Everybody knows there's a problem with the patchy provision of primary school French. Colette Leclercq-Hallam, a Frenchwoman living in Nottinghamshire, recognised it as long ago as 1983 - and decided to do something about it. Since then she has been developing a practical solution to the difficulties - La Jolie Ronde, a structured language programme for four to 12-year-olds.
Ms Leclercq-Hallam, together with her business partner since 1987, Janie Mireyless, works from a tiny, low-ceilinged, red-brick house at Bingham, a small town 10 miles from Nottingham. The premises is so small the pair and their five staff only just fit in. And there's a rush on - teachers want more and more books and tapes, even though term has already started.
Ms Leclercq-Hallam is petite and elegant and seems genuinely astonished at what has become - after 14 years' hard work - a success story. On the wall of the crowded downstairs office is a map of the British Isles with about 150 pins in it. Each pin represents a Jolie Ronde franchise - sold to a teacher who receives printed material and tapes as well as training and support. The pins in the map cluster thickly in the Midlands, Scotland and London. But the programme has spread much further afield - franchises have been sold as far away as Saudi Arabia and Peru.
Ms Leclercq-Hallam is married to an Englishman and has lived here long enough to think in English. When her two children were small she tried to introduce French into her English-speaking household. But the children were embarrassed to hear her speaking the language to them in public. "They used to say 'Speak properly, Mummy'," she remembers ruefully. But she firmly believes young children are very receptive to new language, and is determined not to let French dwindle in primary schools.
Four years after Ms Leclercq-Hallam launched the Jolie Ronde programme, she met Ms Mireyless, while visiting a primary school where she was teaching. "We talked and talked and found we agreed about everything," says Ms Mireyless, the kind of straight-talking Yorkshirewoman whose presence in a primary school would reassure children, parents and less-than-confident teachers. Gradually she became more and more involved - preparing the materials (including writing much of the music) and testing them.
Since 1992 she has been a director of the publishing arm of La Jolie Ronde - supplying materials to schools that don't want the full package.
Ms Leclercq-Hallam says her programme is not just about giving children a head start "as if language-learning were a race". She is all too aware of how, until French becomes part of the primary curriculum, many children will arrive at secondary school knowing nothing of the language. Then, the theory goes, those who have done French get bored waiting for their classmates to catch up. But La Jolie Ronde aims to counter this by providing solid groundwork. Ms Leclercq-Hallam says: "The primary phase should be a preparation for secondary school, giving young children tools they can use to good effect later on. "
Ms Mireyless explains further: "Material in the later stages of books 3 and 4 is chosen to avoid duplicating what is likely to be dealt with in Years 7 and 8 at secondary school. Book 3 uses vocabulary the children are unlikely to use until they get to GCSE. And in book 4 we focus on situations - such as questions you are likely to ask when you are staying with a family in France. This is valuable preparation for Years 9, 10 and 11."
If that is La Jolie Ronde's strategy, what are the tactics? What does it do for primary children? "Language-awareness is part of the answer, especially for Years 5 and 6. But when children start earlier, a simple awareness programme quickly crumbles. It's hard for a teacher to keep attention and motivation going over several years," says Ms Leclercq-Hallam. "Young children need to learn methodically. They expect organised and constantly-changing activities. "
Ms Mireyless adds: "La Jolie Ronde's great strength is its practical approach. Our materials are tried, appraised and, if necessary, modified before publication. They take into account the skills and needs of children at different stages of their development."
St Peter's School, in East Bridgeford, has been using La Jolie Ronde since 1996. Headteacher David Maddison says: "British people are reluctant to have a go at languages. This lack of confidence perhaps holds back linguistic development."
So in an attempt to bridge this confidence gap the school introduced half an hour of French a week from Year 1. The school simply brought the Jolie Ronde materials - the teacher's pack cost about Pounds 95 and each child's book around Pounds 4.50 - and they were off.
Linda Oliver is working with a class of six-year-olds. Enthusiasm is perhaps not quite a strong enough word to describe their attitude. They sing (vigorously and a little mysteriously) Deux petits garcons assis sur une pomme. They compete to announce their "Je m'appelle"s and to declare: "J'habite a East Bridgeford." It is fun - and it works. The children are confident and knowledgeable.
A little further away, in Wood-borough, Woods Foundation School is another Jolie Ronde licensee. Deputy head Tom Limb uses the school premises for lunchtime and after-school French. He is good friends with the two women - good enough to lend them his deep voice and good French accent to sing the part of Dracula on one of their tapes.
Parents pay Pounds 2.50 a lesson, and the programme is taken by four groups of 10 pupils from Year 3 to Year 5. "It's an ideal situation," says Mr Limb. "Parents know profit goes to the school budget. The opportunity to join French classes goes down a storm with prospective parents - one has cited it as a deciding factor in choosing this school."
Despite his success with the programme, he says what would please him most would be for French to become part of the primary curriculum. "It ought to be taught and it ought to be free," he says simply.
The two business partners complement each other perfectly - a combination of Ms Leclercq-Hallam's Gallic charm and Ms Mireyless's Yorkshire directness.
Ms Mireyless defers to Ms Leclercq-Hallam as the founder, the language expert, the one who makes the words fit the songs. And although the French half of the partnership taught until very recently, she clearly depends on the English partner's knowledge of the needs of children at different stages of development, and her ability to tailor and test the materials. The combination is formidable, but not formidable.
For further information about La Jolie Ronde ring 01949 839715