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Making sure les enfants are fluent in French

PUBLISHED: 08:36 29 November 2012

A class at La Marelle

A class at La Marelle

Archant

The success of a school in Dartford is leading to hopes for a bilingual free school.

There is a lot from our neighbours across the channel that has permeated British society – croissants, good wine (and beer), Chanel, even David Guetta – but their language has mainly stayed on the other side.

So for a group of French mothers living in the Dartford area, who feared their offspring wouldn’t achieve bilingual fluency, starting up a French school was the answer.

Every Saturday, about 120 children from Dartford, Gravesham and beyond head down to La Marelle (meaning hopscotch) at Fleetdown Primary School for a three-hour French session.

Hasina Harris, who is mum to Joel, five, and Chloe, three, is head of La Marelle as well as a teacher at a secondary school in Orpington.

“Initially there were four of us French mothers who had met through a website dedicated to French people living in Kent. Our children were all very young. I spoke to mine in French, and my childminder is French. My husband speaks English to them. But having seen students of mine who have French parents and are yet unable to speak the language, I realised that was going to happen to my children if I didn’t work on it. Having French parents doesn’t guarantee the child will be bilingual at all.”

There are thought to be around 200 French children living in the Dartford area.

But the French speakers at La Marelle come from other Francophone countries – Mauritius and Madagascar, for example – amounting to about 20 different nationalities under one roof.

And it’s not just for the French. The school welcomes children who only speak English and want to learn French, and adults too.

Hasina is passionate about the importance of children learning languages and worries that not enough is being done in schools.

“I had a break from teaching for about five years and I worked in different offices as a multi-lingual co-ordinator.

“I worked in companies with clients all over the world and employees were not recruited without knowing a second language.

“Languages are important for travelling purposes too. In Gravesend we are only two hours away from Paris,” she says.

After the success of La Marelle, Hasina founded another French school in Bromley, with French mums from the area.

L’Ecole Tricolore runs a similar Saturday school to La Marelle and also has a pre-school class and after-school lessons.

But the French mamans have further ambitions and are setting their sights on starting a bilingual primary school.

Hasina explains: “What is missing around here is a French school. We have people who are desperate to give that education to their children. It is so saturated in London where the French population is growing and people are trying to move closer in to get their children to the French schools there.

“But the French government is trying to encourage schools elsewhere so we are applying to start a free school that will provide a bilingual education.”

If all goes to plan, the Bromley Bilingual Primary School will be opening by September 2014.

Under the free school model it will be open to anyone, meaning English-speaking families could send their children there.

With the influx of French people into London and its suburbs, perhaps now is the time for their language to join us too.

n For more information visit www.lamarelle.org.uk or www.ecoletricolore.co.uk.

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