Primary couleurs

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Allez allez! A Warrington comp is leading the way in teaching languages to juniors. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Lymm high school, Warrington.

School type: 11-18 voluntary-controlled comprehensive.

Proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals: 2.5 per cent.

Improved results: More than 84 per cent gained five or more A* to Cs at GCSE, up from 60 per cent in 1998.

Five years ago Lymm high school began working with all its feeder schools so that it could give under-11s a head start in languages.

Today the approach is reaping rewards as children tackle modern languages in Year 7 with confidence, says headteacher Roger Lounds.

"It has demystified languages at key stage 3," he says. "Youngsters are coming to the high school having French and German on their timetable and not wondering what it is.

"When the teacher asks their name in French or German, they can answer without feeling embarrassed because they have already done it. It has generated a more positive approach to languages and keeps more kids on board."

Lymm high school is an 11-18 comprehensive, formed in the mid-1980s through an amalgamation of a former grammar school and secondary modern. It serves a relatively affluent rural area around the town of Lymm in Warrington.

The school has seen its roll surge in recent years and now has 1,914 pupils. Only 47 children are eligible for free school meals and 30 for educational maintenance allowances.

Its pupils do well in exams. This year more than 84 per cent got five Cs or better at GCSE, whereas six years ago the figure was 60 per cent. Languages are compulsory throughout the school. In Year 7 all pupils learn French and German and in Year 8 they can add Italian or Spanish in after-school sessions.

As well as taking either French or German at GCSE, pupils also have the option of GCSE Spanish or Italian. The school offers Saturday morning and Easter school language classes.

In the sixth form, in addition to AS and A2 courses in those three languages, students can take beginners' courses in other languages including Russian, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

The school has also developed a self-study course for sixth formers called Languages for All. All Year 12 students have to complete an accredited self-study course in a language of their choice. This is done in their own time, using ICT under staff supervision.

The school has even started building languages into its vocational courses.

This year for the first time, students taking BTEC leisure and tourism will also learn Spanish, and some of the units will be delivered during a week in Tenerife, where they have to speak the language.

Lymm was one of the first wave of colleges to win specialist language status in 1996.In 1999 it began to focus on language work with feeder schools, making it a pioneer of a national move to primary languages: the Government has said that by 2010 all primaries will have to provide an experience of language learning to pupils aged seven-11.

The first step was to negotiate time for languages at the area's nine primaries. But with the schools split between Cheshire and Warrington education authorities, ranging in size from 400 to 98 pupils, and under pressure over Sats, this was not plain sailing, admits Mr Lounds.

"Some of them have very few staff, and there are co-ordinators for maths, English, science, technology and everything else," he says. "And then the head comes along and says there's a bright idea come from the high school."

The initiative was spearheaded by the school's then languages development manager Christine Ormond, who has since moved on, and classroom assistant Margaret Wesley, a languages graduate and trained teacher.

They began offering small taster sessions in languages including French, German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish and Italian. The school then started weekly sessions in French and German for Year 6 to help ease the transition to secondary.

The aim was to make primaries self-sufficient, so the school began training primary staff to teach languages - some of whom had only a smattering of language knowledge themselves.

Sessions were made as entertaining and interactive as possible. They covered the basics, such as names, ages, where you live, numbers, colours and animals. As there were no materials, Mrs Ormond had to write many of them herself.

Now four primaries have extended classes to include pupils as young as seven and eight a taste of Spanish.

Another offshoot has been the development of a staff network which includes secondary and primary teachers, foreign language assistants, classroom assistants and trainee teachers.

One feeder school is Little Bollington C of E primary in Altrincham, Cheshire, which has just 98 children and four staff. Teaching head Caroline Johnstone delivers weekly French sessions to Year 6s, while Lymm staff come in to teach German.

Mrs Johnstone trained to teach French to Year 6, even though she admits her own command of the language was somewhat lacking. "I only did it up to O-level and that was it, apart from some rusty French on holiday," she says.

But she says Lymm high's training let her brush up on the basics and how to teach them. The school is now looking at expanding classes to younger pupils.

"In the early days we had some colleagues who couldn't possibly fit it in because of Sats. But we said it's worth it - let's play around with the timetable and see what we can do with it."

She says it has given her pupils a helping hand in transition between key stages 2 and 3. "They are generally much more confident when they go up to the high school. And they're enthusiastic because it's fun."

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