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There are some strange sounds coming out of the primary schools of Liverpool, where French and Spanish are snuggling up to Scouse. Steven Hastings reports on a groundbreaking modern languages scheme

Escuela Primaria de Espa$ol says the sign at the entrance to Arnot community primary school. From the outside, the claim to be a Spanish primary school isn't too believable. The drizzle, the terraced streets, Everton's Goodison Park football stadium just down the road - it's the little things that give the game away. But inside it's more convincing.

Signs in Spanish direct visitors to the main hall, where assembly is just drawing to a close - in Spanish.

Arnot is one of six primary schools chosen by Liverpool LEA to be centres of excellence for modern foreign languages; to show other primaries the road to 2010, when the Government wants all seven-year-olds to have the chance to learn a language, and every primary school will have to have a languages co-ordinator. Another three primaries will join the Liverpool scheme this year. With support from an advisory teacher and a native speaker, usually a student, the schools offer 90 minutes of language teaching to every class each week.

At Lister junior school, another centre of excellence a couple of miles across town, John Cain has been teaching French since he became head in 1989. Since the advisory staff arrived he's had to leave the teaching to them, but it hasn't stopped him speaking the language. He talks to his receptionist in French, he holds staff meetings in French, and he swishes down the corridor with a cheery "bonjour" to pupils.

At both schools the children learn languages through songs, games and activities. They use coloured balls, soft toys and dice. There's not a word of English from start to finish. And everyone smiles through the lesson.

The two schools' advisory teachers, Chris Greene and Vicky Carlin, were secondary teachers before taking up their contracts and would like to stay in the primary sector. Arnot's Chris Greene says: "I've worked in secondary schools where modern languages are the most hated subject. Kids slouch in their seats and say, 'what's the point?'. But this is a different kind of teaching. It's not about preparing for secondary school. It isn't the first step towards a GCSE. It's about reinforcing learning in other subjects, using a foreign language to make it fun."

The advisory teachers are the driving force behind the project, but the essence of the Liverpool scheme is that class teachers, not specialists, will deliver the lessons. At Arnot and Lister, the advisory teacher and the assistant teach two half-hour sessions each week, and the class teacher takes a couple of shorter lessons. The real test will come at the end of three years when the local authority funding runs out and the specialists leave the form teachers to take over. These teachers learn through observation, but they also have fortnightly staff lessons conducted by specialists; at Lister they are "setted" according to ability. There is LEAfunding available for further language courses, and many of the teachers admit to using study guides and teach-yourself-Spanish cassettes.

Neil Shenton, headteacher at Arnot, says he went ahead with the bid to be a centre of excellence only after consulting staff. "They're happy to put the work in because it isn't a government initiative," he adds. "There's no writing, no tests, no measured outcomes. The staff can teach with freedom and be creative."

But while the emphasis is on having fun, learning a little of the culture, and using languages to reinforce other skills such as listening and mental arithmetic, the schools still have half an eye on the future. Secondary language teachers regularly attend lessons at feeder primaries and have been flexible in trying to offer the same languages as primaries. About three out of four children from Arnot move on to nearby Alsop technology college, where they will be taught Spanish as a fast-track group. But Mr Shenton says that even those who disperse to French-teaching secondary schools will find their work has been useful.

The Government may have plans to make modern languages compulsory in Year 6, but Liverpool is ahead of the game. In addition to the centres of excellence, another 70 schools - half the city's primaries - are already teaching a language in Years 5 and 6. So why is Liverpool so committed when languages are being made optional in secondary schools and only one in five primaries nationwide offers any language tuition? Partly, the scheme is linked to the city's ambition to become European Capital of Culture in 2008, and the council's desire to build on Liverpool's history as a cosmopolitan, outward-looking port. But the area's high unemployment is also a factor.

Having worked in village schools in Indonesia for six years "where learning English was the best way to escape poverty", Chris Greene has seen at first hand how a new language can change people's lives. It may be stretching a point to say that Spanish will have the same significance for the pupils at Arnot, but Mr Greene believes language skills can open exciting doors.

Neil Shenton believes language teaching has promoted confidence and good citizenship. Because there are no formal assessments, pupils with special educational needs enjoy the lessons - and often excel. And Arnot's growing number of refugee children appreciate the chance to do a subject in which lack of English is no hindrance. "The other children have become more understanding of asylum seekers," he adds, "as they now know what it's like to learn a new language."

The strength of the Liverpool project is that it seems to have the whole city on board. Liverpool Hope University College now offers 20 places a year for primary teachers wanting to do PGCEs specialising in languages.

See How we did it, page 19

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