Archives for May 2011

Granddad (and Grandma), we love you

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 09:46 UK time, Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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My children have just returned from a weekend with their grandma and had a wonderful time of undivided attention, traditional home cooking and a break from their usual routine. Until I had children, I didn’t appreciate the important role that grandparents – and other extended family members - play in a child’s life. By being one step removed from the day-to-day responsibilities, grandparents, aunts and uncles can interact with young relatives on a different level and help children make sense of the world. 

Research shows that grandparents can contribute greatly to a child’s wellbeing. Teenagers, in particular, sometimes find it difficult to communicate with their parents, yet form close bonds with other members of the extended family who are perhaps less judgemental and more objective.  In cases of family breakdown, grandparents and the wider family can help in providing stability and comfort, as well as being role models – the Grandparents Plus charity offers advice in this area.

measuring ingredients from grandma's recipe @ Mat Hayward - Fotolia.com

Grandparents often have more time to focus on their grandchildren’s interests and hobbies. They have their own experiences and traditions which can be shared and passed on too. And whilst we may have grown tired of hearing granddad’s stories about the war, younger children love to hear and learn about the ‘olden days’.

On a practical level, it’s hard to find better childcare than the extended family – even if they don’t always do things quite the same way. It is estimated that over 7 million grandparents look after their grandchildren on a regular basis. Of course, most of us don’t like to be told how to parent, but grandparents can be a huge source of advice and reassurance during difficult times.

Certainly, my in-laws were invaluable when our children were babies, looking after them when we needed childcare or a break. When the children started school they would visit weekly, listen attentively to the details of school life and marvel at the children’s artwork. Grandma is the energetic one and Granddad the joker, doing everything I would like to do if I had more time (and patience!). Sadly Granddad has Alzheimer’s disease and is now in a nursing home. We all miss his silly jokes and funny stories. But we still talk about him a lot and the children are also learning to deal with other aspects of life, love and getting older.

Not everyone is able to live near to their extended family but with email, texts, photo sharing websites, voice-over-the-internet and webcams (not forgetting letters and phone calls), it has never been easier to keep in touch. See the BBC Learning support site for details about information technology resources. Who knows what type of technology will be around in the future, but I’m hoping I will have the chance to be an actively involved – and not interfering – grandma!

Getting out and about over half-term

Joanna Youngs Joanna Youngs | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 27 May 2011

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The half-term break at the end of May has to be the best school holiday of the year – it’s not too long and the weather has finally warmed up. There are no guarantees of sunshine, of course, but that’s no excuse for not getting out and about (barring the odd torrential downpour).

If you’re short of ideas, you could start by looking at the BBC Things To Do site which lists a whole host of activities, some of which might be right on your doorstep. The Hands on History part of the site has a number of free activities too taking place right across the country from Aberdeenshire to Cornwall.

Flying kite @ Hallgerd - Fotolia.com

Also looking across the UK, one place you will find some useful pointers to free or cheap activities are the various national tourist boards. Enjoy England is packed with suggestions for places to go and things to do. How about taking the kids otter watching or fossil hunting? These were just a couple of the suggestions that caught my eye when I was browsing the site. Plus, click through to the family fun area for some ideas for family-friendly trips that won’t break the bank.  

Follow the half-term link on the Visit Wales website for a variety of fun things to do with the kids. Visit Scotland has a family section that’s worth a look if you’re struggling for inspiration, while Discover Northern Ireland has suggestions for free family days out.

If your children love anything to do with animals and plants, then the Woodland Trust is bound to have something to keep them busy – whether you’re indoors or out and about. The main website has some great pointers, but the best part is the Nature Detectives section. It’s a surprisingly good and bountiful resource. There’s a fee if you want to join the members’ club, but it’s also absolutely teeming with free downloadable activities, creative makes, quizzes, games and puzzles, plus numerous information booklets and factsheets.

Why not fill in a morning or afternoon by taking a wildlife walk in your local neighbourhood? The BBC’s Nature UK site (the home of Springwatch) has a page with advice on how to go about your wildlife walk . All you’ll need to do is to keep your eyes peeled and yours ears open. Alternatively, you could just get your kids, especially younger ones, to do some investigating of their own in your back garden - even if it’s just tracking down minibeasts amongst the grass or under pots and stones. And if you live by the sea or are planning a trip to the beach, then see what you can find together down in the rock pools and on the sand.

