Going for extra time

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
An out-of-hours languages project has Cambridgeshire students queuing up for places. Alison Thomas reports.

Te gustan los deportes? Do you like sport? As the video sprang into life, the Year 9 pupils furrowed their brows in intense concentration. When it faded from the screen, teacher Soraya Uranga led a short burst of oral work before moving on to the conjugation rules of jugar, practicar and hacer (play, practise, do). Later, these verbs were practised through a game of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, and as the day progressed reinforcement continued. All four skills came into play, the focus alternated between pair work and whole-class teaching, and a state-of-the-art multimedia suite provided opportunities for individual practice online.

The pace was relentless, but these volunteers from St Ivo School in Cambridgeshire took it in their stride. This was all the more remarkable as the group covered a wide spread of ability. They had one thing in common, however. All were keen to learn. So much so that they were prepared to give up three Saturdays, attend three intensive five-day sessions and tackle online assignments in the intervening weeks.

The programme they were following was Junior CULP (Cambridge University Language Programme), a 12-month pilot project run by the University of Cambridge language centre and supported by the DfES. Seventy-seven students from two local schools received 100 hours' instruction, 70 per cent of which was face-to-face and 30 per cent online, as part of the university's commitment to improving opportunities for the wider community.

"We have wonderful facilities and resources, which we want to share with schools. With 10 years' experience of designing and delivering multimedia courses, we have a lot to give," says the language centre's executive director, Anny King, who is particularly interested in persuading young people to continue with languages at KS4.

Syllabus content was determined in consultation with the two schools involved. Impington Village College, a specialist language college which seconded a teacher to help with tuition, focused on high-flying French students to help them achieve GCSE by Year 10.

St Ivo took a different line. Places on an intermediate French course were offered primarily (but not exclusively) to sets one and two, while the beginners' Spanish course was open to all. The latter was particularly popular, as this language does not feature on the school's curriculum. "I could have filled each place twice over," says head of modern languages, Pauline ZAhner.

She was delighted by the group's progress, although a little puzzled by the preponderance of girls, especially as the French class was almost exclusively male. The enigma was solved when I quizzed the boys. "Girls are better organised," they informed me. "It was first come first served, and they beat us to it!"

In the event they were not too disappointed, as the French course provided plenty of challenge. When I dropped in on one of their sessions, I found them poring over a poem, which later served as a model for creative writing, and watched them dissect a demanding text about the internet.

Teacher Jackie Bow believes in developing independent study skills. A gap-fill exercise triggered analysis of syntax as well as meaning, while new vocabulary was deduced from the context. When this proved impossible a race ensued. While one student rapidly thumbed through a large dictionary, another ran out to consult the computer. Tactile games, online activities and extracts from the film ftre et Avoir added to the variety, and they also devised their own version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire in PowerPoint.

Perhaps surprisingly, the boys agreed that one of their favourite activities had been composing a description of the house of their dreams.

More predictable was their appreciation of the multimedia facilities. All in all, it was the whole package that appealed: the variety, the challenge and the chance to progress, unhampered by the disruptive behaviour of less motivated classmates. "I learn more here in one day than in a whole week at school," commented one, and his friends nodded in agreement.

They were also impressed with the quality of teaching, while the Cambridge setting, with its historic colleges and academic prestige, added kudos. But would they not rather be enjoying a break? "There's not much to do in the holidays except lie in bed until 11.30," was the reply. "This is worthwhile."

Their endorsement was reflected in the results of Asset Languages assessments taken at the end of the programme. With one exception, the mixed-ability beginners' group gained grade 3 in both listening and reading while grade 6 was the order of the day for the intermediate French classes.

Anny believes that some students could have done even better if their teachers had had the courage to enter them for the next stage. "I believe in aiming high," she says.

Despite the resounding success of the project, she has identified several areas that could be improved. One is the need to adapt some of the multimedia materials, which were originally designed for adults. Erratic attendance was another concern. "There were various reasons for this, including illness, workload and extra-curricular commitments. We believe the key to sustainability is to make it even more flexible, taking account of different school environments and diverse learner needs," she says.

Sustainability also relies on funding, but DfES backing ended with the pilot, and applications to other organisations have foundered on the grounds that it is not a new initiative. Refusing to admit defeat, she eventually persuaded the Government that the project deserves support for a second year. It is a huge relief, all the more so as Impington and St Ivo are keen to continue. They are willing to meet part of the costs, while the university itself makes a substantial contribution.

"We know we have a workable model and we'd like to expand it to include lower-sixth students and more languages," she says. "If institutions like ours put their facilities and expertise at the disposal of schools, we can do wonderful things without spending a fortune."


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