Spanish adds a splash of colour to Hamilton
A colourful welcome on the wall in eight different languages greets the visitor to John Ogilvie High in Hamilton. But along the corridors and in the classrooms, it is Spanish that carries the day. Bilingual signs identify the departamento de idiomas, the sala de fotocopias and of course the despacho del director - the headteacher's office.
The school has had connections with the town of Vila-Real since 2004, when its football team played Celtic. The father of a young boy who died just before the match was so inspired by the camaraderie between both sets of fans, that he set up the Submari Celtic Supporters Club.
"A hundred of their supporters gave a substantial sum to Yorkhill Hospital's cancer care unit. Our school was in the delegation which welcomed them, and the links have kept on growing," says headteacher Eddie Morrison.
At first, these took the form of day trips to the town in north-east Spain, during the school's annual trip to the Costa Dorada. Activities would be organised for the pupils, says Linda Orr, principal teacher of modern languages. "We were met by the mayor, appeared in the local press and were interviewed on local TV."
Building on these links, the first exchange visit with the town's Francisco Tarrega High was organised in 2007, when two dozen Vila-Real pupils and teachers came to live in Hamilton, and take part in activities and lessons at the school. "Last year, we took a similar number of our pupils there," says Mrs Orr. "It was the time of the local fiesta, an unforgettable experience for our pupils."
There was a blend of excitement and security, says Ashley Wilmot, S5. "They stay up late, but you feel safe walking around after dark. They all knew about the Scottish children, and everyone was looking out for you. But it was natural for children to walk around safely."
It was a child-friendly culture, agrees Angelle McCluskey. "They treat young people with respect and they get it back. As a wee example, they let dozens of schoolchildren, all trying different flavours, into an ice-cream shop at the same time. You'd never get that here.
"It was also laid-back, which I loved. They spoke more quickly than we're used to, though. So at first you had to adjust to pace and accent. But when you got it, it made a big difference to your Spanish - made the exams easier too, because our teachers don't speak as fast."
Despite the size of the town (population 49,000), everyone seemed to know each other, says Ashley. "Work and school stop in the afternoon for dinner. They make a big thing of families all sitting down together. Here we don't always see our dads at mealtimes as they're working."
Apart from pace and accent, the language came as a surprise to Angelle. "There are four official languages in Spain, as well as Castellano, what we call Spanish. That was new to me. "We visited museums, aquariums and architectural sites. They're really into ceramics, so you walk down the street and there are tiles everywhere. It was beautiful the way the light shone on them. We don't have that colour in our lives."
More Spanish colour is coming to Hamilton this year, says Mrs Orr. "As well as exchange visits between the schools, now an annual event, we're also working with South Lanarkshire to welcome students in vocational education from a college in the nearby town of Amposta. That link came through a teacher at the college - Julio Boixader - who lives in Vila-Real and helped build friendships with our school."
In this new venture, the work-placement part of students' courses will be spent in South Lanarkshire, with John Ogilvie High and the local authority helping to them find work and accommodation, and being friendly faces in a foreign land.
"The Catalan authorities tried to set it up in England but their local authorities weren't as interested," says Mrs Orr. "If all goes well, we'll arrange a similar visit to Amposta.
"All these contacts are wonderful for our pupils, and not just those who go to Spain. When the Spanish students came here, we spread them around classes and years, and youngsters who'd been reluctant to speak Spanish discovered they could communicate readily. The whole school was buzzing."
THE GOOD AND BAD OF DIFFERENCES
The popularity of Spanish in Scotland's schools is steadily growing, says Manuel Balaguer, language adviser in the education department of the Spanish Consulate General. Numbers of students sitting exams from Access to Advanced Higher in French and German have fallen sharply over the past six years. "But in Spanish, they've risen by 39 per cent."
Support and resources are available from Senor Balaguer and his colleagues, for schools active in Spanish and those interested in becoming so. "We visit schools and authorities to give talks," he says. "We set up courses for teachers, on our own and in collaboration with universities. We prepare and provide teaching resources, which are available free to primary and secondary teachers.
Regarding the differences in culture mentioned by the pupils, Sr Balaguer says: "We are more informal than you - and you are more informal than the English. In Spain, teachers don't wear a tie and would be called by their Christian name. But different does not necessarily mean better. Take uniforms, which our pupils don't wear. Scottish pupils might like that. But it makes it easy to tell whose parents have money. "There are good and bad things about every difference."
Manuel Balaguer Carmona, Consejeria de Educacion, Consulado General de Espana. www.educacion.esexterioruk T: 0131 220 0624; E: email@example.com.