Fancy a day-trip to the Continent but can't face the crossing? Elaine Carlton finds a corner of Essex that's all Gaul
Imagine taking pupils on a day trip to France, but with none of the hassle. Kathy Wright, senior lecturer in teacher training at Anglia Polytechnic University, in Brentwood, Essex, has created a cross-Channel experience that does away with the stress of buying tickets, herding children on to the ferry and worrying about seasickness.
In a tiny corner of England is a place that for two weeks a year will be forever France. People listen to the music of Vanessa Paradis, eat chocolate croissants in the cafe and greet each other exclusively with bonjour.
This is Animation Station, where France has been recreated within the university's Edwardian building and stunning grounds. Ms Wright, once a secondary school French teacher, has spent many a summer dragging groups of pupils on the de rigeur trip to Calais. "But it took so long to get there that pupils hardly got to speak any French," she says. "I realised there had to be a better way."
On holiday in the south of France three years ago, Ms Wright took part in a local aerobics class. The teaching was an inspiration.
"After a few days it struck me how much my French had improved just from hearing the instructor call out the directions," she says. "I went home, booked the university rooms for a fortnight and started advertising to schools. "
Animation Studio was born, and has been running for two weeks a year for the past three years. This year it is fully-booked, with 60 pupils attending each day.
Pupils are split into groups that rotate around five activities. Ms Wright employs her teacher training students as activity leaders to show the pupils cooking, aerobics, card-making, computer games and safari - a type of treasure hunt. All are carried out in French.
Most of the student teachers are French natives who have come to the United Kingdom to follow a teacher training course. The English-born students pretend to the school pupils that they are French.
One activity is a murder game that lasts all day. One of the student teachers is nominated as the murderer and during breaks from the other activities children ask questions that lead them to uncover the killer's identity.
"I tried to come up with activities that allow pupils to take in the most varied vocabulary in just one day," says Ms Wright.
The safari activity is a hot favourite. The leader spends a few minutes explaining new vocabulary at the start of the session, then the pupils set off. Equipped with a compass and direction sheet they are sent into the jungle to track down wild animals hiding there.
If they follow the directions correctly they should find pictures of 14 dangerous beasts. But just to confuse them a few red herrings lurk in the trees. The team that returns first with the right answers wins a prize.
To ensure pupils don't get bored while waiting for others to finish, games have been pasted to the walls of the university. These include one where pupils have to work out the identity of famous French people from photos taken during their childhoods. Lunch is eaten in the cafe, where pupils can buy chocolate croissants, French-style sweets and crisps. A stand covered in French magazines reveals the fashions across the Channel.
Pupils from Beauchamps Secondary School in Wickford have been coming to Animation Station since it was launched three years ago. Deputy head Bob Hodges is convinced the experience is valuable. He says: "It is far better than a day trip to France because pupils are immersed in the language all day and able to enjoy some exciting activities. When they arrive they feel slightly awkward but they soon gel with the leaders and it all comes together. The day is cost-effective and local, and the activities bring out the best in the pupils."
The Year 7 pupils present at the activity day agree with their teacher. Matthew Fenn, 12, says: "It's a good day out. I enjoyed the treasure hunt and it helped me understand some new words in French. I am determined to find out who the murderer is before we leave."
Jenny Barras, 12, also enjoyed herself. She says: "I have been on a lot of French holidays with my parents and I really like the language. Today's activities have taught me French directions and animal vocabulary. But if we spoke more French on our day trip to Calais I think that would be better ."
Up in the cookery class, Edith is teaching pupils to make crepes. Most ingredients come in packets bearing French writing - just one of the auth-entic touches Ms Wright employs.
Her preparations took her to Calais for a weekend, where she stocked the car full of items from magazines to flour. She also wrote begging letters to French car giants Renault and Peugeot asking for posters, badges, pens and other French-style mementoes.
Animation Station, which is backed by the university, is entirely self-sufficient. Last year's profit was invested in a new computer and extra software for the French department. Despite the enormous effort involved, Ms Wright nurtures even greater ambitions for her activity centre. "Can you imagine if I was able to run a roadshow version?" she enthuses. "I could travel to schools across the country in a camper van with my students and on arrival we would burst out with French flags and start doing aerobics."
The vision raises a smile, but it could be coming soon to a school near you.
For details about Animation Station contact: Kathy Wright on 01277 264 504