European Awards for Languages: Carolyn O'Grady introduces the three special schools to receive awards this year, and Alison Thomas reports on the mixed-age project of the overall winner
At Wilson Stuart School a Year 8 class are singing a French song about the alphabet. Haroon is following the words on a Braille copy in front of him. Aneeba is reading from a computer where the words are enlarged. Others are reading from printed copies. Textbooks in Braille or Moon (similar to raised letters) are on the desk in front of them.
The children, who all have physical disabilities or are visually handicapped, are speaking French with confidence and good accents and clearly enjoying themselves. Like all secondary children in the school they are following a course in French which will give them some sort of accreditation either at GCSE or entry level.
French permeates the school: children count during their physiotherapy sessions and "Bonjour" resounds along the corridors as children greet teachers. The school organises French focus days and visits to French markets and creperies.
Wilson Stuart School is one of three Perry Common special schools catering for deaf, blind and physically disabled students. Sandy Kinvig teaches French to deaf pupils using a combination of flash cards and signing and concentrating on listening and writing rather than speaking. A user of Braille and able to use British sign language, she spices her lessons with songs and games - a plastic, air-filled club amuses children during a numbers game when she uses it to harmlessly thump those who get it wrong - and lot of visual prompts for those who can see.
"The benefits of teaching a language show through in other areas of the curriculum. Pupils' listening skills have improved and we have noticed that they concentrate more on words generally," says headteacher Anne Tomkinson.
This year the Perry Common Schools were among 15 UK winners of the European Award for Languages, a Europe-wide initiative supported by the EU which is organised in the UK by CILT, the National Centre for Languages.
Two other special schools also won an award. In 2000 Maplewood School in Sunderland, a school for pupils aged five to 13 with emotional and behavioural difficulties, received a glowing OFSTED report with only one quibble: there wasn't enough modern foreign language teaching. Maplewood didn't pause to rest on its laurels; given funds by the Education Action Zone it employed a language teacher, Christine Harvey, who, as deputy head Dave Horne says, "has totally revitalised the subject".
Pupils seek accreditation from AQA, and so far every pupil entered has achieved national accreditation. The school is now an AQA pilot for all schools at key stage 3. Songs, whole-class games, mime, a lot of ICT work and repetition feature in Christine Harvey's recipe for success. As most children have a short attention span and poor memory, she uses many memorisation activities. There is also work on French culture: children play international boules, simulate French cafes and enact stories and plays.
There can be few schools that can better Portal House primary for boys in their language teaching and practical working links with countries in Europe. And that's before you take into account that all the boys have been excluded from other primaries because of challenging behaviour. Of course it helps that the school is in Dover, just a hop-skip-and-jump from its partner schools. Pupils go on day trips, often accompanied by children from the local mainstream primary, to take part in specific events in similar schools in France and Belgium (they have also been on trips to Germany), including St Nicholas day and Easter celebrations and week-long residential schools.
The school also acts as host to its partners. Judges were also impressed by language teaching at the school, finding that responses were of a very high standard, both in accuracy and accent. "Foreign languages gives our pupils a fresh start; it's an area in which they have not experienced failure already," says teacher Maureen Smith.