If you’re stuck indoors, check out the Green Balloon Club pages on the CBeebies website. There are several ‘make and colour’ activities to have a go at, plus a large selection of short ‘watch and listen’ video reports made by young viewers of the nature show.

Getting active is one of the main benefits of spending time outdoors. And it tires kids out too – always a good thing! The weather should be decent for some of the half-term break, so get the kids walking, scooting, cycling - or just running around in the garden, kicking a ball around in the park, or climbing on the apparatus at your local playground.

Tennis courts are dotted all over the place too. According to the Tennis For Free campaign, there are 2,635 free public tennis courts in the UK. Click on the map on their site to find out where your nearest free ones are - and then it’s a just a case of turning up. 

If your children are aged 4-11, you could see if there is any ‘mini tennis’ on offer in your area. It’s a great introduction to the sport but with smaller courts, nets, rackets and lower-bouncing balls. Take a look at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) website to find out more.

If your kids aren’t into tennis, then why not suggest a visit to your local swimming pool? There are often special offers or discounts available during the holidays. Also, more than 500 pools are currently participating in the ‘Big Splash’ campaign which aims to inspire people to learn to swim – or swim more regularly. Pools supporting the campaign  will be offering a range of Big Splash activities and resources.

After all that letting off steam, let the kids chill out - whether that involves watching TV, reading, listening to music or playing games on their console. If they want to go online, there are some great games to be found on the CBBC website.

You could direct younger children to the ‘Make and Colour’ area on the CBeebies website for a stack of printable colouring-in sheets. There are also ideas for making things like finger puppets and bookmarks, plus other more fiddly or messy items, if you don’t mind being on hand to assist and clear up afterwards.

Finally, if someone small is hassling you for some time on the computer, I can recommend the Lingo Show - language learning fun on the CBeebies site. My three year-old is mesmerised by it. Perfect for when I need 15 minutes to chill out myself...

Joanna Youngs is a member of the BBC parent panel.

Education in the news

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 10:30 UK time, Thursday, 26 May 2011

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There was an interesting debate this week on BBC News entitled 'Parenting expert: Pushy parents should 'chill out’. The debate featured Dr Bryan Caplan who feels that parents should take a more relaxed approach. His premise is that children’s behaviour is dictated more by their latent inherited characteristics rather than nurture. According to Dr Caplan there is no point in beating yourself up about being too relaxed with your kids or not laying down the law enough, as they will be fine anyway.

Many mums and dads feel under so much pressure to be perfect parents that they hide behind a veneer, for fear of criticism and failure, one report states. As demands on parents increase, they feel they are being stretched too thinly. Fitting in the homework is hard enough but what about taking them swimming once a week?

Recent research has found that the social class that children come from has more effect on them than ‘good parenting’.  In order to help bridge the socio-economic gap, helping families at a time of transition in their education, for example from primary to secondary school, can make a significant difference.

However, in my opinion, research in this field only tells half the story and ‘good parenting’ is not easy to assess. Perhaps parents themselves are their own worst enemies?

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

Growing up is hard to do... (especially with Asperger's Syndrome)

Ellen Power | 14:53 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011

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The children are now back at school following the Easter break. Peter has some Year 10 GCSE exams scheduled for mid May. For us, there is a great sense of having ‘arrived’. Peter has Asperger’s syndrome (AS),  some mobility issues and has a statement of special educational needs.

He attends a mainstream school with a specialist Asperger’s support unit. This has been the key to his success. So whilst we are currently feeling very pleased with what Peter is achieving at school, things look a little less certain when we contemplate the next stages in his life – A-levels, university and developing some independence.

young man listening to music @ Edyta Pawlowska - fotolia.com

Preliminary enquiries reveal that support in higher education for those with AS and special educational needs can be very good. He could have a note taker and a mentor and a number of practical accommodations may be made. However, Peter may well have to manage in a sixth form with no AS specific support and I have heard of young people whose A-level placements have failed without this specialist support. As ever, none of this looks straightforward.

