Sister schools: why are they are important?

August 2017


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This year 10 Kiwi schools received funding to strengthen their China sister school relationships. Education Review looks at how these relationships were formed, how they have been nurtured, and the value they bring to the schools and their wider communities.

Sister schoolsIn May this year Education New Zealand (ENZ) recognised the importance of existing partnerships between schools in New Zealand and China by awarding 10 schools grants from the New Zealand-China Sister Schools Fund.

Each school received up to $5,000 to help deepen their China sister school relationship. The recipients included five primary schools (Owairoa Primary School, Blockhouse Bay Primary School, Cambridge Primary School, Howick Primary School and Wakaaranga Primary School), two intermediate schools (Glenfield Intermediate and Kirkwood Intermediate) and three high schools (Whanganui High School, Fairfield College and Onehunga High School).

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Paul Goldsmith said most of the schools are planning to take groups of students to visit their sister schools in China. Many have indicated this funding will subsidise some students who would not otherwise be able to access this opportunity, he said.

Among these schools is Cambridge Primary School. The Waikato school is planning to take 13 students to visit its sister school ShenLong Primary in October. Its sister school partnership is relatively new, being formed at the beginning of this year. They will look to take their extension Mandarin language students and are keen to incorporate cultural elements into the students’ learning.

Cambridge has taken a community-wide approach to learning Mandarin. The Cambridge Fusion programme has used the Ministry’s Asian Language Learning in Schools (ALLiS) funding to help provide a language learning pathway for Cambridge kids from primary right through to secondary school.

Cambridge Fusion’s Nicola Adams says the goals of the programme are wider than just learning the language.

“The idea is to build a more global outlook in our community and bring an awareness of where it could take students in the future,” she says.

Kirkwood Intermediate is also hoping to build on its relationship with Chengdu BiLingual Experimental School in the Sichuan province of China. Principal Phil Tappenden signed a sister school agreement with the school last year, with the hope of providing opportunities for a sister school exchange trip for staff and students. Kirkwood has already had a visit from an English teacher from Chengdu.

Whanganui High School is planning a trip for students to visit their sister school in Xuzhou in October next year.

Principal Martin McAllen is keen for the delegation to include a diverse group of students. In addition to those learning Mandarin, the trip will also be offered to students with an interest in other subjects, including te reo Māori and technology. The ENZ funding will allow the large decile 4 school to consider taking students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Above everything else, says McAllen, the students need to display an interest and willingness to take part and be of good character,.

Whanganui High School’s ties with Xuzhou go way back to 2001, thanks to a strong relationship with Chinese agent Charlie Ding Yujun. It has since formalised sister school partnerships with Xuzhou No13 and No1 junior middle schools, providing the platform for many successful long-term and short-term visits to Whanganui.

Whanganui High School’s international director Alexandra Ferretti says the partnership has since gone from strength to strength. It is now so strong, in fact, that the schools are pushing for the city councils of Whanganui and Xuzhou to consider a sister city partnership.

“You can’t separate Whanganui High School from this community,” says McAllen.

Indeed, the arrangement has extended to involve other schools in the cities. Other schools in Whanganui have formed sister school partnerships with schools in Xuzhou. Mandarin language teaching assistants teach classes at Whanganui High and other schools, as well as to adults.

Last year, 43 primary students from Xuzhou visited Whanganui and attended a mix of school activities, ESOL lessons and after-school programmes at the Whanganui schools.

Charlie is keen to establish an agency in Whanganui, to keep the connections strong between the schools and their wider communities. The agency would also help to facilitate staff and student exchanges.

The impact of the partnership, particularly for those students who get the opportunity to visit the other school, is long-lasting for many. McAllen gives the example of one such student who is now studying at AUT and has bought a home and business in Whanganui. Charlie’s own son attended Whanganui High School and recently finished his education at the University
of Auckland.

Benefits of a sister school partnership

The Australia–Asia BRIDGE School Partnerships Project, which connects Australian teachers, students and school communities with their counterparts across Asia, evaluated the effectiveness of the partnerships. This research found that the partnerships can contribute significantly to increased intercultural understanding within the school community, as well as opportunities to better understand one’s own culture.

A nurtured partnership can also deliver opportunities for enhancing language learning and sharing pedagogies. In the research, teachers reported that their sister school partnerships gave students a sense of accomplishment when they found they could effectively communicate with their sister school classmates. The real-life communication provided them with a sense of purpose for learning another language.

As one New South Wales teacher reported in the China BRIDGE evaluation, “Real-time conversations have motivated my students to try very hard to improve their language skills. We have all realised that we are alike, even though we speak a different language. We have bridged a gap in our understanding of one another.”


Recipe for success

For a sister school partnership to be successful, each school should:

  • have one or more committed members of staff who drive the partnership
  • be supported by school executives, the board of trustees and admin
  • keep parents and community informed about the partnership
  • embrace discussions about a shared understanding of what both schools are committing to and common expectations of the partnership
  • maintain regular contact with the sister school; interactive classroom activities and ongoing learning initiatives can help with this
  • establish early respect for each other’s culture and ways of working, living and learning.

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