A corner of France in an English city

Alison Thomas visits The Ecole Francaise de Bristol, where classes for children from three to mid-teens attract students from miles around

It is Monday morning and the nursery class is in full swing. For the rest of the day barely a word of English will be spoken - at least not by the teacher. "On les plante avec la main," she sings, holding up her hand. "Can I do it with my foot?" asks one child. "Apr s. La main d'abord." "Ouch!" yelps another, as her neighbour treads on her finger. "Dis pardon, Alastair." "Pardon," he complies and the song goes on.

This is The Ecole Francaise de Bristol, which runs a wide range of classes for children from three to mid-teens. This particular group meets twice a week and directrice Jacquie Winter believes that their early exposure to French gets them off to a flying start. Unlike adolescents, they have no inhibitions and instructions such as"Prenez un feutre" or "Allez mettre vos chaussures" elicit a ready response. "They still use a lot of English themselves but the understanding is there just waiting to be tapped," she says, "and they know the music of the language. Their pronunciation is fantastic and when you hear them sing, you could mistake them for French children."

Alastair and his classmates may have a limited active vocabulary but it is a different story next door, where another group is engaged in a programme of activities, carefully structured to cover the key areas of the French pre-school curriculum. English has no place here, for these children are bilingual. Some belong to French families working in Bristol, others are English with a French parent. One girl has no French relatives at all but spent some time in the country and her parents do not want her to forget what she learned.

"We accept English families for the bilingual nursery provided they are committed and their children attend five days a week," says Jacquie Winter. "They learn very quickly because they want to communicate and they are not afraid of making mistakes. Within a couple of months they speak."

Over the past 20 years the school has evolved from humble beginnings in a draughty church hall into a highly professional establishment that attracts around 350 children from miles around. Facilities include after-school classes for all ages, evening courses for GCSE students, holiday activity weeks and French clubs in primary schools in and around the city. It was originally founded by three enterprising mothers who wanted their children to have the chance to speak French with someone other than themselves. Even for native speakers, bringing children up to be bilingual can be a struggle. "As they grow older, they do not like being different from their friends and resistance sets in," explains Jacquie Winter. "The school overcomes this by providinga context. It is also important for them to mix with people of their own age. A child who is always with adults speaks like an adult. Here they converse with each other and enrich each other'svocabulary."

No one appreciates this more than Helen Hobourn, a fluent French speaker and teacher at the school. She is also the parent of a bilingual five-year-old. "Before we moved to Bristol, we had no access to a French-speaking community," she says. "I did not feel able to teach her without support and when she joined the nursery all she knew was a few songs. Now she speaks French to me at home and to her friends at the school. She has no problem juggling two languages, as each belongs to a different environment."

Although now at primary school, Helen's daughter still attends the school one day a week, with the consent of her headteacher. Unfortunately the pressures of the national curriculum have taken their toll on this arrangement. "Heads who visit us are amazed by what we do and are keen to co-operate," says Jacquie Winter. "But others are not interested and have withdrawn their permission. We have had to create a 'classe pot-pourri' for all ages and abilities on Friday evenings. It is not ideal but it is better than nothing."

The current educational climate has had other repercussions. Despite one complimentary Office for Standards in Education report, the school may have to introduce some literacy work in English to be eligible for another and to qualify for funding under the nursery voucher scheme. Finance is a constant worry and the grant it receives from the French ministry has dwindled.

"Because we offer a unique range of services, we do not fit in with either the French or British system," says Jacquie Winter. "Tuition fees cover our running costs but we have no reserves and we are trying to raise funds to expand our facilities. There is definitely a demand."

Her point is corroborated by the popularity of the latest holiday week, which was over subscribed. This regular event offers five to 12-year-olds the chance to enjoy crafts, cookery, games and songs and learn some French along the way. "We get children from all sorts of backgrounds and there are some great characters," says teacher Christophe Arsac, grinning at two lively 10-year-olds who have a wicked sense of humour. "Ici on s'amuse, n'est-ce pas?" He does not have time to elaborate as he is off, Pied Piper fashion, into the playground to play ball games. "Faites le canard!" he commands his troupe, who obediently crouch and waddle along behind him. "La grenouille maintenant!" They leap into the air.

Ici on s'amuse.

The Ecole Francaise de Bristol,The Orchard, St Ursula's High School, Brecon RoadWestbury-on-Trym,Bristol BS9 4DT. Tel: 0117 962 4154. Website: www.respublica.frefb

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