Head with a gift for languages

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The Independent Online
When Michael Wheale, head of William Ellis, a boys' comprehensive in Camden, London, is asked why his school became a language college, he laughs and quotes a fellow head: "I'll do anything legal, decent or honest to raise money for the school."

Three years ago, he tried and failed to raise the pounds 100,000 sponsorship needed to become a technology college. Then, with the help of donations from British Airways and other companies, he raised the money for a language college which came into being last September.

The result is two new classrooms and an office to make up the languages suite and a room equipped with a network of computers for the department's use. His is, he believes, the only Camden school where each child has a modern languages textbook.

Mr Wheale is convinced of the need for language colleges. "The country needs more people to speak languages. British boys are particularly bad about learning languages. The new software is a good way of motivating them."

Joe Ruddock, aged 13, at work in the new computer room, agrees: "You can go at your own pace and check how you're doing, though I wouldn't like it all the time. Sometimes it's good to interact with the whole class."

Pupils arriving at the school take one language in the first year and, from September, will take a second in the second year. A third will be on offer later, and the chance to learn Mandarin in the sixth form. Geography is already taught in Spanish.

Like most new specialist schools, William Ellis is determined to remain non-selective. Thirty-eight per cent of its pupils are on free school meals and, between them, they speak 53 different languages. The main criteria for admission are the distance of a pupil's home from the school and whether they have a brother there. It is heavily over-subscribed and the school's new status has done no harm. Mr Wheale doubts, however, whether the language facilities made much difference to parents.

True to the Government's insistence that specialist schools share resources with the community, his staff have begun to teach teachers from neighbouring schools about their new software. From September, teachers will start offering lessons in modern language awareness for pupils in two local primary schools.

Judith Judd