Disneyland Paris, here we come

When footballer Eric Cantona did community service with schoolchildren in Greater Manchester, most of them greeted him with "Hello, Eric". But the pupils at Oakwood High School in Salford said, "Bonjour, Monsieur Cantona".

Nothing unusual in that. Except that Oakwood is a special school, whose 160 pupils have moderate to severe learning difficulties including physical, sensory, medical and emotional problems.

A Christmas card from Cantona, written in French, is displayed in Oakwood's very own Euro Tunnel - a corridor painted in the European Union colours of blue and yellow. It is covered in photographs of school exchange trips to France, showing teachers and children at Disneyland Paris, sitting at outdoor cafes, meeting town mayors. Continuing the French theme, there are signs throughout the school saying "Tenez la gauche", "Defense de tourner", "Entree".

And in the French classroom - decorated to resemble a French town, complete with a patisserie, boulangerie, gendarmerie and tabac - a group of Year 9s are learning how to order food and drink.

"Bonjour!" cries teacher John Coxon. "Bonjour," comes the reply. He takes the register in French and then shows the pupils pictures of various drinks, which they have to match with the right word: "Limonade - oui. Bi re. Un the au lait - excellent!" Among the group are children with cerebral palsy, behavioural problems, hearing difficulties. One girl is severely visually impaired and deaf. Another, Emma, can't speak. Yet, according to John Coxon, she now understands French and English.

"I've taught them the words and the signs for animals. When I say lapin for rabbit, for instance, I wiggle my fingers above my head like ears. When I say chat for cat, I indicate whiskers. So now, when I ask for the word for rabbit, Emma puts her fingers above her head like ears. It's the first time she's been able to join in."

And a boy who was almost an elective mute spoke his first words in school in French. "It was raining and he suddenly said, 'Il pleut'."

Oakwood pupils have been learning French for the past seven years, with the support of headteacher Janis Triska. "French is very popular, and it has a real part to play in their personal and intellectual growth," she says. "They're learning transferable skills - listening, concentration, recall. For some, it's their first experience of success in an academic subject. They grow in confidence and improve their learning habits."

John Coxon uses active learning techniques such as topic-based language, plain target language and the language of routine. So, for example, he introduces them very early to the French for "going to the toilet", "handing out pencils and exercise books", "closing the door". And he supports the words with gestures, signs and pictures.

"Every word I use is visual," he says. "I teach with a combination of jokes, graphics, signs, games, flash cards. It might take them six weeks to learn the names of 12 objects, but sometimes it's because their own language can be a problem. I have to teach them the difference between a parrot and a budgie, for instance, before I can teach them the French words." But by key stage 4 they are building conversations and asking questions. Most leave school with the NEAB Certificate of Achievement.

John Coxon's enthusiasm is infectious as he bounds around the room, which he designed and painted, including most of the artefacts - French-style shutters over one window, a yellow post box, even a replica map of the Paris Metro. Such a room is important, he says, for pupils "to whom the concept of 'foreignness' is difficult to grasp without tangible props".

It was his idea, too, to start the educational exchange programme four years ago with a similar school in Salford's twin town of Saint-Ouen, in northern France. Not long afterwards, the deputy mayor of Saint-Ouen, Denise Audouard, opened the school's French classroom. She also happened to be president of the Association pour Adultes et Jeunes Handicapes (APAJH) and governor of the Institut Medico Educatif (IME), a private, inner-city school in Saint-Ouen set up 20 years ago because of the lack of state provision for children with special needs.

Last year, a team from the IME, including 10 pupils, visited Oakwood. Earlier this year, it was Oakwood's turn to visit Saint-Ouen.

"Where both sets of pupils struggle for mastery of literacy skills in their own language, and both have very limited command of the others' language, it isn't realistic to expect too much progress," says John Coxon."Early in the visit, the two sets of children preferred the security of their peers. But Disneyland Paris cast its spell. As you are thundering along on a white knuckle ride together, whoops and screams are the common language. From then on, the children found ways to communicate with each other, only occasionally using adult help."

This summer, the school extended its exchange programme to Denmark - pupils have learned basic greetings in Danish - and is looking at the prospect of three-way links for the millennium, including direct contact through the Internet.

Janis Triska believes the benefits of exchange are more far-reaching than simple development of modern language skills. "Pupils with complex learning difficulties need direct and concrete everyday experiences to promote progress. And the exchange programme is part of that process," she says.

John Coxon believes that educational exchanges are best viewed as extended family. "Friendship is our common language, not French or English.It's about self-esteem and learning skills. If you chalk and talk to pupils like ours, half of them will be looking round the room. Here, they're totally absorbed. You might think what they're doing is very basic,but for these children it's a real achievement."

The Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges helps schools make links with other schools around the world and assists in arranging visits. For more information, ring general enquiries on 0171 389 4004

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