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English count on Spanish letters

Pupils from Doncaster and Madrid exchange learning, language and friendship. Adi Bloom reports

"Cuenta con mi. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco."

Pupils in a former mining village in Doncaster are learning to count in Spanish. And in a small primary in Madrid, a teacher is explaining in English how to build an electronic circuit.

When the bell rings, pupils in both schools leave their lessons and walk down corridors posted with bilingual signs. "Bienvenida a nuestra escuela," they say. "Welcome to our school."

These signs are the result of a new link, set up by the British Council's Comenius scheme, between Shaw Wood primary and Rufino Blancos school. The TES Make The Link campaign is encouraging British schools to set up similar links with partner schools around the world.

The Doncaster-Madrid link was established in response to the introduction of bilingual education in Madrid's primaries. Since September, 50 per cent of their lessons have been in English: pupils receive five hours of English-language lessons a week, as well as English-medium science and art lessons.

Sixto Camara, a bilingual teacher at Rufino Blancos, wanted to liaise with a British school to discuss the curriculum and gain access to English-language textbooks. "People tend to believe our system is great, our country is great, our way is the only one," he said. "But in the 21st century, not speaking at least two languages can close doors."

Paul Prest, Shaw Wood head, says he has been inspired by the Madrid approach to language-learning but is taking it gradually. This year, early-years and Year 1 pupils have all had basic Spanish lessons. In nursery classes, illustrated displays give Spanish number and letter names.

"Children learn languages easier," Mr Prest said. "It becomes part of their culture. In England, we've been lazy with languages, because everyone speaks English. But this isn't just about learning another language. It's about understanding other cultures."

He has no plans yet for his school to become fully bilingual ("My staff would be horrified"), but he hopes eventually to provide Spanish lessons for all pupils.

Older Shaw Wood pupils have begun corresponding, in English, with their Spanish counterparts. "We can be motivated by the Spanish bilingualism," said Mr Prest.

Mr Camara believes that the penfriend scheme has been as useful as the exchange of textbooks and resources. "In the beginning, our pupils asked why lessons were in English, when they could be studying science in Spanish," he said. "Now they can see a reason to learn English. They have a real link with the outside world."

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