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Buenos das, bilingualism

Spanish isn't just part of the curriculum at Brighton's Bilingual Primary School - it is part of every lesson. Helen Ward reports on the latest school to join the small number that truly immerse pupils in another language

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Spanish isn't just part of the curriculum at Brighton's Bilingual Primary School - it is part of every lesson. Helen Ward reports on the latest school to join the small number that truly immerse pupils in another language

It is lunchtime at Brighton Aldridge Community Academy and hordes of teenagers - with their carefully customised uniforms, scruffy and extravagant hair, hormones, faux world-weariness and spots - are sitting, slouching and chatting. Lunch ends and they trundle back to class, at which point a door in the far corner of the corridor opens. Out trots a crocodile of tiny five- and six-year-olds, all ponytails and untucked shirts, clutching their Hello Kitty lunch boxes and holding hands with their friends.

These are the first pupils at the Bilingual Primary School, currently housed within Brighton Aldridge's sixth form. The primary's classrooms are bright with posters declaring "Bienvenidos!"

Education is by its very nature an optimistic business, but the Bilingual Primary School is more optimistic than most. "The parents were getting nervous," says headteacher Carolina Gopal. "`Are you sure it's going to happen?' they would ask. `Absolutely,' I'd say."

But when faced with a one-week deadline to find premises, imposed by the Department for Education, she and Marina Gutierrez, co-founder of the school and now chair of governors, were so desperate that they simply drove around Brighton looking for "To lease" signs on buildings.

Then Gutierrez, while trying to find her way to Brighton amp; Hove Albion FC's stadium in the hope that it might have a hospitality suite that would do, accidentally drove up a dead end and discovered the sixth form's buildings. Later that day, she mentioned the place to a local councillor who suggested that, as Brighton Aldridge had just opened, it was likely to have spare accommodation. On 4 September 2012, the Bilingual Primary School opened in its temporary home.

The school has, as many primary classrooms do, signs and labels in different languages. But it has a vision beyond teaching a second language: it wants to produce bilingual learners. It is a bit like the difference between doing drama at school and going to a drama school. There are Spanish lessons but Spanish isn't just part of the curriculum - much of the curriculum is taught in both English and Spanish.

Pupil power

In this, its first year, 70 pupils are on roll, divided between two Reception classes and one Year 1 class. The school, due to move in two years' time, plans to relocate to neighbouring Hove, where there has been a squeeze on pupil places.

As is the case with many free schools, the Bilingual Primary School is often reported as being the result of parent power, set up by parents and teachers in response to demand. But, in one sense, it is very much a result of pupil power. Gopal and Gutierrez were both bilingual pupils in ordinary schools, where they learned languages but felt their bilingualism was not supported. They have created the kind of school they wish they could have gone to.

Gutierrez grew up speaking Italian and English, learned French and German at school and picked up Spanish aged 19 during a gap year in Mexico, where she also met her husband. Their two daughters were brought up speaking Spanish and English but Gutierrez says bilingualism is not something you can take for granted.

"Many children, who grow up within bilingual families, don't achieve bilingualism because the parents don't have the time to invest in supporting their children to become bilingual and biliterate. I was in a very fortunate position. I did have time to teach reading and writing in Spanish to my daughters but they weren't going to do it at school: it was down to me."

Since 2007, Gutierrez has been registered as a childminder offering Spanish. But when the children she was caring for were due to start school, there seemed no easy way to keep the language input going. Then the free school initiative became law. She decided to go for it.

Gopal, meanwhile, was born in Madrid to an Indian father and Spanish mother, who both spoke English. Her first language was Spanish but she has also learned Dutch, English, Norwegian, French and Italian. Before heading the Bilingual Primary School she worked at the 2,000-pupil British Council School in Madrid, where children aged 3-18 are taught in English and Spanish.

"I was head of the lower school in Madrid," says Gopal. "I had progressed very quickly but I thought this was the opportunity of a lifetime."

An early chance

What is happening at the Bilingual Primary School is part of a wider trend: more schools are now offering the chance for children to learn a foreign language from a very young age. The free Europa School UK in Oxfordshire, which is replacing the European School, is also bilingual and an English-German bilingual school is due to open in South London next year. Even if they are not offering bilingual education, some free schools include second-language provision as a selling point, notably Tiger Primary School in Maidstone, Kent, where children learn Mandarin.

Nor is the Brighton school completely unique. Wix Primary School in southwest London was the first state primary to have a bilingual stream, in 2006. It works in partnership with the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle and the French Embassy to provide joint teaching for one class of pupils each year, alongside the English-only and French-only streams.

Wix headteacher Marc Wolstencroft is a great advocate of bilingual education and has visited the Bilingual Primary School in Brighton. "It's easier, in terms of creating a vision for a school, to create a school from scratch and say, `This is going to be a bilingual school', than to do it within the current state system," he says. "One aspect of globalisation that is difficult to escape is the fact that many other foreign companies have set up shop in the UK, as we're doing in the rest of the world, so children are now growing up with a sense of interconnectedness. Schools that are now setting up quote Wix - they have been inspired by what we have done. They create their own form of bilingual education but they can already say this is worth doing."

Aiming high

Back in Brighton, the children in Reception are learning about formas, shapes. Que es esto? Hands go up. The answer is a square - in Spanish, cuadrado.

Their teacher, Laura O'Grady, is Costa Rican and says her class is "definitely meeting" her high standards. The aim is for pupils to be at GCSE level - although not necessarily to sit a GCSE exam - by the end of primary school.

Oscar is five years old. His mother speaks Spanish and English at home but his father only knows English. "Sometimes I don't understand the teachers," he says. "But I just listen to what they're saying and then I know what they're saying."

This knowing without - or rather before - "understanding" is partly how this type of language learning works. You may not understand "Ponte el abrigo", but if you're rushing to go out to play and your teacher is standing by the coat pegs you may know she wants you to put your coat on. But at the Bilingual Primary School, Spanish is also taught in discrete lessons and some lessons use more English than others - there is no straightforward translation for the maths method of "chunking", says Gopal.

Natalie Woodman was one of the founders of the Bilingual Primary and has two children at the school, Reuben in Year 1 and Delilah in Reception. She and her husband speak no languages other than English. "Reuben had already started in another school," she says. "It was an excellent school and it was a big decision because he was happy there, but we moved because here he will become bilingual and that will help him in the future.

"We felt this was a unique opportunity but hopefully it will become more widespread."

Photo credit: Andrew Hasson

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