Airline's flights of the imagination

10th March 2000 at 00:00
British Airways is the favourite of a group of Year 10 pupils, discovers Carolyn O'Grady.

Senoras y senores, buenos dias y bienvenida a bordo del vuelo BA 474 con destino a Barcelona.

Victoria, a Year 10 pupil at The Douay Martyrs School in the London Borough of Hillingdon, is welcoming passengers aboard flight 474 to Barcelona. The passengers, her fellow pupils, are in their seats; their rugs are on their laps; the plane is ready to take off. It will in fact stay firmly where it is, although from the sense of excitement you would think this group of young people really were off to Spain. They are in the British Airways Community Learning Centre, in the grounds of the company's Heathrow offices, role-playing the parts of different airline staff and customers.

Victoria, dressed in air stewardess's hat and blazer, is standing at the microphone in a realistic mock-up of a plane fuselage.

Nearby is a simulated airport lounge with desks, telephones, clocks and floor-to-ceiling photographs of a real airport. Here pupils check in, buy perfume; ask for information and obtain tickets in Spanish. Props include mock food on trolleys, uniforms, passports and baggage, along with genuine airport staff, who join in with the role playing. The group is attending one of many half-day workshops organised by the centre. Available for students of Italian, French and German as well as Spanish, they cater mainly for key stages 3 and 4. "The role-plays are about finding ways to express the message, to avoid mental blocks. Often speaking a language is about confidence, and we hope to develop that," says Manuela Minger, the curriculum centre's languages co-ordinator. Role plays are not anything new, but the difference here is that the young people are involved in a real-life application of language in a setting where, as Manuela has already told them, a language is a requirement for many jobs. She emphasises that this is not only the case in airlines, but also in many banks and other businesses. For English teenagers, who often think that with English as your first language you are excused from having to learn any other tongue, this is a mantra that cannot be repeated too often.

Young people enjoy the way role-plays are progressively built up, says Tracy Murphy, a teacher at Shene School in the London Borough of Richmond, who recently brought a key stage 3 group for a session in French at the centre.

First, they are given one sentence in, say, French (his step is skipped for KS4 pupils), then these are exchanged for prompts in English - for example, "Ask the passenger if you can help"; "Say, yes, you are travelling to Paris" - and finally they are given a longer conversation. At intervals students present their role play to their peers, so when the time comes to swap role plays, they can master the new ones very quickly.

By the second half of the workshop most are noticeably more confident, even appearing sometimes to have forgotten they are speaking in a foreign language. The centre has also developed the British Airways Language Flag Award for Schools. It is similar to the test which the airline gives to many of its own staff, but schools can teach and assess it themselves in school, and it is available in 13 languages, including Punjabi, Urdu and Arabic. The Flag Award scheme is usually organised as a lunch time or after-school club, which teaching and non-teaching staff are encouraged to attend as well as pupils.

Language teachers at participating schools go on a one-day intensive training course to become accredited to teach and assess candidates. Speaking and listening skills are mainly practised and tested through role plays, reading aloud and games, some of which are to do with airlines, but which also include locations such as a supermarket, a travel agency or a hotel. Students are also tested on their ability to talk about themselves and their interests and to interpret short conversations. Language levels have been designed to accord with the requirements of GCSE and A-level programmes. Successful participants receive a certificate and a badge, which is not a recognised qualification but conveys to students that they have mastered the techniques of applying a language to nearly the same level as people who use it in work.

An advanced Flag Award is being trialled for Years 12 and 13. "Gone are the days when we could say 'You might travel to Germany one day, so you'd better learn the language'," says Tracy Murphy. "To give languages relevance you have to show them in a work context."

Priority for the workshops goes to boroughs in the Heathrow area, but schools outside this area can do the Language Flag Award, and the centre is gradually including more schools.

Contact: Manuela Minger, British Airways Community Learning Centre, Waterside Australasia House, PO Box 365 (HBBG) Harmondsworth, UB7 OGB. Fax: 0181 738 9597 E-mail:

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