Rare opportunity

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady meets a group of students whose GCSE languages range from Arabic to Swahili

For 18 students at Robert Clack school, a 1,500-pupil comprehensive in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, getting their results for languages at GCSE in August meant something out of the ordinary. The difference between them and thousands of other students was that between them they had studied Italian, Swahili, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, Cantonese Chinese, Arabic and Spanish, languages not usually examined at this level in the UK.

The results were, as one teacher put it, "better than we dared to hope". Nine of the students got A grades, including three A*; five got Bs; two Cs; one an E and one a G. Other children at the school are preparing to take GCSEs in Asian languages including Punjabi and Urdu, probably next year. There is a wealth of linguistic competence in the UK that too often goes unacknowledged, says the Nuffield Language Inquiry, published last May, referring to the many pupils who are bilingual or multilingual as a result of their heritage. These results illustrate the point. Given a rare opportunity to achieve a qualification that will show future employers that they speak an often unacknowledged language fluently, the pupils shone.

"It's a way of raising achievement among ethnic minorities," says Clare Smith, Ethnic Minorities Travellers and Achievement Grant (EMTAG) support teacher at the school. "It means that pupils will have a GCSE qualification in English and one or more languages." Several of these young linguists are also studying other languages, for example French.

"As many of them took their languages exam in the year before the rest of their GCSEs, or even earlier, it has also given them advanced experience of the exams and raised their confidence in all areas." And, she emphasises, it demonstrates to students that their community language is valued by the school.

Funded by EMTAG, Robert Clack's community languages project began with a trawl through the school records to identify students who might have another language. The young people were contacted and asked about their linguistic abilities: how fluent were they? Could they read and write in another language? And finally, were they interested in doing a GCSE in that language? If they were, and no pressure was put on them, they were given a past GCSE paper at foundation or a higher level to see how they got on. These papers were assessed by community language officers at the Language Support Service or by EMTAG staff at the school.

On the basis of this the students were this year entered for GCSEs in eight languages not normally taught by the school (French is the usual language taught). Most had been in the country less than two years so the languge was fluent and fresh in their minds. The school, which has several Albanian speakers, would also have liked to offer Albanian, and after extensive research found a Scottish exam board prepared to assess it. Unfortunately, not enough students came forward nationally, so the idea fell through. Italian, which many Albanian speakers already know, was offered instead.

Robert Clack's examinations officer organised the exam schedule, including the oral test and the oral examiners were mainly found through the Language Support Service. Most pupils studied on their own with support from the school and the borough's language support staff, which included distributing and assessing test papers. Some students received after-school lessons arranged by the school and a few arranged private lessons. Vickie Chan's mother helped her with the Cantonese Chinese test papers. "My speaking is good, but I needed help with my writing," said the 15-year-old. Gokhan Evlat, aged 16, worked by himself and with his parents on test papers and brushed up his spoken Turkish by watching satellite television. Most said they found the exam fairly easy, though Mirjena Pullumbi, aged 14, whose first is language is Albanian, owned up to being "pretty scared when I saw the Italian paper". She need not have worried: she got an A grade.

Many already knew that their languages would be useful because they are using them in out-of-school and work-experience jobs. Dervis Devran, aged 15, for example, has been interpreting at the north London Turkish community centre. Elida Hoxha, aged 16, who took an Italian GCSE to add to her first language - Albanian - and her increasingly fluent English, has been working at a Barking support service for asylum seekers. Gokhan Evlat was asked to work at the Turkish embassy, but turned it down because he wants to work with computers. If that does not work out, he says, he will get a job in the tourist industry using his Turkish. It is good to have something concrete to show future employers, he says.

Clare Smith says the project involves a lot of work for the school and the language support service. "It was a team effort, requiring considerable commitment." But she is convinced it is worthwhile: "This is an untapped resource and the potential is enormous. We hope the linguistic skills they have demonstrated and proved will be useful when they join the economy in the future, and that eventually everyone will benefit from this initiative."

The school intends to continue with the project as long as there are pupils with community languages, says headmaster Paul Grant, and it is hoped that the project can be introduced in other schools in the borough.

For more information, contact Clare Smith at Robert Clack school, tel: 020 8270 4200

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