Jonathan Croall on how Dartford Grammar School, tipped to be one of the first language colleges, is forging international links.
When it comes to modern languages, Dartford Grammar School for Boys is no newcomer to innovation. In 1875, 300 years after its foundation, the new headteacher, Lewis Harris, in a bid to market the school more widely, introduced the novel idea of thestudents learning natural sciences in French.
Today the school, with its good exam results and reputation for language provision, continues to be among the pioneers. Widely tipped to be in the first batch of the new language colleges, the names of which the Government is likely to announce next week, it's on the point of setting up an international studies centre, for use both by the school and the wider community.
At present, apart from compulsory Latin in Year 7, all the boys learn one modern language - French, German or Spanish - and many take two. But before too long the target will be three, and Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Russian and Chinese will be on offer once the new centre is opened. Modern languages would then take as much as 20 per cent of some students' timetable.
Unusually, all boys in Year 12 also take a course in contemporary European studies. "The boys' lives and careers are increasingly going to be international," says headteacher Tony Smith. "We want them to think of themselves not just as English, but as European. For that they need to understand and be understood in a number of different languages."
The new centre will contain a state-of-the-art multimedia laboratory, with the latest satellite, computer and video-conferencing equipment being installed, and available for use by the students during the day and by local people in the evenings and at weekends.
The school will also be developing and marketing its own distance-learning packages that will enable the students to learn additional languages through home study. At present much of the teaching is by formal classroom methods, which the staff believe holds many students back.
"We want to allow them to make as much individual progress as possible, and not be dependent on the teacher and the rest of the class," says head of languages Lynn Morgan. "By using all the technology that's available, they'll be able to become more autonomous, and take much more responsibility for their own learning."
Students already use plenty of technology: they have access to CD-Rom, interactive CD, interactive video and a variety of audio-visual equipment. But one of the most useful facilities for languages work is undoubtedly the school's satellite-receiving equipment.
This gives the students access to scores of terrestrial stations in France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Holland, making it relatively easy for them to use "authentic" and up-to-date material such as news and documentaries as aids to language learning.
Many bring along blank tapes for specific items to be recorded by the technician, which they can then use in their own time at home. One programme frequently made use of is Euronews, where the audio element can be received in English, French or German as required.
The school has the advantage of having three French nationals on its staff, and ensures that students have as much contact as possible with native speakers - an opportunity likely to be dramatically extended once the video-conferencing facility is available, when the students will be able to practice their conversational skills with students in foreign schools.
Great store is put on the school's extensive exchange scheme. This has built up gradually over the past eight years, and now involves exchanges with seven twinned European schools - in France, Germany, Netherlands and the Czech Republic (a link with a school in Tblisi, Georgia was ended when the Foreign Office suggested it was too dangerous to continue). Spending time in these schools has been stimulating for staff as well as for the students.
A different kind of exchange provides the students with a week's work experience in companies in Rotterdam, Basle and Prague. Each student is accompanied during his stay there by a student of the host country who is learning English, which means there is no language problem.
Geographically close to Europe, Dartford will be a fast-developing area over the next few years, with the new Channel link station at Eppsfleet, an additional campus for Greenwich University, a science park and a new business park all being set up within five miles of the school. All this will help to make the town a focus for international development and, in Tony Smith's view, enable the school to offer valuable services for language learning to the growing local business community. "Our ethos will be increasingly international," he says.
One of the features of the new centre that will undoubtedly help to attract such users will be a resource bank of cultural and business information on companies and countries throughout Europe and the Middle East, which is also likely to be of immense practical use to the students. To pay for this major development, the school has raised Pounds 100,000 in sponsorship money from national companies involved in transport and telecommunications. "It's a new initiative which caught their imagination," Tony Smith says.
If the school is granted language college status, a matching Pounds 100, 000 for capital improvements will be provided by the Government, together with an annual grant which, in the first full year, will amount to a further Pounds 98,000.
And if it fails to do so? "The sponsorship is secure and the centre will still go ahead," Tony Smith says. "It will just all happen more gradually."