Speak as your find;Subject of the week;Modern languages

6th March 1998 at 00:00
Japanese helps pupils prepare for high-tech jobs. French gives a grounding for catering work. Bengali, Punjabi and Gujerati are on offer for a multi-ethnic population. All are taught in a highly-focused language programme that has won a DTI award for a Cardiff school.

Alison Thomas reports

The two schools could hardly be more different. One enjoys a national reputation for academic excellence, is heavily oversubscribed and many of its pupils are the offspring of senior professionals in multinational com-panies. The other is an inner-city 11-19 comprehensive serving an area of high unemployment with an ethnic mix of 30 nationalities and half its pupils on free school meals.

At first glance, then, Fitzalan High School in Cardiff's docklands has little chance of emulating the prestigious Anglo European School in Ingatestone, Essex. A closer look reveals that the two establishment have much in common.

Both draw strength from the diversity of their students' backgrounds to encourage sensitivity, open-mindedness and tolerance. Both offer a range of languages, have close links with schools abroad and organise regular visits, exchanges and work-experience. Most significantly, both ensure that their foreign language provision is an integral part of the whole-school curriculum and will give their students a positive advantage when they enter the world of work.

This focused approach towards language learning together with the international ethos of the schools has earned them both a top award from the Department of Trade and Industry National Languages for Export Campaign: the Anglo European School in 1996, Fitzalan High last October.

Launched in 1994, this campaign aims to heighten awareness of the importance of language skills and cultural sensitivity in the increasingly global world of trade. Most of the awards are for companies or language training providers, but one - sponsored by the Associated Examining Board - is open to schools or colleges in the five to 19 age range that have developed an innovative foreign language curriculum designed to enhance understanding of overseas business, language or culture.

"It's not just a question of tacking on nondescript language modules to an existing curriculum," explains DTI language consultant Professor Stephen Hagen. "The language learning has to be related to the needs of companies and future employees." This attitude lies at the heart of Fitzalan's approach, both to languages and the curriculum as a whole. Hotel and catering, leisure and tourism, manufacturing, business studies - all are areas which offer good job opportunities locally, and all figure on the school's extensive range of vocational courses.

With the M4 corridor only a few miles away, technology and IT also enjoy a high profile. Japan's investment in the area continues to grow, and sixth-formers now have the opportunity to study Japanese.

"This isn't just for language specialists," explains headteacher Angus Dunphy. "People at all grades in industry benefit from improved communication skills, so the course is open to anyone who shows an interest."

For the same reason, students taking hotel and catering or technology may be encouraged to improve their French, while a business studies course might include an element of Arabic.

Welsh is also considered to be of prime importance for anyone seeking employment locally. Although the language will not be compulsory at key stage 4 in Wales until 1999, at Fitzalan High this has been the case for several years. "All our pupils are Welsh," insists Mr Dunphy. "The fact that they may speak another language or belong to another culture is a bonus. And although we are an English-medium school, we have taken part in National Eisteddfodau since 1993 and won prizes."

This does not mean the school neglects its pupils' ethnic roots. The harmonious relationships within the school and with the wider community were recognised with a Schools' Curriculum Award last April. They are also evident in the school's foreign language provision. As well as French, German and Welsh, Arabic, Punjabi, Gujerati, and Bengali are taught to GCSE and A-level by specialist teachers, and Somali would be added if there was an appropriate syllabus.

This is something Mr Dunphy feels strongly about, and he is fighting the Northern Examinions and Assessment Board's proposal to withdraw A-level Bengali in 1998. "It's being done on the grounds of cost, but are we not throwing away a natural resource?" he asks. "We need more diversity not less, and these languages are tremendously useful - not only in the world of international trade, but back home too - for policemen and women, social workers and all sorts of people."

Mr Dunphy - not a linguist himself - says his pupils "put him to shame". Collecting the DTI award last October, he took two sixth-formers with him: Ahmed Ibrahim is bilingual in Somali and English, can get by in Arabic and has already passed A-level French. Catrine Schmidt is one of three Norwegians spending a year at the school to improve her English while studying AS-levels.

The benefits for Catrine are obvious, but what of Fitzalan? "Having Norwegian students living and working with us helps to broaden our vision," says Mr Dunphy. "It's also a two-way link. Our health and social care group has already visited Bergen to compare the two systems as part of their coursework and we are now setting up another closely-structured project for the manufacturing group.

"We have a partner school in Italy too, and hope soon to develop something similar there. I don't see why inner-city kids shouldn't have the opportunity to see Europe."

National Languages for Export Campaign, Kingsgate House, 66-74 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6SW Tel: 0171 215 8146 Fax: 0171 215 4856

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