As he looks towards higher education, Peter currently has very little real independence. We take him everywhere he needs to go due to his mobility issues, prepare him for his activities, cross him over roads etc. He has through necessity or circumstance, had very little experience of getting himself to and from places safely, handling his own money, negotiating social obstacles and managing conflict.

By the time young people reach sixth form, they have the opportunity to consolidate these independence skills but Peter will probably still be at the learning stage. Independence, if it is achieved at all, will be hard won and gained on a much longer timescale. I am happy to confess to having sleepless nights about it. Aside from supporting him in his GCSEs, the task in hand at this stage is to help him to develop some level of independence by the time he moves on to sixth form. We have begun this process but it is a very slow one.

The greater freedoms and of course, responsibilities of life at university will be very difficult for him and us, particularly if he finds himself far from home. So far in his school career, we can still count the number of friends he has made on the fingers of both hands. If the chance of friendship comes with parties where alcohol, drugs and yes, lets mention it, sex, are available, will Peter try and join in to make friends? How will his judgement work in these situations?

Peter’s lack of experience makes him extremely vulnerable. I know all parents worry about these things, to some extent. For parents of children with AS, things are different. This is because it can be extremely difficult to teach independence skills to children with AS. Also, there is no way of telling which areas of development will progress and which areas won’t, and it can be a very long time before you know if you have been successful or not. Some children will never be able to live independently.

On a positive note, I do hear about young people with AS who make a success of their sixth form and university years. The thing that strikes me the most is that parents are often very surprised by how much their offspring have grown up – although there can be amusing stories concerning shopping and laundry! Indications are that Peter will mature, although the future is still very much an unknown quantity and that is scary.  Of course it is not scary to Peter – he can’t wait!  And that gives us all hope.

Ellen Power is an author and writes the ‘Guerrilla Mum' blog.

Let's have a heated debate!

Flora Napier Flora Napier | 15:11 UK time, Friday, 20 May 2011

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Between the AV referendum and the Scottish Parliamentary elections earlier this month, there has been more than one or two opinions aired in my house over the past wee while. 

Although I wouldn't say our discussions were ever over-heated, it did occur to me to wonder what effect they might be having on the children. Were our exchanges healthy, or somehow harmful?

In the spirit of embracing other people's points of view, I conducted a straw poll amongst friends on the question of 'healthy or harmful?'

Children and granny having a debate @ Hannah Holmer

The response, almost unanimously, was that even quite energetic debate in front of, or including your children was seen as healthy - so long as everybody's right to their own opinion was respected. In fact, far from believing it to be harmful, discussion and debate at home were largely regarded as an important learning curve. 

One friend said remarked "It's how children learn to discuss important matters, find out about current affairs and get an understanding of the family ethos/worldview. Usually if we start to discuss something political it's in the car, and the girls will chip in with questions from the back seat."

It seems there are other benefits to be gained from involving your children in discussions at home. It gives them a chance to develop their own opinions and debating style and, particularly importantly, a chance be listened to. They can see how compromises are reached, or simply that it's ok to agree to disagree. 

Constructive arguments demonstrate that people can hold different views on a subject whilst remaining friends and that it's OK not to agree with everyone else, to make up your own mind, and to have the confidence to communicate your own opinion.

What was regarded as being unhealthy were arguments that got out of control, that became personal, or that covered topics which might make younger children anxious, such as family illness or money worries. One or two friends remembered whispered arguments from their own childhoods, overheard when they were thought to be tucked up safe and sound. These were regarded as far more harmful than open, even heated, debate.

Encouraging pupils to think for themselves, and have an awareness of the world around them is built into the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. During their school years my children and their fellow pupils will be encouraged not only to reach their own conclusions on issues, but also to understand that other people might come to different conclusions than their own, and to respect those with differing points of view. 

Before the elections, the P7's at my sons' school had a visit from representatives of each of the major political parties standing in the constituency. The visitors explained what kinds of decisions they had to make in their jobs, and how they came to their own, various viewpoints on particular issues.

