Now we're talking...

How a school secretary and her multi-cultural colleagues have helped break down language barriers. Julia Parry reports

When young Shkendi, a Kosovan refugee, arrived at my school eight years ago, she didn't speak any English. But she did speak a bit of Italian, picked up from watching satellite TV in her home country.

Once settled in school, I told Shkendi she could study for a GCSE in Italian and she jumped at the chance. Looking back, I'm not sure why I suggested it; I suppose I was trying to think of anything and everything which would help her adapt to life in this new and bewildering country.

The inner London school where I teach doesn't offer that language so I enlisted our Italian-born school secretary to help with the oral part of the course and Shkendi did the rest herself, using the self-study books I gave her. I organised the exam and did all the administration. By the end of Year 9 and after only 18 months living in the UK, she had an A* in Italian GCSE.

Though Shkendi was unusual in passing a GCSE in what was effectively her third language, my experience of working with her made me determined to help other pupils transform their home languages into GCSEs.

The overriding concern of most teachers of English as an additional language (EAL), including me, is to help pupils access the main curriculum and master English. But I've come to believe that one of the most powerful ways of boosting the morale and academic ambitions of EAL pupils is to help them get the easiest qualification of all - their home language GCSE. The results have been stunning. More than 80 per cent of the EAL pupils at my school who have studied for home language GCSEs have earned As or A*s.

This outstrips the school's overall A to C results of 73 per cent, which is already an impressive pass rate for Lambeth in south London.

In the past eight years, I have arranged for more than 30 pupils to take GCSEs in 10 different languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Dutch and Greek. The pupils tend to fall into two broad groups - they are either recent immigrants or refugees who are struggling in core subjects because English is new to them or they are pupils who have lived in the UK all or most of their lives and who speak another language at home at least some of the time.

The pride and pleasure that Lucy, our Italian-born school secretary, gained from working with Shkendi made me realise our school had an untapped resource - staff members for whom English is a second language.

These days, I shame-lessly identify anyone who might be able to help pupils with home language GCSEs.

Thus far, everyone I've approached has been pleased to be involved, even when that means sacrificing a lunch hour. Some are teachers in other subjects, such as Linda in the French department, whose Algerian heritage means she is now also teaching Arabic. Others aren't teachers at all. Pete, from Holland, who worked in the school's media resources department, was more than willing to help with a pupil preparing for a Dutch GCSE.

"If children don't use their home language it will die and with it they lose a big part of their culture," Cintia Gough, a Brazilian learning support assistant who works with pupils studying for Portuguese GCSEs, told me. "Doing a home language GCSE gives them the incentive to value their mother tongue. It can also help with their English because they are learning their own language properly."

Home language GCSEs deliver the goods in so many ways and that is what motivates me to keep organising them - even though the admin is a nightmare Julia Parry is EAL co-ordinator and an English teacher at St Martin in the Fields School in Lambeth, south London


* Anesia Ferreira was 14 when she arrived in the UK from Portugal to join her father who is an economic migrant. Her English was very poor but by the end of her first year here (Year 10), she had an A in Portuguese GCSE.

She has since earned an A* in Spanish GCSE and was ranked in the top five per cent nationwide. Anesia is now studying both languages at A-level, plus a Btec in travel and tourism.

Her goal is to study modern languages at university. She is clear about the benefits of that first exam. "It was great to get my Portuguese GCSE because it increased the number of A-Cs I got. My success in languages has made me more confident."

* Isna Aziz, an academic high-flyer, decided to take an Urdu GCSE because it was an option and because her mother persuaded her. "My Urdu wasn't perfect but after doing the exam and realising that I was actually good at it, there were celebrations all round," she says.

Apart from the A grade she earned, Isna's Urdu GCSE brought other advantages - helping her appreciate her cultural roots and compelling her to develop good study habits.

"Nobody forced me take the exam. For me to do it of my own accord showed that I was self disciplined and could motivate myself." Isna is now studying law at Brunel University.

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