Leading article: When teacher knows best

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The Independent Online

It was the White Hart Lane School in Tottenham, under the leadership of its former head, David Daniels, that pioneered the concept of teaching its foreign-born students in their first language. Now the new head of that same school, Joan McVittie, has ruled that such bilingual lessons will come to an end.

Opponents of bilingual teaching will claim that this discredits the principle of conducting lessons in languages other than English. Others will argue that this is an embarrassment for the Government, which only recently decided that those pupils who do not speak good English ought to have translators in exams. They will also point out that when White Hart Lane unveiled plans to extend the bilingual scheme, the former schools minister, Stephen Twigg, described it as "very much the kind of good practice we want".

But such reactions miss the point. What this decision by White Hart Lane actually demonstrates is the merits of leaving practical teaching arrangements in the hands of individual schools and allowing head teachers to decide which system would work best for their pupils. We note that Ms McVittie intends to set up a system under which children who make progress in English will partner those who are less fluent but who share a common mother tongue. She is also planning extra revision and coursework after school for the school's GCSE candidates. The new head teacher has decided that bilingual lessons are not the right route, but she clearly wants to pursue other ways of helping her students. This case can hardly be presented as evidence for the argument that the methods of a school ought to be the same, regardless of the nature of its intake.

Streaming pupils and teaching them some lessons in their mother tongue is entirely justified if it produces results. Of course, the acquisition of English language skills is an essential part of any British education, and at some point all students will need them. But dogmatism in educational methods is inadvisable. That it why we support the provisions of the forthcoming Education Bill that will give schools a greater degree of freedom to decide their own teaching methods and also set them free from local education authority control. If it makes sense for a school to teach a number of pupils in special language classes, then they ought to have the right to do so.

It is certainly not the case that schools that have a large number of different language speakers inevitably perform badly. The pupils of Fulham Primary speak some 24 different languages, but attend one of most improved schools in London. The key is to give schools the resources they need and then let them get on with teaching their students in the manner they think best.