An award-winning business partnership scheme gives pupils a taste of talking in French to real purpose. Carolyn O'Grady reports
Once a fortnight Massooma Sarrwar, Salma Begum, Rina Begum and Rojina Tahid leave Mulberry School in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where unemployment and other indicators of social deprivation are very high on the scale, and make their way to another world just a few tube stops away: the affluent City of London and the spectacular offices of the international law firm Herbert Smith.
They walk through the vast entry hall, through security, up the long escalator to the Herbert Smith reception. They are then directed to a conference room with a view over the city. The purpose of their visit? To improve their French and their motivation for learning it by working with mentors from the company.
The four students are taking part in Language Liaison, a mentoring scheme mainly for Year 10 language students in three Tower Hamlets' schools. It is organised by the schools and Herbert Smith in conjunction with Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership, and won a European Award for Languages in 2002. The scheme is now being extended to other Tower Hamlets schools and two more city companies.
Raising awareness of career opportunities for people with languages is one aim of the scheme. Languages are important to Herbert Smith. The company also has offices in Paris, Brussels and Moscow, and alliances with businesses throughout the world. Its employees have the chance to work abroad and are often involved in transactions with other countries.
Many teachers feel it is important that British school children know jobs such as these exist as it helps them value multi-lingualism and counters an over-reliance on English. This year, volunteer mentors from Herbert Smith have been working with seven groups learning French and four groups learning Spanish. Each consists of four or five students who work with two or three mentors. They usually attend for a year, though it may be longer.
The first 45-minute session is an ice-breaker, but most sessions are spent learning about the language. It's done in an informal way. "We're not sitting here with the GCSE syllabus," says mentor Mark Stevens. "We want to convey enthusiasm for using the language."
At their second session Massooma and her fellow students discussed what they were doing in class and Mark, together with mentor Charmian Ingham, gave them a lesson on accents - including the acute and the grave - and helped them look for patterns. They also went over some of the work they would be doing in school the following week, "to give them a little edge", says Charmian.
Although the four were initially nervous about using French, they gradually relaxed and became more confident. They may play word games and do role-plays, use the internet or even phone a member of the company in the Paris office to speak French. All students on the course also get the chance to go on a day-trip abroad. Last year it was to France.
Oaklands School has been involved in the scheme for three years. "I didn't expect it to be so relaxed," says student Tom Kora, who is doing sessions in Spanish. "They treat you like one of them and it makes you feel more confident."
"They really try to make a good job of us," says Kemin Ng. "To them it's more than something they have to do." All the students agree it will give them an advantage in their GCSEs.
"They improve their speaking skills and gain confidence," says Natalie Berger, Oaklands' head of languages. "The mentors are quite young and the language they use is different from what we use here - more colloquial.
They develop students' ability to go further than in class. They learn how to have fun with language, how to play with words and make jokes. Apart from visiting the country it's the best way I have come across to improve students' spoken language".
And importantly, she adds: "They also see that languages can give you access to high-profile careers and jobs in a really impressive building."
There are also broader gains: "Students have to meet up as a group, get to the company themselves, get past security and meet new people. They are learning independence, organisation skills and team-work."
The mentoring scheme has proved a popular option - this year all the school's Spanish learners having applied to be involved, she says.
And, of course, it has advantages for Herbert Smith as well. They are eager to recruit from the local community and hope that some students may remember their time there. It also "adds a human touch to the office day", says Charmian.
For more information on the European Award for Languages, a Europe-wide initiative supported by the EU and the DfES, contact the Centre for Information on Language Teaching Tel: 020 7379 5101
Individual schools thinking of approaching companies to set up a languages partnership, or seeking support from their education authority andor local education business partnership, will find these tips useful:l School and company have to be prepared to invest a lot of time and energy. The company has to be sure that it has sufficient staff who are willing to spend time working with schools on a voluntary basis
* The teacher in charge of the scheme and the company representative should develop an effective communication strategy. Natalie Berger of Oaklands School has regular meetings and frequent email contact with Jenny Stainsby, the co-ordinator at Herbert Smith
* The structure of the sessions can be informal, but appears to be more effective with GCSE students if linked to course work
* Inform parents of the benefits of the scheme and how it will work.
Consider carefully how the children will get to and from the company; the school should pay for any transport costs involved
* It's valuable for students to receive a certificate at the end of the course, which can go in their National Record of Achievement.