Bilingual school is a lesson in the entente cordiale

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The Independent Online

"Au revoir, à lundi," one four-year-old tells her new friend in the playground, as the opening week at Britain's first bilingual state school draws to an end.

The 28 pupils, aged between four and five, are covering the French and English national curricula at the Ecole Wix in Clapham, south London. There were three times as many applications as there were places in the reception class, where English teacher Hillary Gault and French teacher Eric Perrin speak entirely in their own languages, so the children pick up natural accents. Most of the lessons are held separately, but someare co-taught.

Almost half the pupils have French as their first language and almost half have English. There are also several trilingual pupils; one boy has Russian as a first language, two children speak Spanish with their family at home, and another girl speaks Arabic.

"Most of the children have a French link; either their mother, father or grandparents are French. They are already jumping from one language to another, often unaware they are doing so," Ms Gault said.

As the children chat on toy telephones, mimicking the mannerisms of their parents, they speak a mixture of English and French. "They talk broken French at our maison," one pupil said, unaware that he too was flicking between the two languages.

M. Perrin said: "At this stage, we do not really mind what language the children answer questions in - they can understand both languages but not necessarily communicate well in both."

M. Perrin moved to England from his home in Briancon in the French Alps to teach in the school. He said the two teachers work very closely together.

"We need to check what was taught yesterday and what we will teach today, so there are no overlaps," he said, as both teachers cover maths, art and science in each language.

While the two country's curricula are very similar, there are some differences that the teachers are working to accommodate. For example, in France children are taught to read in schools one year later than in England, at six.

Signs throughout the school are bordered in blue if they are written in English and red for French, so the pupils learn to differentiate between the two languages. And just as M. Perrin and Ms Gault speak in their native tongue, two oversized puppets - a French grandfather and an English grandmother - that they use as props never cross languages.

Each year, there will be a intake of four and five year olds and, by the time the pupils are 11, they will be able to read and write in both languages. The project has the support of the Lycée Charles de Gaulle, a French school in London, and Wandsworth council.

"People are very excited about this project and are watching what we are doing," Mark Wolstencroft, the English headteacher, said. "The younger you start learning languages, the less you are likely to forget. There are obvious concerns about the take-up of languages by GCSE students, but there is a thirst for foreign languages and we are satisfying a need in the community."

The interest from other schools is likely to increase: the Government has said that by the end of the decade all primary school pupils aged seven to 11 will be taught a second language in school.

"I would hope that this bilingual school could be replicated with different languages in different schools across the country," Mr Wolstencroft said.

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