At home in Azincourt

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Chris Fautley hears how one school packs groups of pupils off to France throughout the year

Henry V isn't the only visitor who had a good time at Agincourt, as at least 600 English schoolchildren will testify each year. Remarkably, they all hail from one school: Southlands Community Comprehensive in New Romney, Kent. But unlike Henry V, they are working in partnership with, not against, the French.

So, how do you get 600 students from Kent to France? Headteacher Eamonn Cahill and his colleagues have cracked it: buy a property, equip it as a residential study centre, and take them across in small groups throughout the year. To reduce costs, you also buy a coach and train staff to drive it.

Eamonn says he is a "passionate believer" in residential centres, and "a bit of a Francophile". "We thought, 'We want a study centre, so why not look for one in France,'" he says. After endless searching, they found success five years ago at Agincourt, now Azincourt, 48 kilometres south-east of Boulogne.

The centre, overlooking the battlefield, was formerly a restaurant. Now with an extension added, it has relaxation areas and a kitchen, and bedrooms with bunk beds. "Everything is bought and paid for," says Eamonn.

"We raised the money through business operations. No money came from allocation of funds from the DfES for use in the school." Trips for Years 7-9 last three days. Every Year 7 child goes, and in Years 8 and 9 it's optional. Older students are taken for study weekends. A Year 7 trip, inclusive of activities, typically costs pound;55 (subsidised because he wants everybody to go at least once). In Year 9 it's pound;90.

But the idea is definitely not for French teachers to go there to teach French. Rather, it is to enable children to experience the French way of life by interacting with the community. Naturally, they have to speak the language. Far removed from the "Brits abroad", there is little option in a village where the centre's two dozen students account for one-twelfth of its population.

"We are very much part of the community," says Eamonn. "We are totally integrated with them."

Under the supervision of Siobh n Stevens, an assistant head at the school, French speaker, and the centre's resident directrice, students live three days as French children. They cook, French style, in an open-plan kitchen - three kitchenettes enable "teams" to work simultaneously under supervision.

"They all think they are going to have pain au chocolat and croissants for breakfast," says Eamonn. "What they get is bread and jam - that's what most French children have." They also buy the ingredients - English "imports" are forbidden. A French shopping list is provided, and the students visit the village shop with Siobh n. Trips to larger supermarkets are also timetabled.

Activities frequently involve local children. In Year 7, the emphasis is on medieval history, with a visit to Azincourt museum. They also visit a nearby chateau to work with French vocational students. Eamonn estimates that Year 7 children learn at least 50 new words over three days. Year 8 swim with local children, and visit a fish market in taples, where they talk with fishmongers. They also go "tree walking" - climbing through trees using lines and safety harnesses. Instructors are French; Siobh

interprets, and nobody starts until they have understood the instructions.

"There's a motivation to learn key words," says Eamonn, and "there will always be language at the core." But this is not immersion and everything can be translated.

Year 9 try canoeing and circus skills - again with French instructors - and dining in an Azincourt restaurant. They also go orienteering at night with a local school; each team comprises two French and two English children.

Stephanie Stevens-Wade, in Year 9 and on her third visit, was preparing to go on to study GCSE French. For her, the best part was learning the language at a more advanced level and meeting new French students. "In class, you don't get the real feel of France," she says.

Katie-Marie Hardaker and Ollie Jones, also Year 9 and back at the house for their third visit, are not pursuing GCSE French but that doesn't mean they're not interested in improving their language skills. Ollie found canoeing instructions quite hard at first, but recognised certain words.

"I'll remember some of them," he says.

Katie-Marie Hardaker enjoyed the orienteering and found herself talking to a French instructor, learning about compasses. "I learned a lot there," she says.

But surely all this could be achieved on exchange trips? Eamonn and Siobh

point to the difficulty in finding suitable families, and the question of what is a suitable age for exchange candidates. For some, she says, exchange comes too late.

"There's a place for exchange programmes, but more and more we're twinning now," adds Eamonn. "We are trying to provide a totally different kind of experience that doesn't have the pitfalls of the old exchange programmes, but gives us all the benefits of having our own place and being part of the French community."

It's a two-way relationship. Parents are keen for their children to go to the study centre and, through the partnership, school and village are applying for European funding to triple Azincourt museum's size and turn it into a medieval folk centre. Southlands will support the museum through curriculum and translation material. Day trips will open the experience to thousands of French and English schoolchildren.

In a joint project with the French Tourist Board, Southlands will also use the medieval centre for residential work experience for students on vocational courses. Once it is completed, says Eamonn, they will be able to provide work experience for any student who wants it - even if they have never done French before. He feels that partnership is the way forward in Europe.

"It's about teamwork; it's about interaction; it's about us doing French things in France with the French," he says. Siobh n adds that students return home as different people - simply because they have been placed in so many challenging situations. "And they've learned some French as well," she says.

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