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Exclusively Italian-style

St Vincent's Roman Catholic primary school in Mill Hill, Barnet, is one of a tiny number of primaries teaching Italian.

The courses were initiated by the Italian Consulate, which has long had links with London's Italian community Forty of St Vincent's 308 children come from Italian families and many attend evening classes one or two evenings a week.

In addition, consulate teacher Gabriella Piccaluga teaches all 308 children at the school between 25 and 40 minutes of Italian a week, depending on their age.

Headteacher Ann O'Leary says: "The children enjoy it. They very much like the little songs and they have developed a high level of conversational Italian. The biggest spin-off is slightly unusual. The children's powers of listening have increased because they have had to listen carefully and repeat the sounds. It has helped their own language."

Mrs O'Leary also believes the five-year-old initiative shows children who speak English as a second language that the language of the home is valued.

Some parents would have preferred St Vincent's to teach French because they think it would help their children at secondary school, but the vast majority of them appreciate Italian as an extra dimension to the curriculum and a privilege for their children to be taught a language at such a young age.

They are especially privileged to be taught Italian - only 3.1 per cent of primary schools teach Italian, compared to 1.8 per cent for Spanish, 3. 5 per cent for German and 93.5 per cent for French, according to the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research Primary Languages Survey published last month.

The results were based on questionnaires returned by 42 per cent of local education authorities covering 8,800 primary schools.

The problem with primary languages has always been the dearth of linguists but in the absence of a decisive Government lead, enthusiastic parents throughout the UK have set up French clubs.

Following parents' lead, Dr Nick Tate, the Government's chief curriculum adviser, recently singled out modern languages in primary schools as a possible priority in five years' time.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is planning a major conference on teaching modern languages in primary schools, likely to be held next year, which could be a focus for expansion.

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