Billy Butlin might be forgiven for being suspicious about recent events at Butlin's Funcoast World, Skegness. Allegations that he had turned in his grave when wholesome family entertainment was ousted by an adult "blue" weekend, could well have left him ready to turn again at the prospect of the site becoming "France" for two days.
But the experience of 4,000 Lincolnshire children enjoying the opportunity to speak French in a secure, friendly environment could well have restored Billy's faith in mankind. This is the third year Lincolnshire County Council's Technical and Vocational Education Initiative has sponsored and organised the Funcoast French days, which are intended to help prepare Year 10 pupils for the oral section of the French GCSE examination.
"Funcoast World is just like a town in miniature, with shops, cafes, a train, a cinema and big areas that we can turn into Bureau de Change and Centre Medical," says Pat Hollingworth, TVEI modern languages adviser. "A team of 10 teachers and people from local industry have worked with the TVEI team to devise a range of activities for the pupils, such as buying lunch, going to the cinema, sending a postcard to a friend, or going to the doctor. We even have a specially-commissioned play which develops into a workshop. The joy of being on this site is that the children can be independent, deciding what to do and when to do it, but we know they are safe."
The sight that greets the pupils when they have emerged from the "Douane" is at once familiar and strange. It looks like Butlin's but all the signs are in French, right down to the waste paper bins. Over the tannoy comes French pop music, interspersed by announcements which leave most people looking baffled.
But what really makes the atmosphere "foreign" is the knowledge that if you want to buy a drink, or change some money for some specially-printed Lincolnshire Banque de France notes, or have to report to a gendarme that you have been robbed by the resident "voleur", you have to speak French.
Over 200 adults and sixth formers are involved in playing the roles of shop assistant, nurse, lost property officer, and everyone else, down to the thief. Most are teachers or French assistants, but local firms also send French-speaking staff, or work behind the scenes in the Bureau de Change.
"We receive very good support from local industries and papers, who help with printing material, and the Lincolnshire Echo works with sixth formers to report on the days," says Pat Hollingworth. "Other companies help, such as PO Ferries, and the National Westminster Bank, and Butlin's is very good at providing back-up. It all adds up to TVEI being able to finance the whole project at a reasonable cost per head, so that all children can participate without having to find more than lunch money for the day."
Teachers can prepare their pupils for the visit using notes and a boardgame provided by TVEI. They are issued with a map (designed by a GNVQ student and proudly proffered as evidence of the project's many curriculum links) and a French booklet which lists and guides them through the activities. When they have satisfactorily completed an activity, their book is stamped.
"At first they are self-conscious about speaking French," says Sue Livings, head of modern languages at Caistor Grammar School, and smart in her gendarme uniform as Chief Inspector of Police for the day. "There is a terrific amount of work for the organising group to do beforehand, but it is worthwhile when you see the look of satisfaction as they realise they have made me understand them."
As the initial feelings of foolishness wear off, the children enter into the spirit of Funcoast France, with groups throwing out a challenging "Bonjour! ca va?" as they pass in the street and "Parlez francais!" coming from the children as well as the adults. Mike A'Bear, head of modern languages at Ancaster High School, Lincoln, has brought a group for each of the three years the project has run, and is very enthusiastic about its success in boosting the pupils' confidence: "It provides really good motivation. Most of my pupils are apprehensive and at last this gives them a reason to speak French."
Pat Hollingworth, Lincs TVEI, Horncastle College, Mareham Road, Horncastle LN9 6BW. Tel: 0507 526768.