A partnership with big business is bringing home the importance of learning another language, writes Carolyn O'Grady
Emma and Kulwinder are sending an e-mail to the Paris-based communications centre of car manufacturer Peugeot. They are in an office at the company's Stoke site in Coventry, surrounded by company staff. Having received a message from a "Mr Whitten", who wants a Peugeot model 302, they write out an order in French.
His car has to be white, with power-steering, fog lamps and a few other important refinements. They add the customer's address and other details to the order form. "Click" - the message goes off, and in a matter of seconds they receive some new messages to process.
The two girls are part of a first-year GCSE group from Stoke Park School, a Coventry comprehensive, that is taking part in a programme organised at the Peugeot Partnership Centre, which aims to motivate pupils by showing them how French is used in the workplace. The e-mail simulation is part of the experience.
English children are notoriously difficult to convince of the need to learn languages, perhaps because they expect to find their language spoken wherever they go. But as our links to the European Union strengthen and companies become increasingly international, knowing one or more foreign languages becomes crucial.
But how do you get this across to pupils? One way is to take them to a workplace where French is regularly spoken. A French car firm with many French workers and large numbers of British employees who use French in their day-to-day business dealings is such a place, and in 1992 Peugeot, in partnership with the Coventry local education authority and the Education Business Partnership, set up a centre at its Stoke plant - mainly an administrative site - to provide work-related learning.
A classroom in a company, the centre occupies rooms next to Peugeot's own training facility, and pupils can see employees going to the French lessons the company provides for staff.
The centre is managed by former teacher Ray French. "Among our key objectives is to support the language curriculum and to motivate young people," he says. There are programmes on business studies, ICT, history, geography and English, and sessions are often followed by tours of the company's nearby Ryton Plant, where cars are manufactured.
The actual language teaching is done by Mike Bench, Coventry education authority's teacher and adviser for modern foreign languages. "As far as possible, I try and get them out into the company; they must do things they cannot do at school," he says. "Whatever we do, it has to take advantage of the fact that we are at Peugeot."
He begins the session for the Stoke Park pupils with a few useful phrases, followed by a video on Peugeot's history. The children are asked questions in French.
Divided into three groups, they are then allocated three different rotating activities, which includes a tour of the site. A set of directions in French guides them to the car showroom, restaurant and reception area. Here they are asked questions on what they have seen. As they walk around they can hear people speaking French, and their attention is drawn to signs and notices in the language.
For the e-mail link activity, pupils go to a neighbouring open plan office full of Peugeot staff - a real office - and, using the computers at a free desk, receive a letter requesting a specific make of car. This they commute into an order to send off.
In the third activity, pupils label a model of a car with the correct vocabulary. Each group also has to take a break and, with their teacher, go to get a drink. The request for the drink and subsequent conversation has to be in French, or, says Mike Bench, they would have to pay for it. All manage the exchange.
At the end of the session, he talks to the young people, emphasising the need to keep their French going. Peugeot is now one of the largest employers in Coventry, and Rolls Royce and Rover are now owned by German car manufacturers. A language is an important asset - "it's a life-long skill that you must hang on to, and improve".
Jenny Cole, a teacher at Stoke Park School, feels that the approach works:
"You can tell them till you're blue in the face: 'you need a language to get a job'. But they don't see it until they come to somewhere like Peugeot and find out for themselves."
Further information from the Peugeot Partnership Centre: 01203 884424 http:www.covebp.demon.co.uk