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Breaking down the barriers

British and French headteachers face a common challenge of how to cater for rising numbers of new pupils who struggle with the language, but are discovering their solutions are very different. Yojana Sharma reports

The shabby facades of the Chateau Rouge area of north-eastern Paris are offset by shops selling colourful African textiles, Haitian delicatessens and stalls piled high with plantains, yams and okra. Yet the tension of social deprivation is palpable. People shout for no apparent reason, youngsters shove each other. Few even turn when a drunk smashes a shop window.

Coll ge Georges Clemenceau is in the heart of Chateau Rouge. It is one of several Paris schools to receive English heads under an Anglo-French exchange organised through the International Placements for Headteachers scheme, run by the British Council and the National College for School Leadership.

The scheme was designed to enable the schools to compare their experiences of managing cultural diversity. The visits began several months ago while an intense debate was raging in France over the banning of religious symbols in schools, including the headscarf.

"There's a fundamental difference in philosophy. The separation of religion and education is a burning issue in France. The British system of education is seen as open to different cultures and very different to the French," says Nicole Perkins, head of Clapton girls' technology college in Hackney, London.

In November, Ms Perkins visited Georges Clemenceau, which has about 450 pupils aged11-15 from the local area, most of them first-or second-generation immigrants representing 38 nationalities. There was a return trip in January, in which the head, Dominique Antonmattei, came to London with other Paris heads and observed the way immigrant children at Clapton girls' are integrated into ordinary classes from the beginning.

At Georges Clemenceau, a classe d'accueil (literally, a reception class) of 24 newly arrived pupils is taught separately from other pupils until they have enough French to join classes with their peers. Pupils are assessed and assigned to the school by Casnav, the central organisation for the schooling of new arrivals (see panel, right) and the focus is entirely on language acquisition.

"It's less daunting for new arrivals to go into separate classes and build up language competence," says Ms Perkins. "Integration is all very well in theory, but we don't always do the child a favour by throwing them in the deep end, as is often the case in England."

French heads say teaching newly arrived immigrant children separately provides a gentle transition before the challenge of regular classes. Many are convinced that the English system of keeping non-English speakers in ordinary classes lowers academic standards.

Like Georges Clemenceau, Central Foundation girls' school in Bow, London has many new arrivals, and a similar proportion - three out of four - who are entitled to free school meals. Not so long ago there were one or two newcomers each week, says head Patricia Hull. A sea of white headscarves, now incorporated into the uniform, testifies to the large proportion from Bangladesh. But the lower classes are more mixed, with newer arrivals from Eastern Europe.

At Central Foundation, an EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher spends up to half her time with new students, sometimes removing them from a period or two a week of ordinary classes for intensive English or accompanying them into lessons. There are no separate classes like the classes d'accueil.

Jean-Pierre Lorenzati, head of Lycee Jacques Decour in Paris's Montmartre district, which is twinned with Central Foundation, believes that pupils acquire a new language much quicker under the French system. "Language is the key," he says. "Once new arrivals have learnt French they are pupils like any other."

After observing a classe d'accueil at Lycee Jacques Decour, Ms Hull agrees:

"I could see the worth of intensive French language classes. The pupils had been in these classes a very short time and they were streets ahead of anything I knew in terms of literacy. It's something France goes further in tackling."

In the classe d'accueil, the emphasis is on written French, particularly grammar and comprehension. "We teach the pupils that it's better to express things simply but correctly," says Nouaman Djellal, who teaches French as a foreign language to the newly arrived pupils at Georges Clemenceau.

Some mathematics, English, music and sport lessons are also timetabled; but French literature, humanities (history and geography) and science are replaced by extra French.

The key is language acquisition. Once they join ordinary classes, new arrivals are expected to reach the same level as other pupils - even, Mme Antonmattei says, if they have to repeat a year to get there. There is no differentiation in subject teaching to account for the origins and language skills of non-French speakers, and they all take the same exams.

At Central Foundation, social integration has the same importance as language acquisition. "Newcomers need to learn to work as a team," says Ms Hull. The school operates a "buddy" system and the girls are encouraged to support each other. There is no question of newcomers floundering, unaided by staff.

Even the French heads realise language is not everything. Says Monsieur Lorenzati: "Our teachers are more reticent about dealing with non-academic problems. In France there is a complete separation of academic life and home life, which is left to the parents to sort out. However, teachers are finding they have to get more involved because the public attitude to teaching and the pupils' behaviour has changed - and teachers cannot ignore it."

As a result of his return visit to London in January, M Lorenzati wants to have more meetings between staff. "It is not easy to organise. Staff are not all present at the same time. They come in just to give their lesson.

But the way it is done at Central Foundation, problems are discussed and tackled as they arise. They do not fester."

Mme Antonmattei thinks it is difficult in France to integrate teaching and pastoral care, English-style. She makes the effort herself by meeting parents and involving the community in the school.

She is also concentrating on teachers' contact with conseillers (counsellors) and assistantes: professionals who are responsible for the pastoral and other support normally provided by teachers in England. The conseiller talks to parents, social services and educational psychologists.

Because of its location, Georges Clemenceau has six conseillers and 10 assistantes - three times the norm for a school of its size. Frederic Ramassamy, one of the conseillers, believes it is not enough for the new pupils to speak the language: "They need to understand how the society, inside and outside school, functions." Many of these children feel so lost they drop out of classes and it is M Ramassamy's job to persuade them to return.

Mme Antonmattei is honest about the outcomes for immigrant children. Even though they tend to be more motivated to succeed than pupils born in France, she says half of them do not pass the Brevet, the exam in French, mathematics and history at the end of middle school.

The school's problems are compounded by the fact that more than half of all new arrivals are aged 14-16, when selection for the academic lycees takes place. Many leave with no qualification.

At Central Foundation, girls are expected to aspire to the same targets, whether they are newly arrived or have been there since the age of 11. New arrivals have support for learning and language in preparing for GCSEs, and take fewer of them. The sixth form is now 350-strong, with almost 42 per cent continuing to higher education. The French would be envious of such a record.

The visits create a bond between English and French heads, who say they will continue the exchanges on their own initiative. "It's important to look at other ways of doing things and whether we can learn from each other. This way, we can see there's not just one way to tackle a problem," Ms Perkins says.

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