Thames no barrier to entente cordiale

May 30, 2003

Nick Byrne tells how a foreign language outreach project helped to bridge a cultural divide between two London institutions

A chance meeting with the deputy headteacher of a local inner-city school presented us with a ready-made outreach project. The deputy had invited all four language coordinators at the London School of Economics to celebrate the European Day of Languages back in September 2001. We ate, drank and were entertained by flamenco dancers, mime artists and more than 100 13 to 15-year-olds performing in French, Spanish or German. I was the MC.

The effect was powerful. Although I had been a schoolteacher for 12 years, I had forgotten the sensory overload of being in a school building. We were really impressed with the enthusiasm of teenagers trying their best at speaking a foreign language. And we wanted to help.

The deputy, Charles Claxton, knew exactly what he wanted. The school was introducing an AVCE (advanced vocational certificate in education) in French for business. About 14 students enrolled. The idea was to get LSE students who were taking French as a degree option to act as mentors. Our French language coordinator, Herve Didiot-Cook, was keen and we decided to plan for a September 2002 start date. As a taster, we held a couple of joint workshops and a memorable croque-monsieur cook-in for 200 children - quite a first for LSE lecturers.

We were not interested in doing outreach for outreach's sake. The LSE has an established record in that. We wanted to know what was wanted, who we were doing it for and why we were doing it. No empty gestures. No posturing.

Geographically, the LSE is a bus ride away from Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technical College - from Aldwych across the Thames to Camberwell. Both student bodies are international and cosmopolitan. But socially they could not be further apart.

Southwark is the second most deprived borough in the UK. Half the school's pupils are of African origin and 30 per cent are Afro-Caribbean. Some 60 per cent get free school meals and per cent get A*-C grades at GCSE.

Compare that with the LSE, where two-fifths of students are from independent schools and more than 50 per cent are non-UK. All have top grades at A level.

My concern was that the two sets of students would not relate. They needed time to get to know one another. But the LSE's term started a month later than the school's. We decided to use videos. The school students made introductory recordings of themselves and sent across written work. Email accounts were set up and teachers started preparatory subject work. We then got our students to do video-box sessions and match them up.

The students began to exchange emails, helped with preparation of topics for the AVCE and prepared each other for the first visit to the school. On arrival, we realised we should have visited earlier. Face-to-face and hand-in-hand contact motivates. The visit led to more video and email exchanges and a follow-up visit to the LSE. This was a culture shock. But, by the end of the afternoon, both sides were planning the next visits.

We are now approaching summer and starting to ask who got what out of the programme. The responses so far have been positive. One LSE student wrote:

"I was concerned it seemed patronising going along to them saying - let us teach you. But it wasn't like that at all. My partner (from Guadeloupe) spoke French really well and it was actually quite useful for me." Another wrote: "I think the idea is great since both sides benefit on a personal level. AMRTC students get academic help and we have something worth while on our CV. It's a two-way thing."

On the school side, a student from Kosovo said: "I think that these buddies are very helpful because they improve our French and teach us more. When I went to their university, I found it was very big, a lot of people study there and they also have good facilities. If I had the chance, I would definitely try to go there." Another wrote: "The LSE students came down to visit us, which was fantastic. The students were friendly and helpful and I enjoyed finding out what they did at university."

For the arguably privileged LSE students, the partnership is a chance to look at the challenges inner-city schools face. For the school students, it is a chance to make contact with British and international students. But what have the teachers got out of it? A slot at the Association for Language Learning Language World conference in Bath, a lot of extra work and enough satisfaction to do it all again next year, possibly in Spanish as well.

Nick Byrne is director of the London School of Economics Language Centre.

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