A French teacher who has never spoken a word of English to her students, who is also their form tutor - can this really be possible? In a world where the target language is the aim, but is often seen as unattainable, this fact in itself is a great achievement. But a Year 7 class of students at Judgemeadow Community Language College in inner-city Leicester do even more - as well as three lessons in French a week and form time, they have ICT and PSHE lessons in the language, as part of an immersion French project which has been pioneered since last September.
The class teacher, Claudine Mougin, an advanced skills teacher and native speaker, is the lynchpin behind this project. It is her hard work in preparing new material for immersion ICT and PSHE lessons as well as her determination never to speak English, which have enabled the project to succeed so far. And it does seem to succeed. Only six months in, the pupils' level of receptive French is very high. They understand and join in with an ICT lesson teaching about the use of spreadsheets. The software used is the Microsoft French version and rubric such as fichier and somme automatique are like second nature to them. Their language comes alive when faced with their counterparts in a French coll ge by weekly video link. They fluently describe themselves, their family and their hobbies using an accent and language that a GCSE examiner would be proud of.
Before these pupils started at the school, they and their parents were given the opportunity to take part in the project and were invited to an evening at first conducted entirely in French, and including a sample lesson in French. Parents who attended the evening were unanimous in wanting to take part in the project, and pupils were chosen using CAT (Cognitive Aptitude Tests) scores, to form a gender-balanced class of 24 mixed-ability students. And this school has its fair share of challenging circumstances. Eight per cent of the students live in 20 per cent of the most deprived wards in the UK, and 41 per cent live in wards where 20 per cent of the adults are illiterate.
Students admit that they need to concentrate much harder in immersion lessons, but they feel special and are positive and enthusiastic about learning the language. Marie-Louise Bush, the senior teacher who initiated the project, was inspired by an education visit to New Brunswick, Canada, to see an immersion French project in 2002. "In Canada, what I liked was that it wasn't an elitist group, but a totally mixed-ability class, and that's what I wanted to replicate here." In Canada, it has been shown that immersion projects also improve pupils' performance right across the curriculum, due to the cognitive benefits of this type of language learning.
The project is being carefully evaluated using a control group and is already beginning to reap rewards. The Year 7 pupils are currently at least at national curriculum level 56 in receptive skills and at least level 4 for active skills. The aim is for pupils to take an early GCSE at the end of Year 9 and their performance in other areas of the curriculum will be monitored to see if the cognitive benefits mentioned hold true.
Rob Summers, director of the language college, has this message for other schools interested in such a project: "It's vital to get the right member of staff - someone who's enthusiastic, inventive and committed, and also it needs to be sold to the rest of the school so everyone supports the project".
Claudine Mougin believes it is all worthwhile: "While it is hard work and there is a lot of extra preparation to do, it is very rewarding to see the pupils respond so well and to see their positive attitude every time I challenge them with something new."
Wendy Adeniji is a PGCE tutor at the University of Leeds School of Education and ICT consultant for Trinity and All Saints Comenius Centre