The French master English

An intensive year-long postgraduate course taught partly in Britain and partly in France is gaining in popularity. Lesley Gerard reports
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The Independent Online
Ana Conget has swapped her home in the shadow of the French Pyrenees for a classroom in the London Borough of Greenwich. She is one of 42 French students to have graduated from a unique teacher-training scheme intended to solve a skills shortage in UK schools.

Miss Conget, 34, was lured by the prospect of a year-long postgraduate course taught partly at British universities and partly in France. Graduates leave with a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) - the main teaching qualification in the UK - and the French Matrise - a qualification for teaching French as a foreign language equivalent to a one-year master's degree.

She signed up after seeing a ad on the notice-board at the University of Pau, where she was completing an English degree. "I joined because this course was new and different, because the combination of the two qualifications broadens a teacher's prospects," she says.

The course is intensive: four months in France at one of eight universities, seven in England. Two-thirds of the PGCE time is school-based. The workload is heavy, partly reflecting the need to condense two qualifications into one year and partly to prepare students for the pressures of their career. It has been running three years and for the first time this year English students have been recruited, too.

"Perhaps the biggest culture shock for the French is the emphasis the British system places on pastoral care," says Miss Conget. "In France tutor groups do not really exist."

After completing the course, which included training placements at two London schools, Miss Conget was recruited by St Paul's Roman Catholic School, a multi-ethnic school at Abbey Wood, near Woolwich.

The scheme, jointly funded by the Department for Education, the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and the European Commission was launched in 1992 as a pilot project. Nine Local Education Authorities in the South-east had earlier formed a consortium, the South Thames Area Recruitment Team (Start) to address recruitment problems in their area.

The consortium's idea to recruit French nationals to their schools received an enthusiastic reception from Edwige Girardin, education attach at the French embassy in London. Government departments and universities initially took more convincing.

"At first everyone said, `you will never get this course validated'," Mrs Girardin says. "We approached a number of universities to conduct the teacher training. They were not interested, or said they would do it only if it did not disrupt their courses. We knew what we were trying to do would disrupt everying, so we needed to find an institution that could be flexible."

A pilot was launched at Lancaster University's Charlotte Mason College. Eighteen French students took part, all but two stayed on after to work in English schools. The second year 24 out of 32 graduated.This year 50 students are on the scheme, with placements in 28 schools.

Michel Cosh, European PGCE course director, who has been seconded from the Bexley education authority to run the programme, says: "When we promote the course to the French students we make no secret of the fact that it is tough.

"Teaching is an increasingly stressful job. We present it as an opportunity to become a pastoral figure for people who are interested in children's broader education. In France the teacher is a subject specialist as opposed to an educator."

Mike Postle, director of In-Service Education at Charlotte Mason, says: "The course is unique because of the way the two postgraduate qualifications are integrated. But we also spend a lot of time preparing these new teachers for the classroom culture. We recognise that all teachers at some point are going to deal with difficult children. They will be insulted, face insolence or even racial abuse."

While the advantage to UK schools is the chance to recruit language teachers with a broader experience and the joint qualification, the advantages from the French perspective are different.

"For the Foreign Affairs Ministry the benefits are that we are promoting French abroad," says Mrs Girardin. "But our students learn about the culture of the British education system from the inside, and enhance their career prospects."

To the pupils at St Paul's the advantages of learning French became clear on a recent trip abroad, says a pupil, Joseph Stickings, 14. "When you speak to someone and they understand your French better than your English you feel cool."