Talk about a turnaround

Fresh Start schools do not always get a good press, but at Fir Vale school in Sheffield we are quietly confident. Numbers are rising: with 140 pupils in Year 7 we are oversubscribed and morale is high. One of our areas of excellence is in languages attainment.

The school is a multilingual community. Every one of our young people hears and understands different languages being spoken every day. Most operate in two languages and many speak three or four.

Abdirahman speaks French to his mother and aunties, Somali to his older siblings, and English to his younger ones. He understands quite a bit of Arabic and is learning Spanish at the school. He is taking his GCSE French this year, in Year 9, and he will take GCSE Arabic and Spanish over the next two years. Lidia, who is Portuguese, is taking Portuguese and Spanish this year.

By 2002, we intend to have 50 per cent of Year 9 sitting a first modern language GCSE and preparing their second language for the examination in Year 11.

We have an experienced, flexible and dedicated modern languages team, determined students, co-operative parents and an adventurous senior team that allows every pupil to learn two languages in Years 8 and 9. We also benefit from a range of extra resources both for curriculum development and for our international links. We have won several prizes, including the Association of Language Learning's annual award for our fast-track Urdu project; our Irish link, a strand of the Good Friday agreement, is sponsored by the British Council; the LEA has supported us through the Erasmus programme and given us guidance in applying for grants; the new Gifted and Talented initiative under the Excellence in Cities programme has also allowed us to provide extra resources and coaching.

We started this year with 21 volunteers in my Year 9 French group. Fourteen have just sat their GCSE French examination, that is, 14 per cent of that year group. The publishers Collins provided dictionaries for each student and Stanley Thornes lent us textbooks so that each student has been able to work at home.

Students have attended weekly lessons after school, and they came in on a Saturday to revise for their speaking tests. Sixty students, 60 per cent of the year group, currently in Year 8, will fast track either Urdu or French next year and then choose a second language from German, Urdu or Arabic. They will follow this through to Year 11, giving them their second GCSE in a language.

Students are begging to be included in the fast-track group and taking home extra work to prove they are up to it. It is a joy to share in their confidence and enthusiasm. We have decided to run two fast-track groups, in Urdu and French, instead of only one next year.

Parental support is crucial. We ask them to monitor progress, support homework and allow students to stay after school. The modern languages department already has strong links with parents through an exchange programme set up in the first year of Fresh Start. Two months after reopening, 20 families were prepared to welcome young French visitors into their homes. They were worried their homes were too small, that their visitors would not like spicy food, that they would be confused to be surrounded by Arabic or Panjabi. Not a bit of it! The visitors loved it. They found they were welcomed by an entire community.

One of the great advantages of working in a Fresh Start school is that everyone wants it to work and there are strong initiatives to support us. The Parents as Partners group helped us apply for a grant from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and travelled as a group with parents to France to meet the French parents.

Our exchange school in France is committed to multi-cultural education. There is an extraordinary exchange of experiences between young people brought up as Muslims and others as Catholics; ours used to town living and the French studens living in tiny country villages; ours often with very little money and the French community much more wealthy. The French staff were fascinated to talk to our liaison teacher Mohammed Ziarat about how to work with Arabic-speaking parents.

Our parents have given us the same support with an exchange generated by the Irish and English governments' Good Friday agreement. Pupils from Larkin college in Dublin visited us in March and 10 of our students, who have been doing a joint project with a partner school in Dublin, travelled over to meet them last month. The young people interviewed older members of the community to discover what is was like when they were young, and they will be comparing their findings with their Irish partners.

Our feeder primaries provide our pupils with an excellent introduction to learning languages and we have regular links with them. Next year we intend to travel to France with the headteacher of our main feeder primary school, Whiteways, with some of the pupils ready for fast track.

We will be working with Year 6 in our summer school so that we can identify the pupils who should be building on what they have learned to raise their GCSE grades in Year 9.

We are breaking the mould. We intend to establish an early pattern of achievement based on the strengths of our community.

Jenny Westby is head of languages at Fir Vale school, Sheffield


FIR Vale School in Sheffield has been in existence since September 1998. Seventy per cent of this inner-city intake are on free school meals.

The school's predecessor, Earl Marshall, was forced to close the previous summer under a wave of publicity, despite opposition to its closure.

Earl Marshall, run by headteacher Chris Searle as an international school with an ideological base that included a zero exclusion policy, was condemned by inspectors because of its poor exam results.

Today,under the new headship of Hugh Howe, its multicultural intake - with a high proportion of pupils speaking English as an additional language - has not changed but numbers have risen to the point where the school is now oversubscribed.

Two thirds of the staff are new; a pound;15 million new building is to open in September 2001; it is part of the first Education Action Zone in Sheffield and academic expectations are high. "We're a school that has a new start, a new focus, a new spirit," says Hugh Howe.

* "I came to England from Somalia when I was seven. It was real hard to learn English. I just went into the classroom, I didn't know what to do. It was strange. Now I speak English like everyone else. I am a Somali, it's my religion, my parents, just my language is English. I did fast track because it gives me the opportunity to do two languages.

I want to speak three new languages. I want to travel around the world and see how other people are. I want to do Italian at college. I didn't find it hard. It was no problem. It made me happy and proud of myself. I came in on Saturday because there were some things I couldn't do on my own. All the things I had practised in the speaking test were easy. There were some questions I didn't know, they were unexpected, they were hard. I'm doing Spanish next year."

Maryanne Mohammed (13 years old) Year 9 French fast-track group * "My French exchange student knew quite a lot of English. It was wicked. We went on all these trips, it was like having an older sister. My Mum went over the top. She got in tons and tons of food, like breakfast: we had cereals, fruit, yoghurt, and the girl only ate a bit of cereal. In the evening my Mum would cook a huge dinner and then she would order a pizza as well, in case she didn't like it. And she did like it. I'd love to see her again, I think she enjoyed it. If I went, I'd be really shy but excited."

Hanna Musa (13 years old)Year 9, not in fast track, on having a French exchange student to stay

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