Presente," say 29 voices from Year 6, one after another, as Antonio Greco, an elegantly dressed Italian, calls the roll. It is only 8.15am but nearly 60 pupils have already had breakfast at Gosforth East Middle School before crowding eagerly into class for their Italian lesson.
Breakfast Italian clubs are already a huge success in three middle schools (Years 5-8) in Gosforth, a suburb of Newcastle. Nearly 200 Year 6 and Year 7 children turn up twice a week for a half-hour lesson. They have not taken any exams yet but the scheme has already won prizes. There was the Excellence award from Kellogg's (pound;2,500) for breakfast-club provision and a European award for Languages, presented in London by Jacqui Smith, the schools minister. The citation was "for providing an imaginative solution to the question of how to organise early language-learning".
Signor Greco has only had his Year 6 class for a few sessions so he starts by getting them to speak out the days of the week, the months of the year and the numbers up to 10. Then:
"Dove abiti?" "Abito a Gosforth." Then Signor Greco leads them on to the alphabet, his mellow tones casting a little spell.
Along the corridor, the Year 7 pupils, who have been doing Breakfast Italian for a year, are showing confidence with the more complicated numbers and looking sheepish about their homework. Sue Rennie, a local adult-education teacher, uses the textbook Forza! (Heinemann). Her class is already showing confidence with the language. Today there is only one boy, Edward Dines, in a class of nearly 30. Normally there are two. He is not at all abashed and happily comes forward with a group to sing "Le ruote sul pulman gira, gira, girano" (The wheels of the bus turn round and round). Other classes have more boys but even this initiative has not yet broken their antipathy towards learning languages.
The three Gosforth middle schools (East, West and Central) with breakfast clubs are all feeder schools for Gosforth High School, which has 1,400 pupils. It was Gosforth High School's language college status which provided the impetus. "We are pledged to reach out to our feeder schools," says Sue Balmer, head of language collge development, "so when our head Keith Nancekievil suggested a breakfast class as a way of giving the pupils a second language in the middle schools, I started work." The middle schools all agreed on Italian.
"Our first job was to find Italian teachers, and we were fortunate to find good adult tutors such as Sue Rennie and Carol Shepherd who were prepared to work at the other end of the day," Sue explains. "When we started up, a young Italian woman, Sabina Stirati, heard about us on the radio, offered to help and now she's teaching in one of the clubs.
"We pay for the teachers, the books and other classroom materials, and the food. The breakfast is simple, with bacon or sausage rolls, cornflakes, orange juice and toast, but still costs about pound;100 a week at each school." She is convinced the model can be replicated elsewhere. "The schools could raise some funding or children could contribute to the cost of their breakfast. And schools can go for a variety of languages."
Breakfast Italian is now so popular at Gosforth that classes are oversubscribed. Forty pupils are looking forward to a February visit to Florence and Venice, where some will meet penfriends. There will also be another pasta and song evening with parents and members of the Italian community, which last year included the Newcastle footballer Alessandro Pistone.
Ken Thompson, assistant head at Gosforth, is delighted with the way things have gone. "We are trying to get out of the FrenchItalianSpanish straitjacket," he says, "and I think we've proved here that Italian is not an alien language. Now I'm really keen to see what percentage of these middle school pupils come in and do an early Italian GCSE."
Some of the students explain why they turn up so consistently. Kim Spence thinks "it helps to get you up in the morning". Toni Dingwall says she likes doing Italian "because it's a different language that not many people know. And at the Italian evenings we do performances, and I like to show what we have learned".
Valentina Terrinoni is of Italian extraction and is looking forward to conversing with relatives when she goes to Italy.
"Va bene" would be an understated progress report on the Gosforth Breakfast Italian project. Bravo! might be more appropriate.