On the edge

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Pupils in Ulster and East Germany share pasts riven by internal divisions. Now they are working together to broaden their horizons. Sarah French reports

All eyes may be focused on the pitch during the World Cup in three months'

time, but how will the thousands of foreign fans cope between games? Beyond saying "Ein grosses Bier, bitte", it is likely that fewer than ever will be able to communicate properly with their hosts.

The World Cup is a timely opportunity for Germany to remind the world of what it has to offer against a backdrop of declining interest in its language. German has undergone the biggest drop in popularity of any foreign language in the past three years, falling 54 per cent in British schools, while demand for Italian and Spanish continues to rise.

German suffers from a perception that it is difficult to master; the dominance of English on the internet challenges its relevance. "Who speaks German but the Germans?" is many people's excuse.

But there are glimmers of hope.

At Ballyclare high school, a traditional mixed grammar in Belfast, modern language learning is flourishing: 20 students in the lower sixth are taking German A-level, putting it on a par with French.

Alan Wilson, the head of languages, says: "We are delighted, especially when most of our competitors are being encouraged to drop German. We are bucking the trend but we know we must sell our subject well."

It helps that all Year 8 students (equivalent to Year 7 in England) take both French and German for two years. The expectation is that most will continue. "I thought it would be a waste to drop German after doing it for two years," says Leanne Trainor, 18, "and the teachers were really enthusiastic about it."

Teachers' passion is supplemented with heavy promotion of German through a weekly language club, a Year 8 trip to Germany and a thriving exchange programme.

"You can't imagine the benefits to students of seeing the language they are learning in context. They come back so much more confident," says Alan Wilson.

Cultural awareness, not language per se, forms the centrepiece of work that is flourishing in this part of Northern Ireland. A partnership between the North Eastern Education and Library Board, the local education authority which covers most of Antrim and areas that border it, and the Brandenburg region dates back to 1994 when the East Germans were keen to develop international links. Both regions are on the edge of Europe, but the parallels are more than geographic. Bill Brodie, an adviser with the North Eastern board's curriculum advisory support services, explains: "Northern Ireland has been preoccupied with its own internal problems and we were looking to broaden horizons and integrate into Europe in the same way as Brandenburg.

"A lot of our kids still don't travel. For them, contact with kids in other parts of Europe that helps them see the similarities as well as the differences is really enriching."

Russian was the main foreign language taught in East Germany under communism, so the first step was to help retrain staff as English teachers.

Since then there have been 1,600 teacher visits to the board's area of Northern Ireland.

By 1998 it was decided to formalise the links with the Brandenburg Education Ministry and create a partnership protocol: every two or three years, both sides meet to agree a fresh action plan. It is widely seen as one of the best UK-German partnerships of its type.

Meanwhile, the European Union had launched the Comenius programme which supports school partnerships through three-year projects linking schools in three or more countries. "It was a godsend for us," says Mr Brodie. "We didn't want to base links on traditional language-exchange programmes because we didn't think they had a long shelf life or broad enough appeal."

It wasn't all plain sailing. Some Irish schools did not want to commit to a long partnership but were happy to work on small projects exchanging information and ideas; the Germans were keen to build longer relationships, including teacher and pupil visits, with the emphasis on helping them improve their English. Early positive experiences eased concerns.

St Bernard's primary school in Glengormley, a working-class district of Belfast, has embraced Comenius to benefit children across the age and ability range. Teachers too have profited from sharing styles of work. In September staff will start preparing for a fourth project on citizenship with long-term partner schools in France, Germany and the Czech Republic, plus Poland, Romania and Portugal. The format is for each school to contribute something local, to help identify common ground and then to exchange. An earlier project centred on dance, drama, festivals and traditional games, resulting in videos and multi-lingual books.

"It has helped our children see the similarities between children in other countries and helped build their own sense of identity," says Primary 7 teacher Joanna Morgan. "When they made fabric pictures for patchwork quilts it was fascinating to see how many children from all four countries made a picture of their pet or a baby brother or sister - they had much in common."

Children from St Bernard's take part in exchange visits every three years to Elsterlandgrundschule, in Herzberg. "It's our longest partner school and we have built up a very strong friendship with them," explains Ms Morgan.

"Pupil exchanges for children so young would not be possible unless we had implicit trust in each other."

Kathleen Duncan, the teacher who organises the exchanges, says: "The direct benefits to our children are cultural and social. It is a wonderful way of helping them understand that children in other countries are very like themselves even though they don't speak the same language."

Language certainly has not proved a barrier back at Ballyclare, where business studies sixth-formers benefit from links with a technical college in Spandau, even though none of them is taking German A-level. Through Achievers International, an enterprise and citizenship programme, the students have established a company to research, market and export Celtic jewellery to their colleagues in Germany.

"It was difficult to find a product that they wanted," says Jennifer Lilley, 18, "so we've had to learn to take into account our target market.

It's hard work but fun and it has really encouraged me towards international business at university."

Christine Branagh, head of business studies, says: "The students have learned a lot about teamwork and the issues involved in running a business.

The German element is important because it's introducing them to the idea of working with people outside their own country."

Last year six students presented their work to the British Embassy in Berlin, which is lending its support to video conferencing, an increasingly important aspect of communications between schools.

Bill Brodie says: "Our children are learning presentation, communication and IT skills. They are broadening their horizons, gaining confidence and thinking multi-culturally. On the German side, after 50 years of repression by a totalitarian regime, they are so appreciative of any contact. There is much we can learn from each other."

As Ruairi McGreevy, an 11-year-old pupil at St Bernard's, reveals: "Before, I knew that Germany split into east and west in 1945; now I know that they don't all wear uniforms like us, they start school at a different time and they like football as much as we do."

Come June, though, the friendships may have to be put temporarily on hold.

Comenius projects: www.britishcouncil.orgcomeniusGerman Teacher Award: www.the-voyage.comteachersAchievers International: www.achieversinternational.org


The arrival of the post at Humboldt Grundschule, a primary school in Eichwalde near Berlin, was recently cause for great celebration. "There was a big envelope full of letters for the children. They screamed and yelled because they were so happy to hear from their friends in Northern Ireland,"

explains English teacher Daniela Tournier.

The school is partnered with St John's primary in Swatragh, County Londonderry, and another in the Netherlands in a Comenius development project focusing on parental input.

"All three countries have the same issues around having a good balance of parental involvement, so we are sharing our ideas," explains Daniela.

She would have liked a more pupil-centred project, but with German schools suffering cutbacks in funding, she has found other ways to involve the children: penpal partnerships, email and the letters. They have made a video and hold video conferences. The German children have also hosted their foreign friends.

"The preparation for welcoming the guests were the best English lessons ever. The pupils were so motivated and stayed long hours after school,"

says Daniela.

She has benefited directly too from the links with Northern Ireland, first visiting as an English student then returning on a teacher placement when she set up video conferences between the local education authority and its German equivalent for schools to talk face to face. "It's been really amazing for the children to talk to real people in English," she says, "and to discover that their friends understand them."

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