Waving it ALL goodbye

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Christine Wilding, the leading voice of language teachers, is moving on. Gerald Haigh assesses her impact

Staff at the Association for Language Learning headquarters in Rugby had been making collages. It was the sort of activity so beloved of management training courses, in which subjects make revealing "pictures" of themselves using cut-out magazine images and words.

Outgoing director of the Association for Language Learning Christine Wilding's selection of images was mostly as you would expect - something bright and whirly for the brain, a tightrope walker, a rock climber, a pair of hands releasing a dove. Among the stuck-on pictures, though, one particularly caught the eye. It was a clear symbol of her commitment to efficiency and quality - a photograph of management guru Tom Peters.

A key theme of Ms Wilding's directorship has been administrative excellence, even though the association depends heavily on the goodwill and hard work of its members. "I don't like to think of it as a business," she says, "but even a charity has to be viable. Sometimes people don't like to hear that, and it can be a problem."

She became director (up to last year the title was secretary general) of the association in circumstances that demanded considerable organisational skill. Up to 1990, there were no fewer than seven subject associations looking after modern languages teachers - two "umbrella" groups (The Modern Languages Association and the British Association of Language Teachers) and one each for German, Italian, Russian, Spanish with Portuguese, and Dutch.

The task of welding them together, encouraged by the then Department for Education, which wanted one consultative group for the national curriculum, was delicate, carried out over several years by a working party of which Ms Wilding was secretary.

Brian Page, who became the ALL's first president in 1990, recalls Ms Wilding's contribution during that time. "She's a brilliant organiser - a live wire. No detail escapes her notice." This year's president, Margaret Tumber, is similarly full of admiration for the way Ms Wilding has kept ahead of the game as ALL has grown.

"She's seen it through a period of vast change, and this has meant a huge change for Christine as well - she's had to grow from being a volunteer secretary to become a professional director. She's managed this with great commitment," she says.

Ms Wilding's ears were opened to the the reality of other languages when, as a 12-year-old in Sussex, she went on a French exchange. "I remember being in a car with the family and saying 'Les arbres sont tres verts'. And the code worked - I got a response," she says.

Later, as a 16-year-old girl guide, she met Italians in the United Kingdom and attended an event in Italy. She decided to learn what was to become her preferred foreign language. Within three years she had A-level Italian and went on to make it the main focus of her study at Leeds University.

She wanted to go into the diplomatic service. But this was not to be. Instead she became a teacher. After marrying and raising a family, she spent several years in various full-time and part-time posts in schools and at Aston and Warwick universities. At Aston she worked on linking language education to the needs of business and industry.

Not all her jobs have been in education, though. In the early Eighties she was on the shop floor at British Leyland, interpreting for the Italian engineers who were modernising the paint shop for the forthcoming Metro. Always, though, there has been the love of detailed organisation, and of running events. She is particularly keen that conference delegates should be well-fed. As Mr Page puts it: "She's very good at food."

In the mid-Seventies she was treasurer and business manager of the Association of Teachers of Italian which in turn led to her co-ordinate through the Eighties five huge festivals of languages for young people. These became the model for similar events in other European countries, and she lists this series of festivals among her most satisfying achievements. Ironically, it has been financially impossible to run one on the same scale in the UK since 1992.

She leaves the ALL in good shape - matured into professionalism - a voice for modern languages to stand beside the other major subject associations, ready to take on the challenges to come. "Teacher recruitment, for example, and also recruitment to the association - it's essential that every teacher belongs to his or her subject association," she says.

There is also, she believes, the task of persuading Government and professionals of the need for a coherent national policy on languages, of the kind she has seen being developed in Australia. "In this country, language provision is not evaluated against national need and resources - in fact, decisions made are often in conflict with each other. We need to share experience with other English-speaking countries - to have a summit conference," she says.

In January, she moves on to become director of the British Institute of Florence - a prestigious body which for 70 years has promoted cultural and artistic links between the United Kingdom and Florence. It goes some way to realising her original ambitions of working in the foreign service. She says: "I'm excited to have this opportunity, at this stage in my life, to do something I wanted to do in the first place."

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