The Conversation: Bilingual education

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Marc Wolstencroft, head of Wix Primary in Wandsworth, south-west London, England's first English-French bilingual primary, talks to Yojana Sharma about his unique school.Q: Wix is the first bilingual primary school in England. Where did the idea come from?

A: When I applied for the headteacher post in 2004 I knew that Wix shared its site with a French primary school. Wix was losing numbers and there was even some talk about closure. We desperately needed a new direction and I felt we needed something we could hang our colours on and be known for in the community. My wife is French and with the encouragement of the governing committee, who had taken my French interests into consideration when appointing me, I could see there might be some interesting options. I struck up a friendship with Gerard Martinez, head of the French school, who was keen on collaboration.

Q: Was it difficult to set up?

A: Being the first to do anything is difficult! It actually took us less than two months to come up with the idea of creating a bilingual class together, the rest of the year to sell the idea, a year's preparation and negotiation and then we were ready to start. But many of the challenges only become apparent once you have started. The motto is expect the unexpected.

I was lucky in that the chair of the governing body and director of education were willing to back the project and shared our vision. It still took a lot of persuasion and hard work to flesh out the concept and convince a wide variety of interest groups. I was also lucky, in that key members of my staff supported the idea and worked tirelessly to anticipate and then iron out issues.

As for funding, it proved that funds are always available if the concept is right. Both the British and French education establishments are totally committed to the Wix bilingual stream's success.

Q: How does a bilingual school work?

A: It's truly bilingual. Two days a week are taken by the French teacher (a French national), two days a week by the English teacher (an English national), the extra day both teachers are in the class. The teachers plan the curriculum progression together and the assessments and all documentation is in French and English.

Within a week the children can say, in the right accents, "My name is ... " in English and French.

Q: Did you have to recruit new teachers and were they specialists in bilingual education?

A: The main requirement is to have teachers who are good practitioners, and good team players. It helps if they speak French but none started out as specialists in bilingual education. They have learnt rapidly on the job and are gaining a high level of expertise.

As we are talking about bicultural as well as bilingual education, the teachers are representatives of their own culture. Therefore it helps to have colleagues who are passionate about what they do and are enthusiastic about stories, traditions and literature of their own culture.

Q: What was the attitude of existing teachers? Did they need special training?

A: Existing teachers are on the whole fascinated by what is happening at Wix and see it as a means of professional development. There is a considerable degree of collaboration and cross-fertilisation between teachers on the French and English side with the teachers in the bilingual class. The teachers are also benefiting from the buzz caused by the bilingual stream.

When staff move on to other schools, that buzz helps us with recruiting excellent replacements, who are keen to join the school.

Q: Would you recommend this model to other primaries?

A: Our parents of children in the bilingual class are very proud of what has been achieved and very supportive. They see that it equips their children with a unique additional skill and makes children more flexible and culturally aware. For parents in the English part of the school, it has raised aspirations. The level of language teaching has been instrumental in changing the ethos at Wix and raising standards.

I would like to see bilingual education adopted nationally, but not as a universal default model. Clearly it will only work for some schools and some parents. I would, however, like to see it accepted as a viable alternative, and there is no reason why the idea could not be replicated in other languages.

So, emphatically, yes, I would recommend this model to other primary schools because children are at exactly the right age to start absorbing these important multicultural and multilingual lessons.

Yojana Sharma is a journalist and international affairs specialist

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