Having been present at such events in the past I have to say it's amazing the civilising effect an audience of children seem to have on (most) politicians. Maybe we can look forward to the generation of politicians, currently honing their debating skills in school, extending that civility, at least to some degree, to each other too.

Flora Napier works for BBC Learning Scotland.

Education in the news

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 11:21 UK time, Thursday, 19 May 2011

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Increasing numbers of pupils are being entered early for maths GCSE, BBC News Education reports, but should this really be viewed as progress?

According to the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME),  in 2008 4.5% of pupils aged 15 or under were entered for it but this figure had more than doubled by 2010 to 10.9%. This is often driven by the desire of schools to boost their performance in the league tables – not a healthy policy in itself and often detrimental to the best interests of the children

It means that young people stop studying maths at the end of year 10 which is not a healthy trend. According to the report by ACME, all students should continue maths right up until the end of Key Stage 4. It’s worth remembering that diplomas such as the International Baccalaureate,  follow the pattern of exams sat on the continent, with all students taking maths right up until the age of 18, choosing whether they take it at higher level, standard level or take the more straightforward mathematical studies.

Surely continuing maths as long as possible hones skills for the long term and a good grasp of maths may be invaluable in the workplace. Therefore early entries at GCSE should be discouraged, unless students are a) definitely A* material and b) set on taking maths at A-level, at which point they are usually offered ‘additional maths’ or GCSE statistics in year 11 to prepare them for A-level maths.

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

Put your best foot forward on the school run

Joanna Youngs Joanna Youngs | 18:37 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

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Did you know that May is National Walking Month? Living Streets – the national charity which stands up for pedestrians - together with Walk England are urging people to walk more often, and to more places.

And one of those places is the school gate. Walk to School Week (16th-20th May) should see around a million children taking part this year. And if those kids aren’t making the whole journey on foot, then they’ll be walking at least some of the way.

mum taking children to school @ Prod. Numerik - fotolia.com

I’m lucky in that I live about half a mile from my daughter’s nursery school and have a selection of travel options open to me. I don’t drive, so using a car isn’t an option. The close proximity of the nursery doesn’t warrant a bus journey. I haven’t come round to the idea of cycling yet, so that leaves us with the option of getting there on foot. Well, I’m the one who does the walking - she glides along on her scooter – and it only takes 15 minutes.

By going there and back twice a day on foot, I clock up an hour of gentle exercise (this fact only dawned on me recently). When it’s warm and the sun’s shining, it feels like the best way to travel a short distance. It lifts the spirits, there’s no carbon footprint in our wake and I usually have a nice chat with my daughter along the way. I’m not in such a good mood when it’s raining or bitterly cold though...

But as an advocate for Walk to School Week – and walking to school in general - I can see how the practicalities make walking a less attractive option, or one that is just too difficult. I used to live in a busy urban sprawl, where getting from A to B involved pushing my daughter’s buggy along main roads, often feeling vulnerable as I waited on small traffic islands or overly cautious when I used pedestrian crossings.  And so I can understand parents’ fears about letting their kids walk to school unaccompanied when they are under the age of 10.

A recent survey of 2,000 British children aged 7 to 14, carried out by Living Streets, found that over a third of kids are scared of cars travelling too fast, with 20% concerned about a lack of safe crossing points. The survey also found that many parents and children are worried about ‘stranger danger’, while a fifth of secondary school children are afraid of being bullied on the way to school.

In light of these concerns, perhaps good compromise is to investigate alternatives to walking the whole route. A ‘walking bus’ -  in which a group of children walk to school chaperoned by one or more adults - is one option to consider. Another is the ‘park and stride’ approach –  which involves driving some of the way, parking (eg at a designated place such as a supermarket or village hall), and then walking the remainder of the journey either with your child or letting them walk the last part alone. The Living Streets website has plenty of info and advice on both these options.

When you think of the health benefits of a bit of extra walking for both you and your child, it makes sense - especially when the exercise is just part of your daily routine. And for some children, walking to school might be the only regular exercise they get. 

