These last three weeks have been exceptional busy at Dame Bradbury’s as you can see from the many and varied news reports including one from half term when 56 children from the Junior School and Dame Bradbury's Years 5 and 6 headed off to Crans Montana, Switzerland for a week of skiing. Their grit and determination was in good supply and they had a fantastic week in the beautiful weather on the slopes. This week there has been a successful Year 6 WW2 collaboration event and the Year 4 Roman Day held at the Junior School as well as a plethora of sporting fixtures. Just before the half term Mrs Knowles accompanied Dame B’s pupils to the first Foundation Chess Tournament and we were delighted to present Nandha with his winning trophy in assembly on Monday. Nandha did admit he was a joint winner (with a sixth former!)
Staring out of the coach window at beautiful white snow covered peaks of a mountain range allows the space for thinking that can be hard to achieve in a day when the school bell dictates the pace and the busyness of a full and enriching day takes over. Last week one of my meandering thoughts brought into focus the limitations of my own ability to communicate outside the UK even though I had flown a mere 75 minutes from home to a region of Switzerland where predominantly Swiss and French families enjoy the beautiful slopes. I was educated when French was taught from Year 7, and if you were fortunate you might also be able to learn German at some point. My German was never really passable but five years of French resulted in my being able to order coffee and ask directions to the train station and write a postcard to a penpal explaining who my family were (I was careful to admit I had only one sister rather than the six siblings I really had as this was simply too hard). For me language learning was a series of tasks around memorising words mostly to get me through a qualification: I don't remember any joy in the learning. The focus was never to be able to converse or effectively communicate, and throughout the week there were many reminders of my lack of skills and, through my own reservedness, my lack of willingness to try.
More than 30 years later and in a world where we are so globally connected and the world has shrunk, it is a dichotomy that news reports this week are referencing a reduction in opportunities for language learning.
This term we have opened up the opportunity to our Year 6 pupils to experience half a term of language learning in both German and Mandarin Chinese in preparation for choices they can make in their senior schools. Our aim is to increase the opportunities for language learning and build on the principles behind language learning being a key part of our curriculum from the Early Years. Our approach is based on learning through stories, rhymes, songs and so on, so that pupils can learn language in context and be able to use what they have learnt. By linking to thematic learning our pupils are learning that French and Spanish are tools that are used to communicate rather than set subjects only learned or used in the classroom. Languages are very popular in our school, which Mrs Foreman is keen to point out she has never experienced before in any school she’s worked in: pupils traditionally don’t like language learning as there is no context, and the focus is often on accuracy rather than communication. Accuracy can be important later in life (one factor, but not the only one important one, for a high GCSE grade). A good example of the enjoyment of languages is that a pupil who is in Early Years (who don’t learn Spanish) has independently decided that she will join in with Spanish lessons, and just comes and sits down when Mrs Foreman comes into the room! A boy in Kindergarten suddenly started counting last week. We don't ‘teach’ numbers - we use them in tasks, such as counting how many boys and girls in the group, or checking we have enough resources and through stories or songs. He, and others, pick up the language because it is meaningful to them.
As the end of the half term of Mandarin Chinese comes to a close the response from the Year 6 pupils has been positive: they have enjoyed playing with the language, experimenting with the sounds as well as exploring different cultures. There has been some inhibition, but these pupils have been playing with language for so many years it is testament to their willingness to try, to make mistakes and to want to make sense of this additional language and have fun doing so.
The constant review of our curriculum in meeting our aims of providing one that is right for our pupils and their future needs has me reflecting on the principles of laying foundations for success, and the research from Professor Tina Bruce, renowned expert on early childhood and play, which shows that the long-term benefits of learning another language go beyond being able to communicate with others. Learning languages develops listening, observation, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. These are transferable skills that are of lifelong benefit, both personally and professionally. Encouraging in children a love of language at an early age prepares them well for school and for life.
Head of Dame Bradbury's and Vice Principal, 3-11