No Spanish fly-by-nights

In May, John Major underlined the growing importance of school exchanges when he unveiled Dialogue 2000 - a Pounds 1 million package for "greater mutual understanding". Elaine Carlton reports on how two schools are mixing with their European counterparts.

For most pupils at Sarah Bonnell School in Newham, Spanish is a language they speak in a land called the classroom and the best way to meet Spaniards is on TV.

The girls are by no means affluent: more than 45 per cent are eligible for free school meals. So earlier this year when the east London school won Pounds 10,000 funding from Lingua, the European Commission's programme for educational exchanges, the deputy head of modern languages Elizabeth Zub was ecstatic. The money allows 20 Sarah Bonnell girls next year to head for Palencia - the site of an ancient Roman settlement and Spain's first university.

They will, for the first time, hear the language they have been learning for two years in the classroom spoken by its natives. And although the girls from Newham will be in Spain for just a fortnight, their lessons for the next six months will be geared towards the trip. They will work on a fictitious - but none the less deadly serious - project to persuade an international property company that it should build a hotel in Newham. The would-be developers have to decide between boosting their portfolio with a hotel, conference centre and leisure complex in east London or one in Palencia, Spain.

The 20 girls, selected from those taking Spanish and business studies GCSE, will have to compile and present information in Spanish to convince the notional company that it should, against the odds, choose Newham despite its social and economical deprivations. Their presentation will be made in Spain next June to judges posing as developers.

The girls will stay with Spanish families - but when the Spanish students from the Instituto Claudio Prieto make a return visit to Newham they will have to stay in a hostel.

"Many families here just don't have the facilities to accommodate them, " says Ms Zub, who is concerned that some of her pupils may not be able to afford to go, despite the Pounds 10,000 grant. "We will stagger any extra payments so it doesn't all have to be paid in one go."

Bidding for funding has almost become a full-time job for Sarah Bonnell, which has already won money from BT and the London Docklands Development Corporation for computers, software and foreign books. "There is money out there, but it is hard work preparing the bids," says Cauthar Tooley, head of modern languages.

Tooley has worked hard to boost the language department with new staff and innovative methods since she returned from the United Arab Emirates three years ago.

"It's very hard to teach languages because you can't recreate Spain or France in the classroom. The key is to get students to enjoy what they're doing so they forget they're speaking a foreign language and pick it up naturally, " she says.

"Many students are Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and North African - between them they speak a total of 60 languages. Most speak English, but various stages of it." Her method is to concentrate on oracy and use games and songs to instill a love of the language so that "it's not GCSE and bye bye". "Research tends to show that what is taught is more important that how it is taught and it doesn't matter what teachers do - but I don't believe it," she says.

Pupils film themselves doing role plays, often in fancy dress, and play back the videos. The noise from their lessons is reported to be so loud that the science department, underneath, is campaigning for Ms Tooley's and Ms Zub's classrooms to be carpeted.

"Desks and pens often become barriers to learning," says Ms Tooley. "They get in the way and stop the children from speaking. We want them to concentrate on pictures and tapes for which they don't need anything apart from their eyes and tongues.

"Their grammar may not be word perfect," she admits, "but at least they are confident and they can speak."

Apart from French and Spanish, the school also offers Bengali and Urdu to GCSE. Lunchtime classes in Arabic, German and Portuguese started this year and Ms Tooley is desperate to extend the Asian languages to include Gujerati and Punjabi. This means more money.

But neither teacher will be deterred. From their office, buried deep in the heart of an unused toilet block, they continue to campaign for fresh funds.

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