Foreign exchange

1st June 2007 at 01:00
Two schools, one state and one fee-paying, find pupils and staff benefit from a language partnership. Nick Morrison reports

They are just a mile apart as the crow flies, although they may seem a world away in ideology, but a project in North-west England has given teachers the chance to sample life in state and private education.

The partnership between a state and a fee-paying school in Blackburn started with the pupils, when sixth formers from the independent Westholme School came to help Year 11s at Beardwood High with their conversational French. But the learning arrangement soon spread to the staffrooms.

Beardwood was looking to improve its record in French and Westholme found it had a different need, also in modern languages. So as Cathy Hunt, Westholme's French teacher, made the weekly trip in one direction, Mohammed Patel, an Urdu teacher, travelled the other way.

For the past three years, Mohammed, who has taught at Beardwood for 15 years, has taken after-school classes at Westholme. The group of Year 9-11 pupils at Westholme's all girls senior school included Asian girls who have some knowledge of Urdu and white pupils who went along out of interest.

"Even though some of them were from an Asian background, they have learned Urdu at home or at the mosque, so it was quite different for them to learn it at school," Mohammed said.

He initially started teaching the same topics he did at Beardwood but, as the group slimmed down from the original 20 to the half-dozen who wanted to pursue their interest more seriously, he developed more tailored programmes.

"It was more like a tuition session. It was a small group and we didn't have much time, so we looked at things they need to cover." He said the sessions concentrated on vocabulary and grammar, but he noticed clear differences between Westholme girls and the pupils he taught the rest of the week.

"They were quite hesitant at first but when they got to know me they asked about any problems. Beardwood pupils are more open, while at Westholme they were more reluctant to come out of their shells. They were pleasant and motivated, but it was a different experience.

"It was different teaching boys and girls, but I've taught at a school for Muslim girls and they were more open than the Westholme girls," he said.

This chimed with Cathy's experience of teaching pupils at Beardwood for two years in sessions aimed at encouraging Year 9s to continue taking French to GCSE level. Perhaps unusually for a modern languages group, the after-school classes she took attracted mainly boys, although this was not what made the difference.

"Maybe they were slightly more boisterous, but they weren't shy about having a go and answering, whereas some of our girls might have been. They participated a lot more readily than I would have thought and they were not frightened of getting it wrong," she said.

"A lot of our girls are a bit more serious and want to work. They want to get the answer down and get it right, and they are more frightened of showing themselves up, even when there are no boys around."

Her French sessions concentrated more on making the lessons entertaining than on grammar and vocabulary, and Cathy admitted this has been useful for her teaching at Westholme.

"We did things like card games and quizzes and video clips, and it was quite good for me. It made me look differently at what I do and gave me a few more ideas for my own class."

Cathy taught in a state school for nine years before moving to Westholme, which charges fees of up to pound;2,388 a term. She moved after her previous school switched its emphasis from French to Spanish and, although she was reluctant to swap, she said she would find it hard to go back into the state sector full time.

"I went to an ordinary comprehensive and I hadn't contemplated teaching in an independent school. I did feel a bit guilty. I miss teaching a mixed class because the atmosphere is quite different to teaching just girls.

"The main difference is the amount of class work you get through in an independent school. When I first came here, I had lesson plans and they did the work in a quarter of the time."

The schools' link is supported by a grant of pound;50,000 from the Department for Education and Skills to pay for staff time.

Jacquie Petriaho, assistant head at Beardwood, said it has given staff and pupils at each school an insight into the other's way of life.

"The great thing to come out of this is a greater understanding," she said.

"There was a kind of 'us and them' attitude before, which has been broken down to some extent," added Lillian Croston, principal at Westholme.

"And it wasn't not just an educational issue: it was about promoting good relationships within the town."


The barriers separating state and private schools used to be pretty solid.

Both sides knew of the other's existence, but were happy to follow their own path with as little contact between the two as possible.

Now, partnerships between state and fee-paying schools are increasingly common, although the link between Wells Cathedral School and Preston Manor Secondary in north London is unusual in being prompted by a documentary.

In some ways, the two schools could hardly be further apart. One is a boarding school with fees of up to pound;20,295 a year in England's smallest cathedral city; the other is near Wembley Stadium in the London borough of Brent, with one in five of its pupils eligible for free school meals.

But after co-operating on a channel Five TV programme where six pupils swapped schools for two weeks, the schools decided to build on those links.

"What the documentary shows is that rather than differences, there are quite a lot of similarities between us and we don't want the relationship we have built up to disappear," says Georgina Liveras, deputy head at Preston Manor.

What the schools have in common is music: Wells has a strong tradition of music, as well as its cathedral choristers, and Preston Manor is developing an extensive range of world music. So while tabla and drum players from London held masterclasses at Wells, jazz musicians from the Somerset school did their own masterclasses for Brent pupils.

This exchange has snowballed, with future musical collaborations planned, and Wells has now joined the Leading Edge Partnership, which aims to promote co-operation between schools, formed by Preston Manor with other Brent schools.

Nigel Walkey, deputy head at Wells, says both schools have profited from the link, including sharing expertise on teaching children who don't speak English as a first language.

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