French without tears

Margaret Peter

...and which defied tradition by offering pupils the chance to take a foreign language. Twelve high-achieving children from the Lycee Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris arrived in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, a week before the end of the spring term. Their hosts were pupils from Fountaindale School, many of whom have mild to severe learning difficulties, speech or sensory impairments. The two schools were brought together by a desire to learn each other's language and the physical disabilities many of them share.

When French was introduced at Fountaindale five years ago, as part of the national curriculum, some staff were cynical. What was the point of teaching a foreign language to physically disabled children with learning difficulties who, for instance, might speak only single words and never learn to read? Within two months cynicism had given way to surprise and within a year surprise had turned into the conviction that French was a success.

Much of this change in attitude springs from the policy of the senior management team and the hard work of the English and French co-ordinator, Pam Green. "It has never been a token commitment to French,'' she says. "Everything took off better than we thought. Within a month pupils at key stages 3 and 4 began performing at a much higher level than I would have expected. Some of the more able pupils are progressing to level 3.'' The school's commitment showed itself in the decisions to: timetable two lessons weekly for pupils at key stages 3 and 4; enable Mrs Green to go on courses in England and France; adapt the OK French course from Mary Glasgow Publications to a diversity of learning abilities; and exchange visits with a French school with which the head, Mark Dengel, already had links.

An OFSTED team which inspected the school in May commented on the good quality of teaching, the "high expectations of all pupils'', and their "enthusiasm for learning''. They encouraged the school to continue French post-16 which Mrs Green is now planning to do.

Fountaindale's early determination to make French work has been strengthened by the unexpected associated benefits. Pam Green found that it helped to improve pupils' learning, including memory, concentration, articulation and matching skills, and has boosted their self-confidence and self-esteem. Methods she employs to teach French, such as using objects to illustrate and teach new words, have enriched her English teaching too. And some children are now producing more complex sentences in English than before.

Just as importantly, the pupils have enjoyed themselves. When they first visited the Lycee Toulouse-Lautrec two years ago they impressed everyone with their willingness to join in lessons with able and sophisticated Parisian students and to ask questions such as "Comment t'appelles-tu?'' and "Ton sport prefere, c'est quoi?'' Another visit to the lycee is planned for next March. It is one of five in France integrating high-achieving children who have physical disabilities with their able-bodied peers.

"Children in French special schools at our children's level of ability would not be learning English,'' Mrs Green says. "I visited two French special schools for pupils with physical disabilities which were the equivalent of Fountaindale. Learning a foreign language was just not entertained.''

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