Harvey McGavin reports on an imaginative project designed to build pupils' confidence in using their speaking skills.
The cafeteria in El Pueblo de Leasowes is doing a roaring trade as pupils queue up to swap their paper pesetas for tortilla and pasteles.
There's no cold beer on tap and the floor's not strewn with cigarette ends and olive stones - or the cleaners would have a fit - but on a cold Friday afternoon in the Midlands, this is the nearest thing you'll find to a Spanish village.
Every Friday at Leasowes High School in Halesowen is a flexi-day, when the entire school takes a break from the normal timetable and each Year concentrates on a single subject. The day-long curriculum events began five years ago with Design Races - against the clock teamwork problem-solving - and Newspaper Days. These have evolved so that every subject now has a regular slot on the rota.
The days are popular with staff and students alike, and were praised in the school's OFSTED report as an outstanding feature of the curriculum. The concept is relatively common in America but principal John Howells believes Leasowes is the only school in the UK to offer such a welcome addition to the working week. "We found that the children get very involved in what they are doing and we were very impressed with the quality of their work. It's a whole different kind of teaching and learning styles - not the same as a normal classroom - and very task based."
Modern languages are well suited to the system, allowing for all kinds of activities which cannot be squeezed into the ordinary timetable. A packed itinerary gives plenty of opportunity for pupils to practise what they have learned in their weekly lessons and overcome shyness in speaking. It takes the language out of the textbook and into a realistic setting where pupils have to think on their feet and use their heads.
The day trip to El Pueblo begins with each group forming a family unit and choosing Spanish names for themselves. This being Spain, they have to carry ID cards which are filled in before they can set off. All students are issued with a "guia turistica", including useful phrases and quiz sections. Then, after ordering a cafe con leche at the cafeteria (no English spoken here) they will pay a visit to the supermarket and casino, and take in the sights with an clue-driven excursion round the school grounds.
The culture comes courtesy of language teacher and flamenco fan Cathy Savidge. She begins by explaining some of the history behind Spain's national dance.
After a short video to provide inspiration and a rudimentary lesson in some simple steps, the group are stamping their feet, clapping their hands and spinning around with all the vigour, if not quite the skill, of true Andalucians. "If you understand more about the culture it makes you want to learn more about the language," she says. "It's sometimes difficult to get across what the culture is like. But this at least gives the pupils a flavour of it."
No holiday is complete without a postcard home, and there are prizes for the best ones that drop in the authentically painted red and yellow buzon. Outstanding written work and oral presentations are also rewarded with certificates.
Spanish teacher Lisa Manna-Smith reckons flexi-days devoted to the language, although they are held only three or four times a year, do wonders for her pupils' fluency. Compared with a weekly teaching time of just 90 minutes, five hours immersed in the language and its culture has proved to be a real boost to their ability and vocabulary.
"Their fluency has improved and it increases their confidence. It's amazing how much Spanish they pick up. Quite a few of them have been to Spain and I always tell them 'you can't expect to speak English and the Spanish really like it if you make an effort'.
"There's a time and a place for grammar and it's important that they know the structure of the language. But the most important thing is actually speaking the language. And this is wonderful - it's rewarding for me to see them pushing their language skills and I think they enjoy it more."
The Pueblo theme day was adapted from similar activities in French (Leasoweville) and German (Leasowestadt) after Spanish was first introduced into the school as a second language option three years ago. The local bye laws are particularly strict in Leasoweville where anyone found speaking English can be arrested by the local gendarme and thrown into jail. The concept has also been extended for Urdu learners, who "visit" Leasoweshehar.
Teamwork is of the essence and points are awarded for each family group rather than individual. It's a teacher and time-intensive practice and staff put in extra hours of preparation.
In another part of the school it's a French flexi-day. In one classroom pupils are finding out about festivals and perfumes, writing jingles and tourist brochures, and playing a board game.
A group next door is navigating through a computer programme based on a holiday in the French town of Granville. Information technology skills are emphasised and the previous week's German flexi-day included a chance for pupils to find out more about the country by accessing sites on the Internet.
Head of languages Christine Horswell explains the pupils' evident enthusiasm: "We try to create a social context for the children's learning so that they enjoy it. It's a lot more meaningful for them to have different situations in which to practise their language skills."
Pupils take on role playing exercises with gusto and it's not unusual for them to work through their lunch breaks in order to get the work done.
"They tend to take the initiative because they are given a lot of freedom. We try to put it into context by not just using computers but getting them to read and speak. It's all about confidence building and the children do get a lot more out of it in personal terms. These are skills for life."
The flexi-day at Leasowes school is one of four projects in the Midlands which come under the unwieldy umbrella of "Personal Effectiveness through Progression in modern Languages."
Phil Dahl, of Dudley Education Advisory service, who oversees the scheme, hopes its success will attract further funding and spur on similar initiatives. Even though the introduction of the national curriculum shifted assessment towards skills, he argues that "we are still stuck on assessing content".
Enjoyable and realistic language activities can help overcome shyness. "We hope they will equip people with real competence," he says. "We need to build on this if we are really talking seriously about improving our ability as a nation."
He envisages the network growing within the next few years to around 40 or 50 schools sharing resources and swapping good practice to tackle Britain's endemic monolingualism. "We will have a bank of practical materials and examples that show how this approach is fundamental in giving children real ability."
The other participating schools are Robert Manning School, Lincolnshire (a project on the moral issues affecting young people in society), Lighthall School, Solihull (improving performance by pupil self assessment) and Woodway Park school, Coventry, which has forged links with the local car plant, owned by Peugeot who, incidentally require all their employees to learn French. Post-16 students of both GNVQs and A-levels spend eight weeks at the factory's partnership centre on a carousel of activities, interviewing staff, finding out about the company's history, communicating by e-mail with Peugeot's main plant outside Paris, and presenting their findings to an audience of employees.
Modern languages adviser Mike Bench says that it's an ideal way of implementing the school's requirement for every post-16 course to contain an element of language learning. "The idea is to find out as much as possible about Peugeot as they can. They have to do the interviews, organise the presentation, send their electronic mail messages and conduct the whole exercise using French. The students really take to it."
For more details about the West Midlands project contact Phil Dahl, tel: 01384 634155, fax: 01384 410436; for an information sheet send an SAE to Phil Dahl, Personal Effectiveness Through Modern Languages, Saltwells EDC, Bowling Green Road, Netherton, Dudley DY2 9LY