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"I've never really met any Christians"

Catholic and Muslim pupils are getting acquainted in a scheme to link schools in diverse communities

There is an air of nervous excitement inside the brightly lit main hall of Luton's Carnival Arts Centre. Thirty children, all year 5 pupils at William Austin junior school in Luton, sit in neat rows, wearing the regulation black tie with white, yellow and blue stripes. Apart from one boy, who is black, they are all Asian.

In an adjoining room are 30 more schoolchildren, all wearing red ties with silver stripes. These children are pupils at St Joseph's, a Catholic junior school located close to William Austin, but where the vast majority of the pupils are white.

This morning the children are meeting as part of a pioneering initiative aimed at linking up schools with diverse communities. The children have been building up to this moment since last September, sending letters and photographs to one another about themselves and their hobbies. Today, they will meet face-to-face for the first time.

According to Penny Lasham, a teacher from nearby Hillborough school, who is operation manager for the project, a neutral venue was vital "to avoid any territorial issues".

The project, funded by the Department for Education, first began in Bradford five years ago, but is new to Luton schools. And it is no accident that the initiative – known as the Schools Linking Network – is happening here.

Luton has become media shorthand for the failures of multiculturalism, having been both home to the Muslim extremists who jeered at British soldiers returning from Iraq and the birthplace for the extreme right English Defence League, which recently marched through the town. St Joseph's, a faith school that is 49% white British, and William Austin, which is only 2.4% white British, are one of 10 pairs of contrasting schools that have been linked up.

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