Earlier this month, the BBC News website reported the key findings of a survey of 1,500 children aged 6 to 15. A third of the children questioned did not own a bike and yet more than three quarters had a games console. When I was little, I was running round the garden or out on my bike after school. Times have changed but walking is still one of the best ways to stay active. It’s time to reclaim those streets.

Joanna Youngs is a member of the BBC parent panel.

Education in the news

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 16:31 UK time, Saturday, 14 May 2011

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There have been several stories in the news recently claiming that young people don’t have good enough skills to break through the job market.

BBC News reports that a recent survey of business leaders has highlighted the fact that many young people lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills required in the work place. And with just over 900,000 16 to 24 year-olds currently out of work, the alarm is sounding. 

The government may be introducing new benchmarks, such as the English Bac (or Baccalaureate) to measure academic standards but the question remains: how employable are today’s school leavers?

The low take-up in science and technology at A level and in higher education is also a matter of concern. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiative is seeking to redress the balance. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on young people securing jobs in the long term though.

Graduates too are having a difficult time finding suitable employment with 40% of last year’s cohort being “underemployed” in low-skill jobs, BBC’s reporter Sean Coughlan writes

It might seem like the goal posts are being continually moved but there is a wealth of online resources out there to help improve their chances, such as BBC Skillswise or the Direct Gov website.

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

Coping with revision and exams

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 18:53 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

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Tension is rising slightly in our household as exam season is fast approaching and my daughters are deep in revision. A couple of years ago I had my son doing A-levels and the my daughter preparing for GCSEs. We all survived but I did learn a few lessons myself during that time, in my supporting role.

As a parent, by the time your children are 15 or so, you will probably be moving into the role of consultant rather than manager and your new skills will come into their own during revision time.

answersheet @ Lorelyn Medina - Fotolia.com

So it is more a question of being around, making sure they are eating balanced meals and getting enough sleep, rather than endlessly nagging them about revision. They may appreciate the offer of practical help: more revision cards, revision books, highlighters or past papers, BBC Student Life has some useful revision planners too.

Suggest they take a break and get some physical exercise once in a while. My son found it really beneficial going outside and practising his basketball skills for 15 minutes every so often or going for a run round the block.

Professor Sergio Della Sala from the University of Edinburgh, gives this advice: "The only way to really learn is to put the book away and test yourself, or test your buddy, or better yet, explain what you have just learnt to somebody else - a victim - younger brother, sister, your granny." My daughter has done some productive revision with friends, testing each other on chemistry and helping each other out if they don’t understand something.

If your son or daughter is taking an oral exam in a foreign language, it can seem like a real struggle preparing as often the spoken aspect of a language can take second place in the classroom. Why not listen to podcasts in the relevant language or listen to a radio station from that country? Try BBC Languages site or GCSE Bitesize for some useful audio content. This can be a good way to get immersed in the language and practise speaking skills.

A BBC News Magazine article reminds us of how little students actually learn things by rote, apart from times tables and lines for a school play, they are no longer required to learn poetry by heart like French school children have to. One time learning skills do come into play is for GCSE and A-levels. Scores of students across the UK are writing out revision cards and scanning them at any available opportunity.

Jo Lamiri refers in an earlier BBC Parents Blog, to different types of learners. Identifying what type of learner your son or daughter is, can be really helpful when it comes to revision. This can be the key to effective revision time. 

There are a number of useful resources online. GCSE Bitesize is always a good place to go for some online revision. Also the Radio 1 Advice page has some useful hints and tips as to how to handle study-related stress.

Once the exams are over, things can seem a bit flat. So it may be worth encouraging them to think of some way to mark the end of exams, going to see a movie, sorting out a trip away or just hanging out with friends. Even if the results won’t be out for a while, it’s a great achievement simply having come through the other side and it’s something to celebrate!

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

Check out the BBC Learning Scotland blog on exams. 

 

Let's talk about Sex...

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

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Lots of parents wrangle with how to approach the ‘birds and the bees’ issue with young children.  We worry about what’s appropriate at what age – what language to use, how detailed to be, and what issues to discuss.  Some think that we ought to wait until after puberty, and that sex education is an ‘adult’ theme, with 59% of parents in a recent web survey disagreeing with any kind of sex education before the age of 11.

