Culture of positivity

17th February 2006 at 00:00
A link with a local comprehensive has enabled young people in a secure unit to get a taste for learning a foreign language. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Campion School is a specialist language college in Northamptonshire.

It is a surprisingly big, rural comprehensive with more than 1,500 students, most of whom travel in by bus from surrounding villages. Set among playing fields and a wooded rolling landscape, it has all the signs of a well resourced, academically successful school - and its 2004 Ofsted report confirms the impression.

Campion seems a world away from St John's Secure Unit, though it is actually only a few miles. An attractive building set in well-tended grounds, St John's is a small welfare unit for 16 boys and girls aged 11-17, many with youth justice sentences and alcohol and drug issues. Some of them self-harm.

For most, the "secure" in the unit's title would be associated with the high security that is evident throughout a visit, and the restrictions put on the young people's movements, but Nigel Spratt, head of education, prefers to emphasise another interpretation: "This is a place where at-risk children can feel and be secure," he says.

The link between the two schools was formed three years ago, when St John's found they needed a Spanish speaker to help a child complete his GCSE course in Spanish (the unit provides the national curriculum).

They approached Campion's headteacher Jackie Beere, who arranged for a language teaching assistant to visit regularly. Since then, the scheme has grown, and it recently won a European award for languages.

Once a week, a foreign language assistant visits St John's to deliver French or German sessions. Two 25-minute sessions are organised: the first a six-week course, the second a series of taster sessions for pupils who can only attend for, say, one or two sessions (few children stay at the unit longer than six months and often the time is much less).

A maximum of four young people attend each lesson, and a St John's staff member is always present. Japanese, Spanish, French and German language assistants also each give a 30-minute session once or twice a year on their culture and language. Their participation is always voluntary, but only one assistant has voiced reservations. And bad behaviour has been rare, especially since the classes were moved from the education to the visitors'

unit at St John's - now lessons are regarded as a privilege.

For St John's, the scheme has played a part in their wish "to entice the young people back to believing that education is a good thing," says Nigel Spratt. The school runs a points system for achievement "with a lot of certificates, because the young people love to achieve".

They are now looking at AQA accreditation at entry level for the course.

The children also liked the contact with the outside world, as did the staff: "The link keeps us in touch with what's happening in mainstream."

"Most of all we want to encourage social awareness, to bring Europe into their world and to improve self-confidence and trust," says Ute Nannini, Campion's International Centre manager, who emphasises that flexibility both in organising and in teaching to meet students' needs has been the watchword of the scheme.

Sessions are designed to be entertaining for a group of young people who, though often bright, have usually failed at school and may have no experience of languages. Quizzes, puzzles, games, role plays of social occasions, and visual and musical stimulation are important, as are cultural aspects (one French assistant took in croissants and a chocolate drink). Football and pop groups also feature heavily.

Usually achievements are small - the ability to introduce oneself or say the numbers - but occasionally the young people look further: "I love German because I'm learning a new language. If I get a job as a hairdresser and a German person came in I would be able to talk to them," commented one in his evaluation of the project.

Motivation tips

Use short units - activities should last no more than a few minutes each.

* Use lots of repetition of language points, but with different approaches.

* Focus on listening and speaking, not writing.

* Vary the approach - use lots of different activities.

* Make it fun - have lots of quizzes, music and games, such as bingo.

* Bringing in food from the country, or perhaps having breakfast together, is well received.

* Make sure there's a lot of doing and making. Students could, for example, make a greetings card.

* Supply lots of visual material.

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