"They have low aspirations and are usually streetwise, not to say challenging. Treat them like children and you can be sure of confrontation." Eva Lamb's description of her Year 11 German group at King Edward VII School, Sheffield, will strike a chord with many teachers.
So it may surprise them to learn that the language college director looks forward to every lesson. "Yesterday I came out of class on a cloud! The days when I used to do battle are over and today they take responsibility for their own work," she says.
The secret of this transformation lies in the introduction of NVQ language units combined with entry level ICT as an alternative to GCSE. Piloted in 2003 in the context of Sheffield LEA's Vocational International Project (VIPS), the qualification is here to stay. "These youngsters don't want to talk about their pets and their bedrooms. This is practical and work-related, so they can see its usefulness from the start, and we have linked it to a subject they enjoy," she explains.
Continuous assessment is another attraction, for accreditation is awarded on a portfolio of evidence built up over time. "When they discover there is no exam a weight falls from their shoulders," she continues. "It reminds me of the old graded objectives, but with more student autonomy. They get regular feedback with every piece of work they submit."
The portfolio is based on the national language standards, which set out the knowledge and skills required to use language in the workplace. The content, on the other hand, is flexible, which allows students to write their own course geared to their specific needs. On the downside, this inevitably demands extra work. The administration, too, is time-consuming and as assessment is conducted internally teachers have to undertake appropriate training.
However, once the groundwork is done, a scheme of work can be adapted to cater for different circumstances. "The AQA ICT specification we chose will disappear after 2006, so we are now re-jigging our materials to fit in with leisure and tourism," she explains. "The job is much easier once the systems are up and running and staff understand the assessment process and how to deliver the course."
This last point is important for the key to success lies in a radical shift in teaching and learning styles. Gone are the days of childish games, in their place a more mature approach with the emphasis on independent learning. Students access resources themselves, work at their own pace and when they need guidance, book an appointment with their teacher. Deprived of an audience, there is no incentive to play up in front of the class, and the only acting they do is when they don jacket and tie or high heels (both sexes!) to conduct simulated business meetings.
Otherwise, they compile most of their evidence on computer, which appeals in particular to boys. Letters are drafted from templates on the network, emails requesting travel information for the managing director's next trip abroad are dealt with by consulting the internet and emailing back the results.
If the practical value of such tasks is obvious, it is even more transparent when they go into the workplace. On a visit to a company in Rotherham, a group of Spanish students was presented with an authentic order enquiry from Mexico and asked to check availability on the stockbase and give a quotation. Convinced they had actually communicated with the customer they talked of little else all the way home.
They were equally impressed with their tour of the premises, where they met the living embodiments of the various job titles they had heard of in class and charted on a map the firms' wide range of export destinations. "It was very, very real. They sat in the boardroom where they were given the full sales pitch complete with glossy video and PowerPoint presentation. By chance, the smallest lad in the group ended up in the MD's chair. He felt big!" Eva says.
Trips abroad are another way of bringing language alive. When she took Year 11 to Austria last year, colleagues in other disciplines saw trouble ahead, but her students did her proud. "They behaved beautifully and we had lots of fun. That sort of thing cements relationships," she says.
Mornings were spent preparing speaking tasks and in the afternoon they went out in pairs with their tape recorders while she waited in a cafe. At the boat station they enquired about timetables, prices and group discounts; in souvenir shops they bought postcards, found out where to go for stamps and asked the way to the post office.
These same tasks feature in tedious GCSE role plays, but this was for real.
As one student put it, "I like speaking German in Austria. In England nothing happens! Here you get chocolate or a cream cake!"
"This type of youngster needs immediate gratification," says Eva. "When a few phrases deliver tangible results, they know they have achieved something." Moreover, the knowledge that it is part of their assessment is a powerful incentive to give their best. Afterwards they listen to the tapes together and evaluate them against the performance criteria. Have they used the past tense? Or the future? If not, these are priorities for the following day. "This way of working makes them so much more aware of what is required and they really do take ownership," she says.
This is apparent again towards the end of the course, when they book consultation time to discuss what remains to be done. The conversations that ensue are both focused and productive. "Some people might have neglected infinitives because they don't understand what they are," she says. "Once I have explained, they go off to practise and return with a piece of work. In a conventional grammar lesson, I might have given the same explanation but they would not have listened."
Perhaps the impact is best illustrated by the enthusiasm of two individuals who left school last summer. One was a girl on a reduced timetable of English, maths and German who would happily have dropped the first two subjects but not her foreign language. The second called in to tell his teacher that he had joined the army and wanted to be posted to Germany. "It changes their attitudes towards languages, towards me and towards school in general. I adore this qualification!" she says.
lNVQ language units are offered by OCR, Edexcel and City and Guilds.
lBesides key stage 4 low achievers, they might suit dual linguists or sixth-formers wishing to combine a language with another subject.
lAny combination of the four skills is possible. Or you can prepare different skills at different levels.
lQCA approved, they carry points for pupil achievement and attainment tables.
lFinancial implications include training for an assessor award, accreditation (more expensive than for GCSE), and the need to restrict class size to about 15. Your Learning and Skills Council may be able to help with training costs.