The mercredi bunch

5th February 1999 at 00:00
If it's Wednesay, it must be...time for another lesson in an English school. Lynn O'Shea meets a group of Calais pupils who travel through the Channel Tunnel once a week

Francois, Ludwig, Natacha..." every Wednesday the roll-call at St Mary's Westbrook school in Folkestone, Kent, is boosted by seven, when a party of French primary children arrives for lessons. Some of them don't speak a word of English, but for one day a week they sit alongside their English counterparts for the whole day.

It's a practical example of the benefits of living within minutes of the Channel Tunnel, with the English school looking to France to help break down barriers between countries. While the French children benefit enormously from immersion in a foreign language, the English pupils find it a great advantage too.

In the playground, the children play together happily, and if there is a problem in understanding, it's soon overcome with a bit of miming. Assistant head Carola Timney, who set up the scheme, says: "We don't attach each French child to an English one. They make their own friends and already they are inviting each other back to their homes.

"Our children have benefited so much in terms of friendships and breaking down prejudices. It would be easy for them to turn their backs on the French children but they are very welcoming. They have learned that language need not be a barrier."

The same applies in the classroom, where the French children enjoy aspects of the English timetable which differ from their own. "The school system is more rigid in France. They don't have practical science until they are in secondary school, so they love coming here and handling Bunsen burners," says Mrs Timney.

Computing, PE, art - and, of course, French - all provide opportunities for working and learning together. "For our children, the French language and culture has suddenly come alive. It's no longer just textbook stuff," says Mrs Timney.

Teachers in all classes treat the visitors in the same way as their own pupils - only in extreme cases will they speak French or ask one of their French-speaking pupils to explain something.

Year 2 teacher Angela Whawell doesn't speak French, and has two six-year-old French girls in her class on Wednesdays. Neither speaks English but she manages to teach them without any problems. "There is a lot of miming to begin with, and occasionally one of the English girls who speaks French is brought in to translate. Often I will put a French child with an English child to do a task or play a game, and they both learn a lot that way."

The school, an independent co-educational day and boarding school, bases its teaching around the national curriculum and has 220 pupils up to 16. With a maximum class size of 20, it can easily absorb its weekly French pupils.

"I think 50 per cent of this generation are going to find their future in Europe - already our older children do their work experience in France," says Mrs Timney, a fluent French speaker.

The school also has a 14-year-old weekly boarder from Calais whose parents want her to learn English. She commutes through the tunnel every Monday and returns home on Friday night.

As for the mercredi pupils, Mrs Timney gets up at 4.30am every Wednesday and takes the school minibus through the tunnel to pick up the six to 11-year-olds from the tunnel terminus. Because the Folkestone school is five minutes from the tunnel entrance - and because of the time difference between the two countries - she can have them in Folkestone for morning assembly.

Wednesday is a day off for primary schools in France - designated a "club" day for sports and other activities - so the children don't miss out on their own lessons.

The scheme began two years ago, when St Mary's Westbrook set up a pilot scheme with a Calais school, Jeanne D'Arc. Despite its success, the French education authorities refused to sanction the project because of fears over insurance. "Although they liked the project in principle, they did not want us working directly with a school. It was very disappointing. They suggested we contact parents individually instead,'' says Mrs Timney.

That's just what she did. "We printed leaflets in French, put some in the tunnel passenger terminals and distributed others in clubs and organisations around Calais." The response was positive and immediate. "We got 10 children for our first year," she says.

The scheme isn't reciprocal, as class sizes in most French schools are too large to take extra pupils. The French parents pay 150 francs (about pound;16.50) a day to cover travel, tuition and lunch, so the cost to the school is minimal. Mrs Timney believes class sizes in state schools would be the only barrier to having other schools follow her example.

The school has maintained links with Jeanne D'Arc school, joining its annual two-week "ecole de neige", when the Calais school takes its pupils to a chalet in the French Alps for classroom and skiing lessons. This winter, 20 children from Folkestone will be on the trip. For the future, the school plans to set up football fixtures and other activities with Jeanne D'Arc.

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