Scottish secondary schools and their links with developing countries: study

This study on school partnership and school visits in a global citizenship context supports discussions on global learning, international development, school partnerships and volunteering.



Global citizenship/Global learning: global learning encourages learners to think critically about equality and social justice, connecting the local to the global and understand the impact of their actions. It aims to prepare young people to live in a globalised, interconnected world and enables them to respond to global challenges whilst advocating for social justice for all and the minimisation of harm to people and the planet.

School links: One of the ways of incorporating global learning in schools is through establishing international links. These can include different kinds of initiatives from short-term projects such as visiting a country to long term partnerships.


The Scottish Government places great importance on being a good global citizen. This study provides a first exploration of one way to develop global citizenship: establishing school links with developing countries. The aim of the research is to understand what kind of activities Scottish secondary schools are engaged in when it comes to linking with a developing country. This insight will be able to support discussions on global learning, international development, school partnerships and volunteering.

The report explores five research questions:

1. What potential benefits and disadvantages are linked to school partnerships according to current academic literature?;

2. Which organisations and resources do Scottish secondary schools have available to them, and what kind of activities are they promoting?;

3. What activities do Scottish secondary schools undertake when partnering with a school in a developing country?;

4. What is the motivation for these activities?; and

5. What narratives of development aid and global learning are involved?


To address research questions one and two a review of the literature and meetings with relevant organisations were undertaken. To address research questions three to five, a rapid quantitative assessment of secondary school partnerships and visits was conducted along with follow-up qualitative interviews with seven secondary schools who had a link with a developing country. To add some insights on the perceptions of the partner schools on school links a questionnaire was send to Malawian schools.


A rapid assessment showed that 82 Scottish secondary schools had a link to a developing country, with about two-thirds of the schools having organised, or planning to organise, pupil visits. Next to the school visits, which are often an important part of the link, activities include educational projects and fundraising.

Evaluating partnerships and pupil visits, the literature review draws attention to the need to address power imbalances and take into account the voices of local communities when visits are made and schools are involved in fundraising. If not addressed issues of dependency and paternalism to the partner school and community might arise. Academics suggest projects should therefore focus on intercultural exchange and learning instead of any type of ‘development’ based activities.

The empirical research showed that teachers seem to be aware of issues of inequality and dependency, and actively engage with their partners in developing countries to discuss their needs. However, as there is little research on the experience of the partner schools and impact on the wider community, it remains unclear what influence partnerships have on the schools in the developing countries. The Malawian schools in our survey were largely positive about their partnerships, but more detailed studies are needed to understand wider impact.

A potential negative impact is the promotion of stereotypes of poverty and cultures and the idea that students will “help” or “change” a community. Images and narratives of school visits and partnerships shared in Scotland do not always address, and sometimes (unconsciously) reinforce particular ways of viewing a developing country.

Teachers and organisations seem to make the assumption that having a partnership will make teachers and pupils more aware of global problems such as poverty, and this automatically leads to evaluating issues of power, equality and social justice. However, to become a good global citizen, pupils and teachers need to develop critical literacy so they can evaluate and challenge global problems and their links to social justice. Some Malawian schools also mentioned there was a need for more sustained contact (beyond the visits) and projects that enhanced(shared) learning


Overall, the focus of partnerships and pupil visits can be seen as two-fold: to improve education and resources in partner school and to let students learn about other cultures. The drive to improve education in the developing countries can sometimes obscure the necessity for a critical reflection on development, power and poverty in the Scottish school. To encourage global learning for students, a critical understanding of social justice, stereotypes and inequality is needed. Moreover, entering and sustaining partnerships require reflection and evaluation of the impact of the projects involved, as there is still little known about the effect of school links on partner countries.


Start with global learning, not partnerships.

This is a general recommendation for both schools and organisations involved. If the aim is to raise awareness about global issues, partnerships, and specifically peer-to-peer contact, can be a vehicle to start a conversation on these issues, but this will need more than just ‘coming in contact with other cultures’ and asks for the development of critical understanding. Developing links, organisations and schools should be aware of and take into account issues of inequality, dependency and reinforcing stereotypes.

This recommendation can be strengthened through supporting initiatives that work towards increasing people’s critical global awareness and linking volunteer and partnership experiences with discussing social justice. Schools and organisations can be supported in reflecting on the impact of their practices by:

1. Encouraging cooperation between organisations.

a. Bring organisations with different backgrounds together to improve impact and make sure partnerships (and school visits) are connected with global learning.

b. Encourage research on the impact of partnerships and school trips, and share this research with schools and other organisations.

2. Creating spaces for discussion and information exchange for school staff.

a. Encourage discussions on the impact of visits, partnerships and fundraising and the aim of global learning. To help them with these questions it will be useful to include information on issues of international development and wider global issues. Organisations, such as the Development Education Centres and volunteer organisations, can play a role in brokering these discussions.

b. Encourage exchanges between schools and between schools and organisations.

Ensure that teachers keep in touch and develop an understanding of the information channels teachers use and need.

3. Developing thinking around the opportunities to use digital technologies as well as reflect on the negative (environmental) impacts a visit will have and if they can be justified.

For more information please contact the International Development Unit of the Scottish Government

Disclaimer: This two page summary is based on a report prepared for the Scottish Government. Views expressed and conclusions drawn are those of the author and not Scottish Government and in no way pre-empt future policy in this area.



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