At primary school SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) is largely taught through the science curriculum, and includes naming of animal and human body parts, and basic facts about reproduction in plants and animals.  Further sex education, usually towards the end of primary school, is given in PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) lessons, and will include discussions on love and relationships as well as the ‘mechanics’ of sex and birth. All schools are required to have an SRE policy, and parents have a right to withdraw children from these lessons if they do not agree with the policy.

Father and son @ Olga Lyubkin - Fotolia.com

Maybe this country’s often prurient attitude to sex has led us to the sexual health problems of our young people - we have high rates of pregnancy, abortion and STDs. Dutch people are stereotypically known as being very open about sex.  However we could learn a thing or two from them regarding sex education  – their teen pregnancy, STD and abortion rates are around a quarter of those in the UK. They start teaching children about sex and relationships tailored to their age as soon as they start school, and devote a week of school each year to the topic for all children aged 4 to 12. 

Personally, I think that honest discussions about sex should be ongoing and directed by your child’s questions, with the answers taking into account the child’s age and level of understanding.

A little while ago, at the park, my four-year-old and I encountered a pond-full of mating frogs.  An avid nature lover, he already had a lot of knowledge about what they were doing, with the males and females having different ‘jobs’, and how they were the mummies and daddies of the frogspawn that would soon become tadpoles. We didn’t go into the nitty gritty of body parts etc. as it didn’t come up.  However if he had wanted to know, I would have told him using language that he can relate to.

We have always referred to body parts using both slang terms as well as biologically correct ones (though he thinks that the word penis is too hilarious to use), and, as he has a little sister, have talked about the differences between boys' and girls' bodies when the questions arise, invariably at bath time.

I am not the sort of person who talks endlessly about sex to other adults, let alone to children! However I think it is important to talk honestly about it, even if it is uncomfortable or embarrassing, as ignorance can lead to problems in later life.

As parents we are the first port of call for this sort of information – school will give the broad details, but we need to fill in the gaps. We need to start the dialogue early, so that when the (often fraught) teenaged years come along, our children feel able to turn to us for support and answers.  

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Growing up bilingual

Imane Robelin Imane Robelin | 10:58 UK time, Saturday, 7 May 2011

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According to a report published by Frank Field MP in 2009, 29% of primary schools in England have 70% or more pupils who speak English as a second language. This can present quite a challenge for the teaching staff. There is a myth that it’s enough for a child to be immersed in a foreign language to pick it up as if by magic – this is only partly true.

Many foreign children given total immersion in an English school do not find it easy. It takes time for them to adapt and start understanding the language. In Bradford, for example, local authorities and schools have had discussions about getting Polish teachers to help the eastern European children with their learning in a foreign language.

Family lying on grass @ Edyta Pawlowska - Fotolia.com

Those children who go to English schools develop a good grasp of English but are unlikely to continue learning how to read and write with accuracy in their native language. There are Saturday schools and after school programmes that offer children lessons in their native language. Many families would like their children to be able to slip back into their country’s educational system should they return to their country of origin.

The families who want their children to learn their native language to a high standard can opt for schools teaching in their mother-tongue only, like the French Lycée or the Spanish school in London. In that case, they forego the opportunity to learn the language of the country they live in. It seems that whatever option the parents’ choose, their children miss out on an important part of their education.

The other alternative that parents can choose for their children is bilingual education. There are several bilingual schools in the UK. Wix primary school in London was the first state school to open a bilingual stream, in conjunction with the French Lycée, in September 2006. For many French families, it was like a dream come true. At last their children could follow both the French and the British educational curriculums. However, bilingual education comes at a price.

Bilingual education has become increasingly popular among English speaking families as well. It is probably easier for foreign children to pick up English as they are exposed to the language outside school hours.

On the other hand, children with an English background are slightly disadvantaged because in most cases, their only chance to hear and speak the foreign language is at school. Parents have to seek out opportunities to expose their children to the foreign language outside school. In both cases, if the children manage to grasp the foreign language structure, fluency only comes with practice.

