For more than 20 years and at three schools, Barbara Barron has been persuading pupils to write letters to France, and they have been getting some remarkable replies. For this "innovation in the teaching and learning of languages", she has won for Cardinal Newman Middle School in Cowley, Oxford, the 1996 Mary Glasgow Language Trust School Award, which was announced last month.
The concept is simple, the execution more demanding. Ms Barron first thought of the idea in 1975 when she was teaching at St Paul's school (now called All Saints) in Sheffield. She noticed that pupils found it difficult to see the point of writing in French. "I suggested to one pupil that he write to the French president - it was Giscard d'Estaing at the time - and to our surprise and delight a reply was received, not actually from him but from his chef de cabinet," she explains.
After a break from teaching, she returned to the Dragon School in Oxford. She tried the idea out again with a fourth-stream group. They wrote to President Mitterrand and received a rather formal reply. So they tried Madame Mitterrand. She sent a charming picture of herself, a hand-written card, four books for the library and a tape of a musical, Le Petit Poucet.
After that, writing to France went into overdrive and the next target was bakeries, with requests for recipes, best-selling items, and questions about hours of opening, numbers of customers and much else besides. Replies flooded in, frequently with the questions meticulously answered one by one.
"We would open the letters in the lesson and the pupils would read them out as best they could," she says. "The idea worked well at the Dragon even though this was not the top stream. However, some of the children's parents had houses in France and they were sophisticated enough to notice that the gardeners sometimes spoke with a strong local accent."
In 1993 Ms Barron joined Cardinal Newman, where she is the only French specialist in a school for 9 to 13-year-olds with about 400 pupils. She "impulsively" took on the task of getting her 120 Year 7 pupils to do a letter each. The letters were sent to a variety of people, from famous footballers, such as Michel Platini, to the director of a Paris orchestra,to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland Paris.
The letters were carefully constructed. "They were mixed-ability classes and so there was some differentiation in the way the task was done. Each letter began with a paragraph about the sender - Je m'appelle; j'ai trois soeurs; j'adore Manchester United - and so on. Then came a paragraph about Oxford, often based on work they had already done about French towns and cities. And the final paragraph consisted of questions which allowed them to use vous as in 'A quelle heure vous commencez et finissez votre travail?' We would finish with the usual formal courtesies. "
Ms Barron was determined that every letter should be absolutely correct. This meant children doing several drafts and she found it useful to photocopy the original version so the pupil could compare it with the finished letter.
All the letters were sent and very soon all lessons would begin with the excited question: "Il y a une lettre, madame?" Replies came in from the Paris orchestra, Michel Platini, Poulain chocolates, with delicious enclosures, l'Ecole du Cirque, and even from the Ritz, with a menu.
This success created great excitement about letter-writing in the school and Ms Barron had to think up another 100 addresses the next year. She decided that it would be good to write to every department in France and the children drew lots for which one to address. This went well and many signed photos of mayors came across the Channel.
Last year she focused on three towns: one in the Ardche, one in the Vosges and Marseille, the home town of her student on teaching practice. "We thought we could write to the butcher, the baker, the doctor, the dentist, the hairdresser and so on," she says. It was also a great success. Kilos of sweets and handmade chocolates appeared in the classroom.This year they are going to get their addresses from the Minitel and from personal contacts in France.
Ms Barron and the school received #163;1,000 cheque for the Mary Glasgow award at a champagne and petit fours reception. It also looks as though she will have to think up an awful lot of addresses in the years to come. She has a few suggestions for other teachers who want to try out the idea: "It's very important to be prepared for disappointments - about two-thirds of our letters get no reply. And you have to be prepared for the fact that some of the correspondents will want to come to the school and see the children. We've got some coming shortly."