Language colleges do more than just improve pupils' communication skills. They raise their grades - and give them a new sense of purpose, reports Alison Thomas.
Two years ago, Sir Bernard Lovell School in Bristol became a language college. The effect on the school has been dramatic. At GCSE level, A-C grades rose from 24 per cent in 1996 to 35 per cent in 1997 to 53 per cent last year. "The climate and culture have totally changed," says Jim Porteous, deputy head. "I can't say every student is mad on languages, but the overall attitude is different. It's been very exciting."
Sir Bernard Lovell is one of 58 schools which have been designated language colleges since the Department for Education and Employment launched the scheme in 1995. Every type of school is represented in the scheme; special schools were also invited to submit bids in the latest round of applications.
The colleges have the tricky task of extending language provision while maintaining a balanced curriculum. The financial burden of the transition is borne by grants from the DFEE, which can be as much as Pounds 100,000 - to be matched in sponsorship - for improving facilities, boosting staffing levels and funding training. Adapting the curriculum is far from straightforward. Sir Bernard Lovell School took the radical step of scrapping traditional subject divisions. The school is now organised into three curriculum areas - international and cultural studies; language and the arts; science, maths and technology.
All aspects of the curriculum have an international element. Drama, for instance, provides an opportunity for practical work with languages. The new model allows for increased flexibility in the timetable, and this year the school plans to set aside whole days for integrated cross-curriculur work on international themes.
Sir Bernard Lovell has also set up a "professional development centre", which it has made available to other schools and organisations in south Gloucestershire. Partnership - with other schools, businesses and community groups - is at the heart of the language school ethos.
Elliott School, a London comprehensive, works closely with three local primaries where French, German and Spanish are taught in Year 6. The focus is not so much on amassing vocabulary as on developing skills - how to listen, recognition of parts of speech, the concept of gender.
Katharine Lady Berkeley's School, a rural comprehensive in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, takes a similar approach. Assisted by secondary staff, primary schools introduce pupils to French, the language they will study in Year 7. Once at Katharine Lady Berkeley's, the children choose a second language from German, Italian and Spanish after taking a language awareness course that lasts half a term.
Other colleges are introducing languages that are increasingly important in the business world. The most popular is Japanese, already taught in around 30 colleges. Others gaining ground are Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and Urdu.
Raising the profile of languages obviously involves increased emphasis on grammar. "Ignorance of grammar was costing us valuable time," says the head of languages at Sir Bernard Lovell, Janet Lageveen. "So we got together with the English department and devised something to cover the basics."
Elliott School appointed a head of teaching and learning styles, and set up a grammar task force. Grammar is now integral to schemes of work and reinforced by games, drills, memorisation techniques and music and rhythm in short bursts at the start of each lesson. PGCE students come in to run intensive sessions with small groups, and even low-ability pupils practise verbs in a simplified form.
Information and communications technology is crucial in language colleges. E-mail and video-conferencing enable students to talk to their peers abroad; the Internet gives access to huge amounts of material in the target language; and many colleges are developing inter-active multimedia materials.
Sue Balmer, deputy head of modern languages at Gosforth High School, a comprehensive in Newcastle upon Tyne, says multi-media increases the attraction of languages, especially for boys.
One package she recommends is Rosetta Stone, which she says encourages careful listening, enhances reading skills and helps students with pronunciation. Less sophisticated software also has a role. "Don't throw out Fun With Texts, " says Ms Balmer. "It's excellent for promoting a sense of accuracy."
There are plenty of foreign visits and exchanges of the non-virtual kind. "Exchanges and links involve a lot of people working together, not just linguists," says Jim Porteous, who recently travelled to Tours in France with a group of colleagues to set up curricular links in science, maths, technology, art and history.
It is this rounded, pan-curricular approach to language-teaching that is bolstering the reputation of schools such as Sir Bernard Lovell. Here, languages and foreign cultures are being taken seriously by parents, pupils and staff and an international atmosphere permeates the school. Janet Lageveen believes the benefits are immeasurable. "The most tangible outcome is the improvement in examination grades, but it goes deeper than that," she says.
"There is so much going on, so many opportunities for pupils to broaden their experience. We believe they are gaining something even more valuable."
All language colleges are required to pursue the same specific goals. These include:
* Raising achievement
* Extending language learning opportunities
* Developing and disseminatinggood practice
* Benefiting other schools and the wider community
* Promoting an international ethos across the curriculum
* Exploiting the potential of ICT