Overall, the bilingual stream at Wix has been successful. The French national exam results for a class of 28 pupils speak for themselves, as it says in a report in The Guardian: “Six of the English and five of the French pupils scored in the highest category, denoting a "very good understanding.”

In the nations, there has been a big resurgence in bilingual education with more that six times as many  children  being taught in Irish medium schools as there had been in 1997-98, for example. There is a similar trend in Wales and Scotland.

The benefits of children learning two languages simultaneously are supported by research. It’s been found to sharpen a child’s mind, and in one recent study at Bangor University to protect against the effects of ageing on the brain.

When I listen to bilingual children speaking, what strikes me most is how naturally they switch between two languages in order to express their thoughts - their world is broader.

Imane Robelin is a French freelance journalist who has 3 children and lives in the UK.

Education in the News

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 16:12 UK time, Thursday, 5 May 2011

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According to the BBC News story, English Bac 'first of many accountability measures', it appears that the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (or Bac as it is commonly referred to) could be the start of a new trend: to bring in more ways of evaluating a school's performance. In the light of Ofsted inspections being scaled right back, the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, is envisaging introducing a number of new ways to measure performance in schools.

Inevitably, any new benchmark is likely to come in for some criticism and in this case, it is the fact that RE and Music are not included in the English Bac. It remains to be seen how schools offering a limited range of courses will fare under this new system and whether it will mobilise them into broadening their choice of subjects. I wonder if there will be some other measure introduced that will favour the schools offering more vocational courses?

To find out more about league tables in general, check out Sarah Kingsley's earlier blog, "a closer look at league tables".

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

Learning the lingo

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 14:21 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

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As a nation we have a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to learning languages. But does it really matter, when so many other people throughout the world speak English? In fact, it’s not as many as we might think. According to the National Centre for Languages (CiLT), 75% of the world’s population doesn’t speak any English and only 6% speak it as a first language. We live in a multilingual, multicultural world and are in danger of getting left behind if we don’t improve our language skills. 

It doesn’t help that we have been getting mixed messages about language learning in schools in recent years. In 2004, modern languages were dropped as a compulsory subject for 14-16 year olds, resulting in decline in students taking a language GCSE – down by a third in the past six years. Now languages are back on the agenda with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. From this year, schools are measured on the number of pupils achieving A-C grade GCSEs in five core subjects: English, Maths, Science, a humanities subject and a language.

Happy little French boy with various classmates in background @ michaeljung - Fotolia.com

Although I’m not a natural linguist, French is one of the few subjects I learnt at school that I have repeatedly used throughout my adult life. Much to my children’s embarrassment, I always try to speak it when we go to France, although my accent leaves a lot to be desired. 

Perhaps I should have started when I was much younger as there is evidence that children pick up languages more easily when they are young, are less self-conscious and don’t mind repeating or even singing phrases. The previous government introduced a policy which came into force last year requiring primary schools to teach a second language from aged seven. The BBC Primary Languages site currently offers French, Spanish and Mandarin to help support this development. As with the rest of the national curriculum, this policy is under review by the present government but I hope it continues.

Of course, a half hour lesson each week isn’t going to make my eight year old daughter fluent in French. Rather, it’s an opportunity to enthuse children about different languages and cultures as well as familiarising them with pronunciation. When my daughter does start languages in earnest at secondary school she will find it easier, having already mastered the sounds and intonations.

Research shows that learning another language also helps to enhance mental development and improve performance in other subjects such as maths. Those with language skills stand out from the crowd when applying to university – many require pupils to have a language GCSE - plus certain degree courses can now be studied abroad or are combined with a language. In addition, speaking other languages is an important business skill for the future and opens doors for more exciting job opportunities.

Parents can help support their child’s language learning in many ways, even if they don’t speak a second language themselves. The BBC Schools website has online games and resources and many language courses are available online or from bookshops and libraries. Young children often enjoy language music CDs or will benefit from programmes such as CBeebies’ Lingo Show. Many schools and local authorities run out-of-school language clubs which offer a fun approach to learning with art, cookery and games. Pen pals, exchange visits and holidays abroad all help too. And remember, whilst it’s beneficial to learn a second language at a young age, it’s never too late to learn!   

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

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