an extended exchange programme, which offers the opportunity for senior students to study for up to a year at one of the other schools in the partnership, staying with one or more host families. An image project has allowed schools in Hawick, Northern Ireland and London to share pictures of their home areas and countries. An Enterprise Education project links schools in the USA, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Shetland and South Africa with businesses in Shetland; the lessons learned are then applied in assisting a charity in South Africa that works with disadvantaged young people. Drama is the theme of another strand in the partnership, with schools in six countries preparing a play about peace, which was performed at Hiroshima on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city. Finally, students in Shetland and Sweden with additional support needs have undertaken an exchange.

It is essential to the philosophy behind the Global Classroom that the young people themselves are very largely responsible for the organisational work that makes the classroom happen. Among other things, they arrange international visits, sort out accommodation and act as spokespersons.

The Global Classroom Partnership is an extraordinary achievement. However, it might not have been established had it not been for the vision that was developed at the Anderson High School in Lerwick by Stewart Hay, then a senior teacher of History and now a Depute Head. Mr Hay, a committed internationalist and a veteran of extensive overseas travel himself, was largely responsible for germinating the idea and putting it into practice. His extraordinary efforts, and the value of the project as a whole, were recognised in the award of an MBE in 2009.

It's to be hoped that the Global Classroom will endure in the decades ahead, helping young people to understand the world, broadening their experience and developing new and valuable skills. Certainly, the Global Classroom sits very well alongside Shetland's international tradition. Its existence testifies to the commitment to education in the islands and the range and quality of experience on offer.