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Cultural enrichment

Alison Thomas visits a school which embraces the world of community languages

Imagine a class of 20 13-year-olds, comprising one AS candidate, seven GCSEstudents and 12 individuals ranging from beginners to moderately competent. Sukhdev Kaur faced this challenge last year when she taught Panjabi to Year 9 at Shireland Language College in Smethwick.

Since she joined the school 13 years ago, Sukhdev Kaur has spent many hours drawing up carefully differentiated lesson plans, and many more coaching students at lunchtime and after school. "Any teacher or school contemplating community languages has to be prepared to put in a lot of effort," she says.

Catering for widely diverse needs is not the only reason. Compared with the wealth of published resources for mainstream European languages, the community languages cupboard is rather bare. Over the years, she and her colleagues have amassed countless home-made worksheets, games and flash cards.

The school has also invested heavily in ICT and they are currently collaborating on the development of materials in Macromedia Flash.

On the plus side, students are keen to learn, examination results are excellent and, as co-ordinator of community languages, Sukhdev Kaur has had the satisfaction of overseeing a gradual expansion of provision. All age groups are offered Panjabi or Urdu in curriculum time, and there are plans to introduce Arabic. From November, children in feeder schools will get their first taste of European and community languages in Year 3, as part of Shireland's contribution to the Department for Education and Skills ICT Test Bed project.

In April, there was another exciting development when the school took over management of Sandwell Community Languages Service. "It helps us bridge the gap between what our students do in and beyond school and gives us access to 30 tutors in a whole range of languages," says deputy head, Lesley Hagger-Vaughan. Her second point is a reference to the challenge of recruitment. Several years ago, a shortage of Panjabi teachers meant that some taster lessons for beginners were delivered by other linguists, supported by able bilingual students. Today, the department is fully staffed, but the practice of involving pupils continues. "It is one of those 'needs must' situations. You find a way round an obstacle and discover it is a good idea. It boosts self-esteem, builds on inherent language skills and develops other skills too," she says.

Staffing problems do not stem from a shortage of enthusiastic tutors, as the plethora of supplementary schools demonstrates. However, most have overseas qualifications and little training in the methodologies that prevail in British classrooms.

Shireland's approach has been to appoint people who have a communicative, engaging teaching style and welcome them into the modern languages department. In recent years, it has supported Sukhdev Kaur through the Qualified Teacher Status programme and three more teachers are following suit. "That requires huge commitment from both school and individual," says Lesley Hagger-Vaughan. "It is not easy on a full timetable."

While membership of the languages department allows staff to draw on the experience of colleagues, teaching a community language has its own specific dimension. Many students have well-developed listening and speaking skills and need a concerted drive on literacy. Their cultural understanding also sets them apart from peers who are studying French or German.

Shireland builds on this asset in a variety of ways. Gurdwara and mosque visits involve investigative work written up afterwards in the target language, and trips to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are another rich source of historical and cultural information. A look at Indian film stars provides a modern dimension and incorporating religious festivals into the teaching programme offers a break from academic study. "It's a great excuse for eating and drinking," says Lesley Hagger-Vaughan. "Easter is a mixture of eggs and samosas. It's pretty good!" Another moment of light relief is the school's annual multilingual olympics, featuring lesser-known sports such as kabaddi, an Asian team game resembling a cross between tag, rugby and wrestling.

On a practical note, students' attention is drawn to the potential advantages of a qualification in community languages. "The police force, hospitals, community services and employers are crying out for people with relevant skills," explains Sukhdev Kaur. With this in mind, staff are considering developing an interpreting course, with the support of Birmingham's Brasshouse Centre, as an alternative to A-level.

A welcome outcome of the expanding community languages programme has been the impact on boys, in particular those not naturally inclined to take school work seriously. "One Year 9 pupil is studying Panjabi and taking early entry German GCSE with us, and on Saturday he learns Hindi," says Lesley Hagger-Vaughan.

One explanation for the positive response may be the role model provided by the male Urdu teacher, whose calm classroom manner inspires respect.

Another is the obvious relevance of the subject to students' personal lives.

Perhaps most significant is the message conveyed to all, regardless of ethnic background. Everyone's cultural heritage is to be valued, nurtured and developed - not sidelined into twilight hours or, worse still, ignored.


* Conduct research among parents to ascertain where demand lies, then present a well-argued case to senior management.

* Introduce community languages as early as possible. If senior management resists, start at KS4 and make it a success - pressure will build for earlier provision.

* Give your staff full support, including ICT training if necessary, as this will help them fill the resource gap.

Further information CILT publishes a twice-yearly bulletin with articles, reviews and case studies. Read it online or contact Helen Pagliero for hard copy. Tel: 020 7379 5101 ext 230. Email: Moseley School offers lesson ideas, weblinks and a step-by-step guide on how to transfer Urdu text from PageComposer into PowerPoint.

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