Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Buenos Dias, Bilingualism: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Buenos Dias, Bilingualism: Feature

Article excerpt

Spanish isn't just part of the curriculum at Brighton's Bilingual Primary School - it is part of every lesson. Helen Ward reports on the latest school to join the small number that truly immerse pupils in another language. Photography by Andrew Hasson.

It is lunchtime at Brighton Aldridge Community Academy and hordes of teenagers - with their carefully customised uniforms, scruffy and extravagant hair, hormones, faux world-weariness and spots - are sitting, slouching and chatting. Lunch ends and they trundle back to class, at which point a door in the far corner of the corridor opens. Out trots a crocodile of tiny five- and six-year-olds, all ponytails and untucked shirts, clutching their Hello Kitty lunch boxes and holding hands with their friends.

These are the first pupils at the Bilingual Primary School, currently housed within Brighton Aldridge's sixth form. The primary's classrooms are bright with posters declaring "Bienvenidos!"

Education is by its very nature an optimistic business, but the Bilingual Primary School is more optimistic than most. "The parents were getting nervous," says headteacher Carolina Gopal. "'Are you sure it's going to happen?' they would ask. 'Absolutely,' I'd say."

But when faced with a one-week deadline to find premises, imposed by the Department for Education, she and Marina Gutierrez, co-founder of the school and now chair of governors, were so desperate that they simply drove around Brighton looking for "To lease" signs on buildings.

Then Gutierrez, while trying to find her way to Brighton & Hove Albion FC's stadium in the hope that it might have a hospitality suite that would do, accidentally drove up a dead end and discovered the sixth form's buildings. Later that day, she mentioned the place to a local councillor who suggested that, as Brighton Aldridge had just opened, it was likely to have spare accommodation. On 4 September 2012, the Bilingual Primary School opened in its temporary home.

The school has, as many primary classrooms do, signs and labels in different languages. But it has a vision beyond teaching a second language: it wants to produce bilingual learners. It is a bit like the difference between doing drama at school and going to a drama school. There are Spanish lessons but Spanish isn't just part of the curriculum - much of the curriculum is taught in both English and Spanish.

Pupil power

In this, its first year, 70 pupils are on roll, divided between two Reception classes and one Year 1 class. The school, due to move in two years' time, plans to relocate to neighbouring Hove, where there has been a squeeze on pupil places.

As is the case with many free schools, the Bilingual Primary School is often reported as being the result of parent power, set up by parents and teachers in response to demand. But, in one sense, it is very much a result of pupil power. Gopal and Gutierrez were both bilingual pupils in ordinary schools, where they learned languages but felt their bilingualism was not supported. They have created the kind of school they wish they could have gone to.

Gutierrez grew up speaking Italian and English, learned French and German at school and picked up Spanish aged 19 during a gap year in Mexico, where she also met her husband. Their two daughters were brought up speaking Spanish and English but Gutierrez says bilingualism is not something you can take for granted.

"Many children, who grow up within bilingual families, don't achieve bilingualism because the parents don't have the time to invest in supporting their children to become bilingual and biliterate. I was in a very fortunate position. I did have time to teach reading and writing in Spanish to my daughters but they weren't going to do it at school: it was down to me."

Since 2007, Gutierrez has been registered as a childminder offering Spanish. But when the children she was caring for were due to start school, there seemed no easy way to keep the language input going. …

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